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Facebook Envy Lures Egyptian Teenagers to Europe and the Migrant Life
In the raggedy fishing village of Burg Migheizil on Egypt's north coast, where the mighty Nile pours silently into the sea, restless teenage boys are plotting their escape, lured by illusory dreams of money and glamour.
One 15-year-old said that five of his friends had already made it to Italy after perilous sea journeys that started in the hush of night. Some worked for the smugglers, piloting boats filled with paying migrants in exchange for free passage. Others paid their way.
Nearly all sent home, on Facebook, envy-inducing photos and bravura accounts of new lives: money, girls, flashy new sneakers. The teenager, Ashraf, who asked not to be identified because his father worked for the local government, said he intends to leave soon, too.
"Facebook is a real issue," said Viviana Valastro, director of child immigrant services at Save the Children Italy, speaking by phone. "Even if an unaccompanied child is living in bad conditions, they present a positive picture to their friends. They want to show they are successful."
A sudden surge in the number of Egyptian teenagers fleeing to Europe, most of them headed for Italy, has added to the exodus across the Mediterranean from the beaches of North Africa to Europe this summer. At least 1,150 unaccompanied Egyptian minors landed in Italy in the first five months of this year, compared with 94 over the same period in 2015, Italy's Interior Ministry says.
Experts are struggling to understand what lies behind the soaring figures. Unlike other migrant countries, Egypt does not suffer a raging civil war or debilitating poverty. Instead they point to a crippling cocktail of factors: a stalling local economy; permissive Italian laws that indirectly encourage child migration; a proliferation of smuggling networks; and El Dorado-like examples of other Egyptian teenagers who have made it.
Whatever the reasons, teenage boys account for a growing and unusually high proportion of migrants from Egypt — about two-thirds in 2015, up from about a quarter in 2011. Some villages are being emptied of their young boys, often at the behest of their own families.
The teenagers are oblivious to the calamitous images of death at sea — capsizing boats, bodies floating to shore — that dominate news coverage. Instead, they fixate on images of apparent success sent back via social media — even if those images often mask a grittier and more dangerous reality that includes exploitation, petty crime and prostitution.
In Burg Migheizil, which has been devastated by decades of overfishing in Egyptian waters, smuggling has become the anchor of the local economy. At night, buses from Alexandria and Cairo bump through the dusty streets, carrying migrants on their way to a nearby beach, where they are hustled onto waiting boats.
Unemployed fishermen moonlight as smugglers, piloting boats across the Mediterranean. Farmers harbor African and Syrian migrants before they clamber aboard. The local shipyard has enjoyed a small boom, as laborers fashion steel-hulled vessels that carry people instead of fish.
None are breaking the law — under a quirk of Egyptian law, smuggling people is not illegal.
Often, though, the trade takes a dark turn. In early June, villagers said, dozens of African migrants were stranded there after an argument between rival human traffickers caused them to miss their boat.
Weeks before that, two bodies washed up on a local beach. Egyptian news reports identified the dead as a 20-year-old Egyptian and a Somali man.
In Europe, many smugglers end up in jail. In interviews, several tearful parents and spouses told of how their young relatives had been arrested by the European police. A local fishermen's group said that more than 4,000 men from Kafr el Sheikh, the governorate that includes Burg Migheizil, have been imprisoned or detained in Europe on smuggling charges.
The families of departed teenagers are caught between their desire for their children to find a better life and regret that they have left. At her home at the end of an alleyway, Nasara Shawky clutched a photo of her two sons, 16 and 17 years old, now in Rome. "I feel so lonely," she said. "This entire village has been destroyed by the sea."
For restless young men, little can deter their dreams of flight. Ehab Nasser, 21, said he hated his job as a fisherman. Life at sea was cruel and lonely, he said — long trips into the dangerous waters of war-torn Libya in search of fish, often for as little as $100 a month. Two years ago he smuggled himself into Greece, after pawning his mother's wedding dowry, at a price of 2,500 euros (about $2,800).
That trip ended in a Greek detention center, and with eventual deportation back to Egypt. But he will try again soon. His eyes lit up as he showed a picture on Facebook of his neighbor Ismail, now in London. In the picture, a young man fanned a wad of British pounds, his thumb raised, while casually dragging on a cigarette.
"That's what I want," Mr. Nasser said.
But every success story is countered by a tear-stained episode. At a farmhouse surrounding by towering date palms, Mohamed El Ghatani, a farmer, told of how he learned that his 16-year-old nephew, Amir, drowned on his way to Europe last month.
Only two years earlier, Mr. Ghatani said, his own son died in the same manner. "It's terrible," he said, his eyes reddening at the memory. "They think they'll get to Europe and find an amazing life. That's not true, of course, but they don't know that."
More than 7,000 unaccompanied minors from different countries arrived in Italy in the first five months of this year, twice as many as last year, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.
The main problem, said Naela Gabr, a senior diplomat who heads Egypt's official efforts to stem illegal migration, is Italian law, which forbids the involuntary deportation of unaccompanied minors.
The Italian state provides foreign minors with schooling and temporary papers. Once they reach the age of 18, they can apply for permanent residency — a powerful draw for families to send their teenage boys.
A lot of the time, though, it doesn't work so simply, said Ms. Valastro, the aid worker in Rome. Desperate to start repaying their parents' loans, many Egyptian migrants seek to start work immediately, which hurts their chances of getting schooling or official papers.
Last year, some reports described Egyptian youths selling drugs or engaging in prostitution at Rome's main train station. But mostly, Ms. Valastro said, they end up working for pitiful wages in restaurants or fruit markets.
"They don't understand the meaning of the word 'exploitation,' " she said. "They think these people are helping them because they are giving them money, even if it's just 10 euros for eight hours work."
Now the Egyptian government is taking the fight to Facebook. Ms. Gabr said she had prepared a public-relations campaign to persuade young Egyptians not to leave their homeland.
But Ehab Nasser, the restless young fisherman, said he was determined to leave regardless, and his family was firmly behind him.
His mother, Azza Abdel Fattah, gestured at the room of flaking paint and crumbling walls they were sitting in. "We wanted him to get to Europe and build a future and save us from this," she said. "This is what we are praying for."
[Source: By Declan Walshj, International New York Times, Burg Migheizil, Egy, 23Jun16]
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