Egyptians have long had a presence in Italy, dating back as far as the second century BC. One could find Egyptians in employment all over, working professions as varied as surgeons, actors, musicians, bankers, fortune tellers, soldiers and slaves. The contact between Egypt and Europe was amplified by Napoleon’s Egypt Campaign during 1798 to 1801. Additionally, 1813 saw the then-Egyptian-leader Muhammad Ali sending an Egyptian mission to Italy to study their printing arts. In more modern times, while a considerable number of Egyptian expatriate academics and professionals prefer to travel to the United Kingdom and France, Italy remains a popular destination for Egyptian businessmen and unskilled workers, a number of whom come from the pool of illegal immigrants.
Even in recent years, Egyptians have still been migrating across the borders to Europe, especially France and Italy, in search of better living standards. After many Egyptian youths graduate from secondary school, they make the decision to move to Italy. To even consider the journey as a possibility, one must save up a large sum of money to give to the immigration broker, after which they can travel illegally by boat, leaving their money and their lives in the hands of the unknown. More than 250 illegal Egyptian immigrants, some of them even underage, are packed onto a small ten-meter boat and the conditions at sea are harsh – the immigrants are not provided with food or life jackets, and they are required to surrender their passports. Many of them die along the days-long trip. Those who do make it to the other shore have to hide in the wild from the Italian police force for hours until the search is over. From there, without a cent to their name, a place to stay or even any official documents, they can only hope for the best as they search for someone who is willing to hire them for menial labor.
As for life on the other side in Italy, it is definitely not a bed of roses for illegal immigrants. The country cracked down on illegal immigrants in 2016, announcing a new “zero tolerance” policy and intensifying checks and controls. Foreigners found to be without legal documentation permitting them to stay would be expelled, with the law enforcement officers instructed to “establish immediate contact with immigration officials to expedite deportation procedures”, according to the Italian police chief Franco Gabrielli. Concerns about illegal immigrants arose after a deadly truck attack incident in Berlin, in which the Tunisian jihadist Anis Amri killed twelve and injured many more by driving a tractor-trailer through a Christmas market. He was later involved in a skirmish with the Italian police in Milan and eventually shot. Additionally, more than a thousand migrants were charged with robbery and sexual assault in the center of Cologne, Germany in 2015, taking advantage of the large crowds gathered during New Year’s Eve. As such, the Italian officials raised the terror alert and took actions to remove as many illegal immigrants as possible, regardless of whether they had actually been charged with any crimes. Stricter measures were taken in Rome, which was expected to have large throngs of people during the festivities. The full law enforcement was deployed, patrolling popular zones especially around the Roman Coliseum and the Circus Maximus.
Needless to say, the human smuggling operations are extremely inhumane and risky to the transported immigrants. In 2016, an Egyptian boat carrying illegal immigrants of various nationalities capsized off the coast of Burg Rashid in Beheira governorate, resulting in over a hundred casualties and many more unaccounted for. The boat had set sail from Egypt’s north coast on the morning of September 21, 2016 and capsized only a short while later. It was believed to have been carrying between 300 to 600 illegal immigrants.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Egypt ranked first in illegal immigration rates worldwide in 2016, with more than 300,000 reaching European shores in just that year, while more than 3,200 migrants perished along the journey across the Mediterranean. The Egyptian parliament made efforts to curb illegal migration after the incident with the boat capsizing at Rashid, detailing that anyone found guilty of smuggling, attempting to smuggle or otherwise aiding in the process of transporting illegal immigrants would be subject to a fine ranging from EGP 50,000 to EGP 200,000. The bill also stated that the guilty parties would face jail time, although it did not specify the duration of imprisonment. Additionally, those who caused the death of a migrant while smuggling them, smuggled women and children or smuggled migrants with the intention of carrying out a terrorist attack would be faced with the death penalty. Coast guards began patrolling the Egyptian shores to catch anyone breaking the law. This law made news as the first in the Middle East to address the smuggling of illegal immigrants.
The new measures appear to have been successful as since September 2016, there have been no recorded cases of illegal immigration out of Egypt. Of particular note, Egypt managed to solve the problem on its own, without asking for aid from any European countries. According to the Egyptian authorities, the main reason for illegal immigration to Italy was due to unemployment. Youths coming out of school would look to the more appealing job markets across the sea and many did not plan on returning to Egypt. To combat this issue, the government began providing more local job opportunities that were closer to home, removing the need for youths to look outside the country for a living. Up till 2019, many huge national projects were launched in an effort to provide more jobs and discourage illegal immigration, employing 2.1 million people in the process.
Unfortunately, human trafficking will always be a problem not just related to Egypt and Italy. Seeing underage immigrants as easy labor, some people exploit them to work unskilled jobs especially in industries that lack professional manufacturers. For most illegal immigrants, the journey to a new country is a one-way trip and they are not intended to return to their home country, at least for many more years. Some of those exploiting underage immigrants can make it even tougher by refusing to send the workers back to their home countries.
Ultimately, it has always been a debate whether illegal immigrants should be given residential status or deported back when they are discovered. Both points of view make a good argument, as illegal immigrants were not meant to be there in the first place, but deporting them back to their country would make all their sacrifices for naught and rob them of their jobs. In any case, it is likely that both legal and illegal Egyptian immigrants will continue to have a presence in Italy. As such, locals and immigrants may have to work out their differences in order to coexist in harmony.