The Reality of Irregular Migration

Posted on: 2017/8/30 05:10

With the lack of access to local sustainable economic opportunities, coupled with almost inexistent possibilities for regular migration, many Egyptians revert to migrate irregularly with the help of smugglers. The causes and roots of this phenomenon are multi-dimensional. It is not only the economic situation that pushes them to undertake such a risky journey but also the cultural and social struggles they face.

Many Egyptians living across the Mediterranean costal line of Egypt wish to emigrate [1]. They are inspired by stories of their friends who have immigrated to Europe and have boasted wealth and high living standards. For the younger generations, crossing to the opposite side of the Mediterranean Sea is a dream that becomes stronger as the harsh economic conditions in the country worsen. The lack of job opportunities and low income remain the major push factor for Egyptians. According to the Egypt Household International Migration Survey (Egypt-HIMS) published in 2015, more than 87% of Egyptians migrated for economic reasons, including to improve the standard of living.

With the lack of access to local sustainable economic opportunities, coupled with almost inexistent possibilities for regular migration, many revert to migrate irregularly with the help of smugglers. The causes and roots of this phenomenon are multi-dimensional. It is not only the economic situation that pushes them to undertake such a risky journey but also the cultural and social struggles they face.

Most Egyptians in underdeveloped areas experience the need to support their families by any means. When the whole family is dependent on one person, the option of irregular migration is portrayed as more of a necessity rather than a desire. According to Markus Schildhauer, head of the German Seafarers’ Centre in Alexandria, “a perceived 50% chance of surviving the trip over the Mediterranean is still tempting enough for people who have nothing to lose.”

To many, the grass only seems to be greener on the other side. To their shock, they are not only exploited and degraded during their journey as they are stranded in the middle of the sea with no access to basic life needs, but also after their arrival to Europe, where they are confronted with the complex reality of the irregular migrant status. It is not the paradise they had dreamt of. Jobs are not as abundant as they thought they were. Obtaining residency documents is a very difficult process and last but not least, they will probably live in the streets for several days, before earning a very low hourly wage in humiliating and degrading working conditions. This harsh reality remains a challenge for any irregular migrant; if they had known the result of taking such a long and deadly route, chances are s/he would have thought twice before getting on a boat and embarking on this perilous journey. According to an IOM Egypt case study conducted on Unaccompanied Minors (UMCs), in 2015, 1,711 out of 2,610 Egyptian migrants arriving irregularly in Italy were UMCs (66%) in comparison to only 28% in 2011. In 2016, a total of 4,230 Egyptian irregular migrants reached Italy of whom 2,467 were UMC (58 %) . The severe and worsening economic conditions over the past years have pushed many families to send their children to Europe hoping that they would be able to contribute to alleviating them from poverty. [2] Being the primary breadwinners of their families, many others make their own decision to leave while committing to paying the cost of crossing the Mediterranean to the smuggler once arrived; thus, becoming a victim of debt bondage. [3]

Exploring the different stories of irregular Egyptian migrants returning to their home country Egypt, we find that the main challenge they face is the unavailability of sustainable jobs that can ensure an adequate life for them and their families. Taking a deeper look at the geo-demography of Egypt, we find that irregular migration is widespread mainly in rural areas. [4] The proliferation of irregular migration comes as a direct consequence of the lack of access to sustainable livelihood opportunities in these marginalized areas over the past decades.

Two famous quotes IOM always hears from returning Egyptian migrants, “We are dead here and dead there, it does not really matter“ and “We saw death with our own eyes”. These two phrases sum up the horrific reality of any irregular migrant before, during and after the departure.

We are dead here…” clearly describes the harsh economic conditions, acting as major push factors for these people to risk their lives while crossing the Mediterranean. In 2015, poverty rates reached their highest in several decades with 26% living below the poverty line of 2$ per day. [5] The result for these poverty-stricken communities is to take what they imagine to be the easiest route for earning a decent life, by embarking on the fatal journey in search for a better future. Their situation is usually made worse after they attempt to cross the Mediterranean in worn-out boats; a journey which they describe in just a few words “We saw death with our own eyes”. Many people start regretting their choice. They are held in inflatable boats for more than 24 hours in the middle of sea with almost no access to basic life needs. According to the children interviewed for the IOM’s study, 59 % confirmed the scarce supply of water and food on boats, while more than 60 % reported having been subjected to physical mistreatment and 9 % witnessed the death of other migrants. Then, once they reach the European borders, they are usually held as prisoners in fishing boats by smugglers, not for a day or two, but up to a month in many cases. Due to the on-demand business of irregular trips to Europe, smugglers increase the number of migrants on the boats, hence elevating even more the risks of irregular sea migration and putting thousands of lives in danger.

The way these organized smugglers work is quite striking and worth studying. The smugglers can be considered as transnational actors with operations in different cities around the world. They are devious in the way they do business; they know exactly how to manipulate the minds of potential irregular migrants by offering different payment modalities, with the option of travelling to Europe without upfront payment. Most UMCs interviewed in the study confirmed that parents or relatives payed smugglers upon the arrival of their children to Europe. The desperation of youth living in marginalized areas are easily lured by these offers, undermining the high risk of the journey that has succeeded in killing thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. [6]

In conclusion, irregular migration needs to be addressed using a comprehensive and inclusive approach that not only works on raising the awareness of potential irregular migrants about the possible risks and dangers of the journey; but also, and most importantly, addresses the root causes of the problem through the provision of viable alternatives that would give reasons for the youth to stay. Such an approach should also include efforts to enhance the quality of life of marginalized areas through improving their access to basic needs, as well as to invest in their education and skill enhancement with the ultimate objective of improving their employability potential all the while creating sustainable livelihood opportunities.


[1] 87% out of 1552 Egyptians interviewed confirmed their intention to travel to Europe. See ‘Egyptian Irregular Migration to Europe', Ayman Zohry (2007). Furthermore, 18% of Egyptians aged 15 to 29 had aspirations to migrate, See ‘Panel Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE) 2014’, Population Council (2014).

[2] 65 % of the interviewed children in the study confirmed that their parents paid for the smuggling services upon safe arrival to Europe, 15% of the children confirmed making arrangement to pay part of their salaries to the smuggling service upon working in Europe. Since they are minors not eligible to work, they are considered as victims of trafficking according to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) definition. See “Egyptian Unaccompanied Migrant Children: a case study on Irregular migration”, IOM (2016).

[3] Debt bondage – a person is held as collateral against a loan. The work of the bonded laborer is the means of repaying the loan. Since such laborer’s receive little or no pay, loan repayment is difficult, and his or her debt may even be inherited by the next generation. See OHCHR

[4] IOM conducted an Impact Evaluation on the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) Programme and found that 62% of returnees selected from the sample originated from rural areas across different governorates in Egypt.

[5] According to Egypt’s CAPMAS ( the Central agency for Public Mobilization and statistics),the average annual income of persons in poverty line is 5800 EGP rounding to nearly 1$/day.

[6] The estimated number of death in 2017 across the Mediterranean sea was 2,416 migrant deaths.

AVRR Egypt is composed of our core support teams that work tirelessly to support the return and reintegration of migrants. If you would like to contribute or request more information about this programme, please get in touch with us via , or .