Despite risks, Egyptian workers cross into Libya
Like millions of Egyptians, construction worker Mohamed Sabet, 27, was shocked and disgusted by the news that the bodies of 13 Egyptian migrants had been found in eastern Libya, 200km south of Tobruk.
The Egyptian nationals were thought to have crossed the border into Libya looking for work. Their bodies were found in September not far from a broken-down vehicle. They appeared to have died of hunger and thirst
Sabet, a construction worker from the southern Egyptian city of Assiut, worked in Sabha, Libya, but returned to Egypt almost two years ago because of the security situation in the country. He said he is planning to return to Libya to join friends working there, despite the danger.
“I have been here searching for a job for two years now but to no avail,” said Sabet, a father of two children. “True, it is not safe in Libya but there is nothing else people like me can do.”
Egypt has sought to increase security along the border to stop arms and jihadists entering from Libya and what is being billed as the world’s largest military base was established west of Alexandria this year. Desperate Egyptians still journey into Libya with the help of people-smuggling rings, however.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned Egyptians not to travel to Libya. Egyptian border guards increased patrols to prevent nationals from crossing into Libya. Given that the Egyptian-Libyan border is 1,150km long, such efforts are likely to meet with limited success.
Egypt has enforced a complete travel ban to Libya since February 2015, when the Islamic State (ISIS) beheaded 21 Coptic Egyptians. In July, the bodies of 48 Egyptian migrants were found north-west of the Jaghbub Oasis, 400km south of Tobruk, an indicator of workers’ desperation and the dangers they face.
The Egyptian Labour Ministry said approximately 1 million Egyptians work in Libya. The number has fallen from 3 million Egyptians who were working in Libya before the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
Egyptian workers have been targeted by Islamist radical groups, particularly ISIS, in retaliation for Cairo’s backing of Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his National Libyan Army. Egyptian air strikes against militant targets in Libya this year increased the threat, analysts said.
Economists in Cairo said stronger statements from the Foreign Ministry against travel to Libya or tougher measures from border guards to prevent people from crossing into Libya could help but efforts to increase job opportunities in Egypt are likely more important.
“This is more about the need for creating jobs here so that those who want to travel to Libya to find work can find it here,” said Ehab al- Desouki, an economics professor at Sadat Academy for Management Sciences. “Egyptians do not travel to Libya because they want that but because they cannot find work here.”
This was a sentiment echoed by Khalid Abushusha, the brother of one of the Egyptian workers who died in Libya in July. “Why do young people travel like this and throw themselves into the fire? It’s because they don’t find anything here. There are no job opportunities making them stay,” he told Reuters.
While the government has launched development and infrastructure projects that aim to increase employment opportunities, unemployment remains high. The unemployment rate was 12% in the first quarter of 2017, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics said.
Unemployment is especially high in southern Egypt, including in Assiut, despite a government development strategy in the southern provinces.
Nonetheless, many are ready to risk their lives for an opportunity to work in Libya. Maysa Attwa, a member of the Labour Force Committee in parliament, said she and her colleagues have been discussing ways to convince workers to stay in Egypt or even apply to seek work abroad, as long as it is not in Libya.
“We encourage the Labour Ministry and the Labour Union to intensify their efforts to either help these workers find work here, or in other stable countries,” Attwa said.
She added that parliament has been discussing legislation that would seek to commit the government to offering training to university graduates and workers to prepare them for work in Egypt or for competitive labour markets outside the country.
This is too little too late for Sabet, who said he would be happy to work abroad in any other country but that no one in Libya has been checking whether he has a work visa or employee sponsor. In Libya’s south-western city of Sabha, he said, there are many Egyptians who are working without problems.
“What I got in terms of payment there was almost three times what I get in Egypt even when I can find work,” Sabet said. “True, Libya is dangerous but my children and I could die of hunger if I stay here.”
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.