The Egyptian village of Borg-Meghezil, close to one of the points at which the River Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea, lies in a region that has historically been associated with fish. Boys from here have traditionally followed their fathers’ footsteps into the fishing industry, whether at sea as fishermen or on dry land in the marketplace. However, this tradition is being surpassed by a new practice: ‘irregular migration’ – in an undocumented and illegal manner – across the Mediterranean to Europe. The perception is that this is a route to riches, yet it is often a route to misery.
This photo essay, constructed from material gathered for the Irregular Migration of Minors programme of Save the Children (UK)’s Egypt office, introduces you to children from Borg-Meghezil who may one day soon consider leaving for Europe, as well as young men who have returned from there, parents of boys who attempted the journey and activists working to raise awareness of the dangers of illegal migration. Together, the voices from this village tell a story that is not atypical for this region. Indeed, increasing numbers are trying to reach Europe from elsewhere on the Mediterranean coast, further inland in Egypt and other Arab World countries as well. Often they are ready to attempt this exit by whatever means necessary. With financial support from the European Union (EU), Save the Children is working to identify and promote alternatives and thereby turn the tide on this practice.
Almost all of the images below, along with others from the same series, may be purchased as beautiful colour prints, licensed for download or shared via social media platforms. To make your selection, just click on the ‘Buy | Share’ link at the end of any of the captions, or directly on any image, and you will be taken to the gallery entitled ‘Irregular migration, the problem (Save the Children)’ in my Image Archive.
Meet some of the children of Borg-Meghezil. Much like children almost anywhere, they are playful, smile delightfully and are full of hope. Buy | Share
These children were born into a village that lies right at the mouth of the River Nile, where it meets the Mediterranean. To the left are the green shoots of the rice that, along with fish from both the river and the sea, sustains them. To the right, a fanous (Ramadan lantern) hangs from the minaret of the village mosque; the Islamic faith exerts a strong influence, providing them with spiritual sustenance. Buy | Share
As they grow up here, children develop strong emotional ties to their families, friends and communities. These are ties that bind. Buy | Share
However, a perceived lack of opportunities – confirmed by the unemployment and underemployment they see all around them as they grow up – leads many boys and young men to break the physicality of these ties to migrate to Europe in search of better fortunes. In so doing, they leave behind those who are dear to them, not knowing when (or even whether) they will see them again. And they make their families a promise that they cannot be sure of delivering on: that they will send them good money with which they too will be able to improve their livelihoods. Buy | Share
These two boys seem a study in irony. Within a five-minute period, they each jump separately onto the back of one of the pickup trucks that ferry passengers along the road to the village. The boy on the left proudly wears colours associated with Egypt on a football shirt emblazoned with ’25 January’ in memory of his country’s 2011 revolution. Although the boy on the right may share the other’s patriotism and gladness about the changes promised by the revolution, his football shirt tells a different story. ‘Italia’: the country that so many boys and young men from these parts aspire to reach by whatever means possible, a situation that has not evolved at all since the political changes of early 2011. Buy | Share
Standing on the beach where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, Ashraf, Hasan, Mostafa Mohamed, Mostafa Ahmed and Abdu stare in the direction of Europe and contemplate what their futures might hold. Every year, thousands of young males, many of whom are minors, bankrupt their families in order to attempt the perilous journey across the sea, illegally and without valid documents, to Europe’s Southern shores. Buy | Share
Fishing boats on the Nile. Such boats frequently play host to hundreds, sometimes thousands of youngsters as they try to migrate, a lucrative business that nets boat owners huge profits. Buy | Share
Young boys delight in spending endless hours diving into, and splashing around in, the Nile. These images were captured during times of play. Yet they are eerily similar to what we might expect to see them doing when trying to migrate, starting by clambering aboard the vessel for a voyage that ends with a dive into the water and a desperate swim for the shore. Many never make it to their their dream destinations alive; others are tricked, robbed and dumped back somewhere else on Egypt’s coastline. Buy | Share
