BURDSH EL-BURULLUS — Ibrahim sits on the beach and watches the fishing boats float by. Here, halfway between Alexandria and Damietta, the sand is the finest and the Mediterranean is at its calmest. The 54-year-old wears a jellabiya, the traditional ankle-length gown of Egyptian men. His expression has a dreamy quality as he looks out across the water.

Like pearls on a string, the fishing boats set out to sea in a line. But fishing in broad daylight? "No," answers Ibrahim. "The boats are transporting refugees."

It used to be that everyone here in the village of Burdsh el-Burullus lived off fishing, Ibrahim included. But with more and more people wanting to reach Europe, refugee transportation has replaced fishing as a livelihood. Ibrahim sold his boat to the human traffickers as well — and got good money for it.

Egypt has become the new hub for people fleeing Africa to get to Europe. What started as a halting business has now become a major operation that keeps expanding by the day.

The refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey, and the closed-off Balkan route, have resulted in more and more people attempting the extremely dangerous North Africa-to-Italy routes. The EU border patrol agency, Frontex, has also pushed traffic Egypt's way by tightening controls off the Libyan coast, a strategy known as Operation Sophia.

"It's the new hotspot. The route keeps expanding," says Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri. "This year alone, there have been 1,000 crossings from Egypt to Italy." And the frequency is only increasing.

Ibrahim confirms this, saying the traffic has especially picked up since the controls off the Libyan coast were intensified in recent weeks. He also says the police are turning a blind eye, leaving the traffickers to their own devices. Ibrahim makes an unmistakable hand gesture and whispers "bakshish," meaning "bribes."

For fishermen like Ibrahim, selling one's boat to the human traffickers can mean the deal of a lifetime. Burdsh el-Burullus has become the place of transshipment for refugee boats as the town has access to the Mediterranean as well as the Nile, which forms a large Delta and created a small lake just outside of town.

Small piece of the pie

Hadi sits in front of a café on the town's straight-as-an-arrow main street. He is enjoying the end of his working day and sips an ice cold Karkadeh, ruby red hibiscus tea. The 30-year-old proudly tells us that he is a shipwright, just like everyone else around here. He shows us pictures of the yachts he has built and furnished for rich sheiks from the Gulf. He says even a German company once contracted him.

These days, though, Hadi lives off re-equipping fishing boats into refugee boats. The vessels are then transported outside the 12-mile Egyptian zone into international waters, where they are safe from the Egyptian coast guard. As soon as a boat has been filled, it is off to Italy — but only on full-moon nights. To hide from the coast guard, the boats keep their lamps off. They rely on the moonlight to navigate.

Fishermen on Lake Burullus, Egypt — Photo: Fathi.hawas

Hadi says he earns only about 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($170) a month to re-equip boats, just a small fraction of the money changing hands in a business that charges 30,000-50,000 pounds ($3,500-$6,000) per person to make the dangerous crossing. "I can't even get married with a wage like that, never mind go to Lampedusa," he says.

The refugee business is in the hands of the Egyptian mafia in Rosetta, says Hadi. They — and no one else — are the ones who buy all the boats, he explains.

"The bosses are all Egyptians"

Three so-called refugee brokers in Rosetta, a once-booming port city, are willing to speak with us. There is nothing left of city's former glory except for a few nicely renovated houses and a mosque. Other than that everything else looks like the dilapidated "Crystal Club," where we meet the brokers. "Back in the day, we smuggled cigarettes and drugs across," one of the men explains. "Nowadays, it's people."

Only one of brokers, Naggy, is willing to have his nickname published. Naggy says that the entire refugee business is controlled by just 10 men. "The bosses are all Egyptians, with contacts in Italy," he says.

Naggy is only 32 but has already amassed a fair amount of wealth — something he's not afraid to flaunt. He wears stylish pointed shoes, elegant black trousers, a white shirt covered in sequins, and a Rolex on his wrist.

A broker has to organize the transport from the mainland to the large fishing vessels, Naggy says. They use small fishing boats or even rubber dinghies to do so. Sometimes they have to accommodate the refugees in private homes until they can leave for the boats. To reach the open sea from Kafr el-Sheikh, Rosetta or other area towns, the brokers use one of the many confluences of the Nile. Once at sea, Naggy explains, they re-load the refugees onto the larger vessels. Then it's off to Italy.

The broker receives a commission. Once within reach of the Italian coast they contact the Italian coast guard, who collect the refugees. Many of the refugees come from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. But there are also a great many from Egypt these days, many of them children, Naggy explains.

Surge of unaccompanied minors

Unlike the Syrians, Egyptians have no legal access to the EU, and so some pretend to be Syrian. There are courses in Alexandria called "How do I become a Syrian?" in which Egyptian refugees learn to speak the Syrian dialect and get a Syrian identity.

The number of unaccompanied underage children leaving Egypt has risen dramatically since April, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Compared to the numbers from last year, the increase is 37-fold. Although Egyptians do not make up the majority of refugees in total yet, their share of underage refugees is by far the largest with 66%.

The exodus of underage Egyptians has taken on such proportions that even the government in Cairo has had to act. A Committee for the Prevention of Migration wants to provide perspectives for adolescents and encourage them to stay in their home country, according to the daily newspaper al-Ahram.

Naggy, however, has no regrets about his chosen occupation. In Egypt no one has respect for anyone, he says. What is the problem, therefore, in helping people reach Europe, where they'll have a better life?

"Just look around you. We're dying here," the broker says. Naggy points to a group of loitering, jobless adolescents, to visible heaps of garbage, to the dusty riverbanks of the Nile. "I would go to Europe in a heartbeat," he says. "Just not by boat."


More stories from Egypt