What It Means to Be an Egyptian Migrant in Rome

Since 2011, the percentage of unaccompanied children among Egyptian irregular migrants reaching Europe has been remarkably high.

Rome: “I asked him: do you want to come with us to Greece? He said: ‘Why not?’ So my wife and myself packed up and drove to Athens to open our ‘trattoria’ there.”

Mario* (63) and his wife Concetta* (57) started telling their story while waiting for the chef to prepare three pizzas and one spaghetti carbonara for this table of four tourists coming from four different countries.

When Mario learnt that one of them – this journalist – was born in Cairo, he said, “Come with me,” and led him to the kitchen. “Here is our champion.”

The “champion” is Mahmoud*, a young Egyptian man (29) who had arrived in Italy seven years earlier and started working as a dishwasher at Mario and Concetta’s small trattoria in the Trastevere area in the heart of Rome.

“He was watching me cooking all the time. And he quickly learnt how to cook pizza, pasta and everything,” said Concetta.

“Yes, very quickly and very well,” added Mario, “so we began to rely on him when we had many clients over the weekends.”

Both Concetta, Mario, Mahmoud and this journalist are all back in Rome now. They called the journalist and met again. Having left Greece due to the financial crisis that struck the whole world around a decade ago, they have opened another trattoria. “We are now becoming old so we asked Mahmoud to run our little restaurant.”

Mahmoud hired a young Egyptian migrant as a dishwasher and as a kitchen assistant. History might repeat itself.

Mahmoud is just one of hundreds of young Egyptian migrants in Rome who work as chefs in typical Italian restaurants. Their pizza and pasta are much appreciated by local customers, who usually pay compliments to the owners and waiters for the tasty dishes.

“Journalist”* Ahmad

But, with very few exceptions, these Egyptian pizza-makers are not cooks – just migrants who reached Rome by sea with a tourist entry visa or as part of groups of migrants smuggled to Italy.

One of them, Ahmad* (36), tells IPS that he came to Rome around ten years ago as a correspondent for an Egyptian weekly magazine. “Actually I am not a journalist. By through friends, I managed to get a letter of accreditation from that publication to facilitate the more and more complex entry visa procedures.”

“I met some Egyptians who were working in restaurants in Rome and they helped me find a good job as a waiter with a work contract that allows me to stay here legally.”

“Of course I miss Egypt and my family, but life there has become so difficult that the best way I can help them is to save as much as I can from my salary and generous tips and send money to them.”

Smuggled Osman*

Working at a trattoria in the outskirts of Rome, Osman* (41) hesitates before telling IPS that he was a victim of smugglers who cheated him, demanding $3,000 to take him to Europe. He managed to borrow $2,000 and promised to pay the remaining amount as soon as he found a job.

“They treated me worse than an animal taken to a slaughterhouse,” Osman told IPS. Smugglers literally “loaded me” with dozens of other Egyptians on a truck to Libya.

“From there, after five endless weeks, they loaded us on a boat to Lampedusa Island” in Italy. Civil society humanitarian organisations “helped us find jobs as fruit pickers.”

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa, Italy. Credit: Sara Prestianni / noborder network. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa, Italy. Credit: Sara Prestianni/noborder network.

 A case of tough success

Halim* (49) has a different story. He was born in Port Said, northeast of Cairo. Italy is one of the main destinations for Egyptians in Europe, and Halim landed here during the fall of 1987, having taken a regular boat trip to Naples.

He immediately connected with others in the Egyptian community in the EUR area of Rome. “My father worked for 11 long years as a helping hand in a restaurant and then ventured into setting up his own business independently,” he told Laurent Vercken in an interview for IPS.

Halim is one of more than 100,000 migrants from Egypt who live in Italy. Like most other Egyptian migrants, he chooses to stay here rather than return to his native land. “There are no opportunities to work there and I prefer to work long hours in the kitchen that my father set up, which is giving me a better life.”

When Halim’s father passed away 12 years ago, he took on the responsibility of looking after his entire family.

It has been very hard work, with little free time spent with his loved ones. Halim soon found that running a business had serious pitfalls as well, like facing organised crime. He discovered that over the years, his father had made many undefined regular payments.

A few days after his father’s death, a couple of men came to the restaurant, pretending to buy some food. But after placing their orders, they forced him to provide a free meal and demanded cash payoffs in the future as well.

After contacting the local police station, Halim was advised to install micro-cameras and microphones inside the restaurant. “The police were then able to apprehend the thugs and have discovered a bigger network of local, organised crime groups that were taking advantage of migrant businesses,” he said.

Today, he seems older than his real age, but perhaps stronger than ever. When asked how he feels after so many years of being a migrant, he responds, “Try just to imagine that if I am not able to survive every day, who will help my family to survive?”

Unaccompanied Egyptian children migrating to Europe

Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM)-Egypt launched its “Egyptian Unaccompanied Migrant Children:A Case Study on Irregular Migration,” designed to shed light on the irregular migration of Egyptian children to Europe.

Based on IOM counselling interviews in Egypt and Greece, the report looked at the driving forces behind unaccompanied children travelling irregularly from Egypt to Europe and their vulnerability. It also provided insights into the modus operandi and characteristics of smuggling networks operating from Egypt.

Over a million migrants arrived to Europe by sea in 2015 and some estimates suggest that up to 20% of them may have been minors, the UN Migration Agency informs.

The report provides recommendations covering prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership for the development of a multidisciplinary response to address irregular migration of unaccompanied migrant children.

“The report addresses the significant information gap on the issue of irregular child migration and comes at a time where Egypt is the highest sending country of unaccompanied migrant children to Europe. We are working closely with the government to develop an integrated response and are seeking donor support,” said Amr Taha, IOM Egypt Head of Office.

Since 2011, the percentage of unaccompanied children among Egyptian irregular migrants reaching Europe has been remarkably high. In 2014, they accounted for nearly half of 4,095 irregular Egyptian migrants arriving in Italy. In 2015, Italy registered the arrival of some 1,711 Egyptian children – more than from any other country.

Migration shaping the Middle East

Migration has long shaped the Middle East and North Africa, with countries in the region often simultaneously representing points of origin, transit and destination, says the UN migration Agency.

Demographic and socio-economic trends, conflict and, increasingly, climate change are among the multitude of factors that influence migration dynamics in the region, IOM explains.

According to IOM, the migration context in the Middle East and North Africa can be broadly characterised as consisting of closely interrelated patterns. One of them is that forced migration and internal displacement are a result of “multiple, acute and protracted crises across the region, particularly in Iraq, Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Globalisation, conflict and instability, development differentials and – increasingly – climate change are among the multitude of factors that continue to influence the dynamics of human mobility in the region, says the UN specialised agency.

Question: Aren’t all these patterns and factors human-made? Being so, one wonders if perhaps governments cannot find a human-made solution other than building walls, shutting borders and installing detention centres.

*Names of migrants have been changed to protect their identity.