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16th Nov 2018

People leaving Egypt to Italy doubled in past year

  • Migrants boats heading to Italy leave from Egypt's port city of Alexandria. (Photo: crystalndavis)

More people are likely to die as efforts to cross the Mediterranean and reach Italy by boat from Egypt appears to be on the increase.

The country, which is in political and economic turmoil, is a staging point for those seeking a brighter future in Europe.

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"The flows from Egypt are worrying because the trip is so long that we might have an increasing number of casualties from Egypt to Italy," Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex told MEPs on Thursday (30 June).

Increase of departures from Egypt

The journey can take more than 10 days.

"There is an increase of departures from Egypt to Italy but we are closely monitoring these flows in order to make sure that there is no shift from Turkey to Egypt, which at this time I cannot confirm," said the Frontex chief.

Compared to last year, the number of arrivals from Egypt has doubled to around 7,000 in the past six months. Most come from the Horn of Africa and Sudan.

The Egypt office for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said a high birth rate and few job opportunities are also pushing young Egyptian nationals to take the risk.

It noted just over 1,800 Egyptians made the journey to Italy in the first five months of this year.

Leggeri said Frontex wants to develop operational cooperation with authorities in Cairo to prevent future deaths. "We have tried to approach Egyptian authorities," he said.

Frontex says it is too early to tell if the Egypt departures marks a new trend.

The EU, for its part, signed off a migrant swap deal with Turkey in March. An average of 50 people a day, down from thousands last year, now attempt to cross the Aegean sea to reach the Greek islands.

'Game changer'

Greater attention has since shifted onto the north African coast where a seasonal spike means more are likely to cross in the coming months. Almost 3,000 people have died so far this year in the attempt.

Libya still remains the biggest departure point with flows at around the same level this year as last year. Over 70,000 people have crossed the sea in the past six months.

But concerns about Egypt are emerging. Its population of some 80 million people may pose a major problem should it descend into chaos.

"If you think that you have had a migrant crisis up until now, that will be a game changer," said Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Brussels-based network of NGOs.

She said people working on conflict and crisis are looking "at Egypt in terms of potential collapse."

State repression, a tourism sector in shambles, and corruption are daily currency for Egypt's general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

EU budget hikes

Such issues have prompted the EU commission to increase budget lines for agencies like Frontex and to help finance future so-called partnership agreements with countries of origin and transit.

"External migration pressure is in our view the new normal," said Nadia Calvino, who heads the EU commission budget directorate.

Frontex had its budget increased by 75 percent when compared to last year. It now has some €250 million at its disposal.

Other agencies like the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (EASO) are also expanding. Last year it had 50 people and a budget of €15 million. The budget has since tripled for 2016 with a staff of around 100.

"If you considered that five to six months ago we were proposing that we wanted two more staff members and maybe a couple of hundred thousand euros, what has been done in the last six months has been tremendous," said EASO's director Jose Carreira.

EU trying to bury report on Turkey migrant returns

The EU's asylum agency in Malta is working to determine if Turkey is safe enough to return asylum seekers. Their probe has riled the EU commission and some EU states who want it to stop.

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