TATOUN, Egypt — In this town in one of Egypt’s poorest provinces,
lavish villas with rooftop swimming pools and escalators tower over mud
brick houses. Main streets are named Roma and Milano, and men in
traditional Egyptian robes admit to having developed a taste for
Italy looms large in the life of Tatoun. Thousands of the town’s young men make the dangerous, illegal journey across the Mediterranean to Italy to flee grinding poverty, high unemployment and rising prices at home.
“Everything you see is made out of Italian money,” said Khaled Abdel-Salam, gesturing at the concrete and brick structures lining the town’s unpaved main street, Milano Street, as he lounged outside one the two buildings he built after 12 years working in Milan.
Of Tatoun’s 40,000 inhabitants, more than 6,000 are in Italy, about a third of the town’s male population, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Over the last several years, Italy has become an increasingly common destination for Egyptians, with government surveys indicating that young men think they can make more money in Italy than in the oil-rich Gulf states that once beckoned them.
It’s easy to see the payoff in Tatoun, in Fayoum province southwest of Cairo. Every sign of wealth — from a new private school and a kindergarten to a 13-story building under construction, by far the town’s tallest — can be traced to a family whose son made it to Italy.
The dangers are clear as well.
In the rough village of Saadiyeen, north of Cairo, Umm Haytham weeps in her crumbling mud brick house as she describes how just weeks earlier her son, Tariq Abdel-Nabi, drowned off the coast of Italy in his attempt to find work.
“He saw his friends becoming wealthy and wanted to be like them,” she said.
The last she heard from Tariq was when he called from the boat, off Egypt, terrified and telling his mother that the smugglers arranging their trip were threatening to stab him and pour acid on his face if they did not deliver more money.
“We were slapping our faces, running back and forth searching for money,” said a tearful Umm Haytham, whose husband and sons make about $50 a month as farmers. “We sold his sister’s gold and borrowed money and gave it all in the morning to a man who passed by our house.”
A few weeks later, one of Tariq’s friends who had traveled with him called from a Red Cross camp in Italy to say that he had died at sea.
Tariq was among 22 people who died in November when two smuggler boats carrying around 150 Egyptians capsized off Italy’s southern coast. The next month, another boat sank off Turkey, killing 50, half of them Egyptians.
The recent deaths underline how Egyptians are still trying to make the dangerous crossing to Europe, particularly Italy, in search of the jobs they can’t find at home. Some leave from Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, but most travel to Libya to take the shorter sea journey from there.
They are part of the wider wave of tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan countries that try to make their way into Europe every year — usually through Spain, Italy and Malta. Last year, Spain caught some 31,000 illegal migrants trying to reach its Canary Islands, off the West African coast, a frequent steppingstone for reaching mainland Europe.
The number of would-be migrants caught on Italy’s southern shores rose to more than 22,000 in 2006, up from 2,700 six years earlier, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. Egyptians have made up a significant part of those numbers — with a high of 10,000 in 2005.
In response, Italy has stepped up cooperation with Egypt — and with Libya, which has increased its arrests and deportations of migrants crossing its territory. The efforts appear to be having an effect, with Italian authorities reporting the number of Egyptians caught entering its shores fell to around 4,500 in 2006.
The recent drop, however, could also be related to the fact that when caught, many Egyptians identify themselves as Iraqis and Palestinians in hopes of gaining asylum.
The country’s widespread poverty remains a powerful motivator to keep prompting Egyptians to make the dangerous journey.
In Tatoun, 19-year-old Walid Abou Zeid is one of those rare residents who can’t seem to make it to Italy. Three times he has failed, once spending 12 days in a Libyan prison, another time two days jailed in Alexandria.
Despite having already spent $3,600 on his various failed attempts, the taciturn teenager just nods quietly when asked if he will try again.
Nearly half of Egypt’s 70 million people live on or below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures. Despite recent government economic reforms that have boosted the annual growth rate to 7 percent for the last three years, life for most Egyptians has become worse. Instead of job opportunities, the growth has only brought with it inflation that is putting even basic foodstuffs out of reach.
“Employment is dead in Egypt,” said Mohammed Ahmed, 24, a college graduate from Tatoun who is heading to Italy for work.
“There are people who earn 1,000 euros ($1,450) a day there, they make money from the air,” he said. Ahmed is giving up a $160-a-month computer programming job in Cairo, but his trip to Italy will be by a comfortable plane ride, thanks to an invitation from relatives living there.
Once one person from a town makes it, his neighbors follow, using him for advice and contacts, explaining how a single town like Tatoun can have so many young men emigrating and how a particular country, like Italy, becomes a frequent destination. Some 90,000 Egyptians are believed to have gone to Italy illegally over the past decade, according to the Egyptian government.
Traditionally, Egyptians have gone to the oil-rich nations of the Gulf to seek their fortunes, and hundreds of thousands still work there. But a 2006 survey of 1,500 young Egyptians by the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Emigration found a growing preference for working in Europe over the Gulf. Respondents to the survey said that working for a year in Europe was better than a decade in the Gulf, where salaries are lower and there is greater competition from Asians.
Hossam Mohammed, 43, left a teaching job in Yemen in 1990 to wash dishes in a bar in Italy. He hasn’t been back to Italy since 1992 — fearing the sea journey — but his brothers and their sons still live there.
He has seen the transformation Italy has had in his hometown. “There were no tall buildings before people went to Italy,” he said — adding that he still likes his Italian coffee.
“My brother brought back a little machine to make it,” he said. “I like a cup in the morning and then the evening.”
Abdel-Salam, who still recalls with horror his five days crammed in the stinking hold of a fishing boat, says he would never make the illegal sea journey to Italy again and has put his children in a newly built private language school so they can one day get a job in Cairo.
“We are doing all these things so they won’t have to travel,” he said.