Fishing forms the mainstay of Borg-Meghezil’s economy, but it pays poorly and one’s earnings cannot be guaranteed. Left: Hameed – aged 30 – says his father died when he was young, forcing him to leave school and work. Though he joined the fishing industry initially, he was unable to earn enough and therefore chose to try his luck illegally in Europe. After failing to find work in Italy, he travelled across the Schengen region to France, from where he again took a great risk in stowing away to the UK in a Sudanese boat carrying vegetables. He eventually found employment in Ireland. Right: As fishermen bring in the night’s catch in the background, Mousa – aged 32 – speaks of the “better life than this” that he pursued as a fisherman in Italy, after migrating there illegally. “Everything is better there”, he insists. “Here, people don’t have a source of income at all”. Nine years ago, the trip cost him US$ 4,000, an amount he felt would have been grossly inadequate if he had put it aside for his future marriage. Nowadays, the sum one must pay for this transit is closer to US$ 11,000, yet because he sees young men’s options as so inferior in Egypt compared to Italy, he says he will encourage his son to travel in a similar way, whatever the risks. Buy | Share
Ali does not regret that his son has migrated illegally to Italy. He says, “my son didn’t want to travel and I didn’t ask him to travel, but the situation being the way it is doesn’t give us any choice. I’m sick. I have Hepatitis C and I can’t work, so what am I supposed to do? Anyone who can travel will travel. This is the situation we’re living in”. Buy | Share
Hassan (left) and Nageya (right) knew their son Mahmoud wanted to migrate in order to find well-paid work, buy they wanted him to complete his schooling, secure a diploma and then leave with the correct legal papers in hand. However, Nageya says that because of their financial situation, he wanted to go without burdening them with any financial obligations. “He left without saying where he was going”, she tearfully recalls. “He just said he was going to the bridge to meet his friends”. “That night”, adds Hassan, “he called his cousin and said that he was at sea on a boat”. The boat, they eventually found out, later ran aground before even getting out of Egyptian waters. They don’t know whether or not Mahmoud survived the accident; they have searched for him relentlessly, so far without success. Buy | Share
As Mahmoud’s case shows, irregular migration is a potentially perilous pursuit. Other scenarios, such as suffocation among the hundreds crammed into the boats below decks, or drowning on the final night time swim for the shoreline, are also common. Even where youngsters make it across the Mediterranean successfully, they frequently fail to find decent work in Europe, owing to their status without papers. Thanks to generous funding by the EU, however, Save the Children (UK) and their Egyptian partner NGO, the Youth Association for Population and Development (YAPD), have begun training local community members to spread awareness of the dangers. Wafdeya and Samar (left) are now taking this campaign to the doorsteps in Borg-Meghezil. According to Samar (on the right), although it is typically only males who migrate, the practice is adversely affecting both genders, and as a woman this is a message she’s especially anxious to convey. In particular, she explains that marriage is becoming far costlier, threatening to bankrupt families. During the arrangements for a marriage, the bride’s family may ask for a bigger apartment and a lot more money where the groom is a returned migrant, owing to the assumption that working in Europe brings riches. The flipside is that if they ask for more in this way, they will probably be required to give more expensive gold accessories and electrical items in return. Mohamed (right) is another who is actively working on this issue. He is the General Manager of the local branch of an organisation called the Social Solidarity NGO. Pointing to the lack of job opportunities in the area, he suggests that migrant recipient countries should be encouraged to invest in building and recruiting for factories here. Another idea he has is to encourage investment in a commercial harbour for Rashid (Rosetta) like the one in Alexandria, as this too could create many job opportunities and in turn attract further investment to the region. As part of its efforts to identify credible alternatives to irregular migration, Save the Children is promoting investment in Rashid’s tourist potential to corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals. For more on this, see my photo essay entitled ‘Irregular migration, an alternative through CSR (Save the Children)‘. Buy | Share
While such alternatives will take time and money to develop, Save the Children and YAPD are happy to report that they are beginning to make inroads into children’s perception of irregular migration. These drawings were entered into a competition that sought an illustration for a poster that would highlight how risky travelling like this can be. One little boy told me that “even if I’m living a very hard life, I won’t do it because the money I’d get out of it would be haraam (forbidden)”. Buy | Share
This is unfortunately by no means the majority opinion yet, and while young people are generally aware of the risks, they will keep trying to migrate illegally until realistic alternatives emerge. However, Save the Children has already brought a number of CEOs and CSR professionals from both national and international companies together at a conference in Cairo to talk seriously about what they can do to change this picture. Consequently, we can be very hopeful that by the time these three infants reach their early teens, they will have better options closer to home. Buy | Share