“I will try it again,” declared one of the few survivors of a highly hazardous illegal immigration attempt to Europe—he had watched his companions drown in the Mediterranean a few years ago. This statement alone should have prompted the Egyptian government to review the reasons why thousands of Egyptian youths, motivated by the desire to live in a civilised country, attempt to cross the sea in dilapidated old boats, knowing that their chances of survival are slim.
Growing up in one of Egypt’s poorest villages prompts many of our youth to seriously consider three options: moving to the capital where there are better employment opportunities; trying to obtain work in the Gulf states, which would enhance their incomes substantially; or going to Europe—a move that would give them a chance to change the course of their lives completely. Those people who decide to remain in their villages know that their status and standard of living will remain unchanged for the rest of their lives.
For many Egyptians, migrating to Europe is about living a civilised life—the kind of life that many of our migrating youngsters don’t have back home and dream about. Living according to European values is the main driving force for thousands of Egyptians who contemplate illegal immigration. Equality, freedom, and justice, along with many other ethical values, are the principal motivation of these immigrants. If this weren’t the case, they would have opted to move to the Gulf where higher incomes can be earned. Egyptian immigrants to Europe endure many unpleasant years involving some degree of “job abuse”, but they see a light at the end of the tunnel that does not exist in their own country.
The deficiencies of the Egyptian state lie not only in its inability to prevent illegal immigration, but also in the fact that it offers no hope for Egyptian youth to possibly realise their dreams at home. Passing a new law for harsher penalties against human traffickers and organisers of these unlawful sea crossings may reduce the number of illegal trips, but it certainly will not stop our youth from thinking of other migration alternatives.
Criminalising these people in the wake of the catastrophic event, while making the excuse that it could not control thousands of kilometres of Egyptian borders, demonstrates the government’s “state of mind”, which continues to focus on controlling and penalising citizens, instead of valuing the lives of Egyptians by establishing true moral values and providing solid business opportunities.
When blaming Egyptians for disgracefully misspending their money on dangerous sea crossings and disregarding the sound alternative of investing this money in Egypt, the state would do well to remember that the remittances of the millions of Egyptians already working abroad, estimated at $20bn annually (more than the combined income from tourism and the Suez Canal), are in fact boosting the Egyptian economy substantially and helping millions of Egyptian families to survive.
Egypt offers jobs but it does not realise dreams. This explains why Syrian migrants to Egypt have managed to secure many ordinary jobs that are declined by Egyptians. These jobs involve working long hours for low wages that barely allow workers to survive, as well as a willingness to remain in the same position, more or less, for the duration of their careers. Syrians, who have no other option, have accepted these jobs, but they are not good enough for many Egyptians who want to live a completely different life.
If we want to prevent illegal immigration and the legal “brain drain” phenomenon, we need to completely alter “the dynamics of the labour market” in Egypt. Hiring and promoting people based on their merits rather than on their connections is the first step that the Egyptian government and private sector need to implement. Solely employing Egyptian youth in dull jobs that have no future and provide low incomes will continue to provoke Egyptians to seriously contemplate leaving Egypt, regardless of the high risk such a move currently implies.
Egyptian intellectuals and economists had been warning the state of the possibility of a “revolution of the hungry”; yet we were all surprised when, in their revolt against Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians called for freedom, justice, and dignity, along with their demand for “bread”. Besides earning a decent income, enjoying civil rights and ethical values is apparently quite important to Egyptians. Our government’s denial of this fact will cause Egyptians to keep trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life that they will never attain by accepting the jobs done by Syrians in Egypt.