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Egypt is suffering neither war nor chaos, but people are migrating away anyway

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

One of the people lost on the migrant ship that sank off the coast of Greece last month was a young Egyptian man who'd hardly ever ventured outside his rural town before. But like many, he set off first to Libya, lured by smugglers, promising to get him to Europe. NPR's Aya Batrawy spoke with his brother and others to find out why so many are fleeing Egypt, a country that's suffering neither war nor chaos.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Mahmoud Ibrahim's family got a call a few days after he'd vanished. He was in Libya and needed money. His brother Mohammed tells me over the phone, the family was stunned. The 28-year-old with a wife and baby lived in a poor, rural town in northern Egypt's province of Sharqia and had never even traveled as far as Cairo. Now, he owed Libyan smugglers $4,500 for a spot aboard a ship bound for Italy, an astronomical figure for families in these parts of Egypt.

MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) Once he told us to pay, we sold some land that we had, collected money from here and there and borrowed. I mean, your brother is telling you, pay for me or you know the rest. You know what will happen.

BATRAWY: The smugglers control where migrants sleep, how much food they get and which ships people get on. The family paid a masked man in Egypt, part of a network of smugglers who promised safe crossings for desperate Egyptians looking for better lives. They find leads and even lure children on Facebook and chat groups.

IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) They promised him life is beautiful, easy. You'll never touch the water. Just two or three days, and you'll be in Italy and see a new world. It's delusion - delusion.

BATRAWY: Mahmoud Ibrahim never got to see a new world. He's among hundreds of Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians presumed dead after their overcrowded ship, the Adriana, sank last month near Greece, far from the Italian shores they dreamt to reach. Facebook pages are full of photos of missing Egyptians and families desperately seeking word on their loved ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMED AL-SHARKAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: In one post, a man named Mohammed al-Sharkawi goes live with his phone camera as he searches helplessly in Greece for his brother and cousins. Through a fence and metal railings, he yells out to Egyptian survivors of the Adriana for the names of survivors from his hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-SHARKAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He then reads out the names of the six survivors from his village.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-SHARKAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Egyptians from poor towns have long crossed the sea to Europe, but those numbers soared dramatically last year. The International Organization for Migration counted nearly 22,000 Egyptian migrants arriving to Europe mostly by sea last year, topping every other nationality. Including from war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria. Rehab Reda says she knows why her husband, Mustafa Adel el-Sayyed, left Egypt and risked his life for a shot at Europe.

REHAB REDA: (Through interpreter) The cost of living is going up every day, not every month or every year - no, every day. There are new prices for food, clothes, for living. So our income isn't enough. And this is the case for everyone, not just for us.

BATRAWY: Millions of poor Egyptians rely on government subsidies and handouts to survive. But Egypt's economy has suffered major blows over the past year. The price of food has skyrocketed since early 2022, correlating with the spike in Egyptian migrants arriving to Europe. Reda says her husband's job as a tailor in Sharqia wasn't enough to keep up with the cost of their three children.

REDA: (Through interpreter) He wanted to do something for his kids. He would say, I am 35 years old, and my kids are young. And I can't do anything for them.

BATRAWY: Out of an estimated 750 people on the Adriana, only 104 survived, including 43 Egyptians. Reda's husband is among the survivors. But he's now detained in Greece, one of nine Egyptians accused of being part of the smuggling network. Reda says her husband is innocent and that the real smugglers don't risk their lives on these boats. After we hang up, she sends me a voice note with one more thing.

REDA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Her cousin was also on the ship, and they don't know what happened to him. She asks if I can find out if he's dead or maybe alive in a hospital or camp somewhere.

REDA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: She sends me his photo. In it, Saeed Mohammed's black hair is trimmed with a fade. The 23-year-old is wearing white sneakers, black jeans and a fitted white T-shirt with the words Louis Vuitton stitched across the front. I checked the list of Egyptian survivors. His name isn't there. Aya Batrawy. NPR News, Dubai.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE + WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.