In October 2022, a phone call from Italy reached me, the voice on the other end filled with worry and trepidation.
“My brother Adham traveled to Libya, and we have lost contact with him. We don't know if he is alive or dead,” disclosed Osama Abdel Tawab Amin, an Egyptian.
Amin proceeded to recount the events surrounding his 14-year-old brother Adham, who embarked on a journey from Egypt to Libya with the intention of reaching the eastern city of Benghazi.
Adham, a native of the Asyut governorate in southern Egypt, had become part of a group of numerous minors from various Arab and African countries who hoped to reach Europe.
Driven by the aspiration to migrate to Europe from a tender age, these underage children willingly subject themselves to the grip of human traffickers.
Departing from their villages, they embark on a hazardous expedition, fraught with the potential outcomes of imprisonment, arrival on European shores, or, tragically, repatriation to their home countries.
This time, however, the outcome was ominous as it led those minors to their “final resting place.”
Spanning from the Nile Delta to Sidi Barrani near the Libyan border and reaching into other countries, including Sudan and Chad, this investigation aims to document extensive human trafficking operations affecting minors.
Starting in early 2021, there has been a notable increase in reports from Egyptian, African, and Syrian families concerning their children’s journey to Libya and the subsequent loss of communication.
Desperate to reunite with their children, these families have been actively seeking assistance and have shared distressing accounts of their children falling prey to the deceitful tactics employed by human traffickers.
The somber reality of this tragedy came to light at the rear entrance of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, offering a panoramic view of the Nile in Cairo.
It was in this location that Asharq Al-Awsat captured a significant collection of grievances submitted by individuals.
Furthermore, members of the Egyptian parliament have been presented with additional reports, each intertwined with a distressing combination of fear and despair.
In mid-March 2022, the Libyan Coast Guard issued a statement regarding the tragic sinking of a boat in the Mediterranean Sea.
The incident occurred off the coast of “Wadi Umm al-Shaush,” situated near the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk.
Among the migrants on board were around 18 young Egyptians.
Despite extensive search efforts conducted over several days, the family of Amr Sayed Anwar, a 15-year-old Egyptian boy hailing from a village in the Dakahlia governorate north of Cairo, received the devastating news that their son was among the victims of this tragic drowning incident.
After approximately a month had passed since the incident, I contacted Anwar’s father, who resides in a village near the town of El-Senbellawein, one of the administrative centers in the Dakahlia governorate.
The man, who is around fifty years old and works as a daily laborer on a farm, expressed that the authorities in Libya had not located his son’s body.
He sorrowfully stated: “I have lost my son forever.”
The grieving father’s intense emotional state prevented me from inquiring about the details of his son’s journey to Libya, but he erupted in anger when the term “broker” was mentioned.
“I paid 30,000 Egyptian pounds and he ended up traveling with 22 others, some older than him. They went to a broker in Marsa Matruh. After reaching Libya, the broker demanded an additional 70,000 pounds to continue the journey to Italy,” recalled the father angrily.
Upon being provided with the broker’s contact information by Anwar’s father, it became apparent to me that the “broker market” functions akin to any other market, governed by the dynamics of supply and demand, as well as the art of negotiation and bargaining.
In this market, each region within Libya carries a specific price that prospective migrants must pay, determined by its proximity or distance from the Egyptian borders.
It turned out that the broker referred to me by the father of the deceased child enjoys a wide reputation among those aspiring to engage in clandestine migration from several rural governorates in the Nile Delta, despite him residing in the Sidi Barrani area, located 570 kilometers northwest of Cairo.
The broker did not respond to any requests for an interview regarding his activities in facilitating border-crossing for migrants.
However, he later interacted with us when we identified ourselves as concerned parents seeking to migrate their children.
During the initial conversation, I asked him for assistance in smuggling three young boys to Libya, to which he did not object. He promptly inquired: “Which region do they want to go to?”
Abu Mazen, the broker operating under an alias, wasted no time and did not allow me much room to answer.
His mannerisms seemed to blend Egyptian and Libyan influences.
Without hesitation, he promptly stated the exact sum required and confidently asserted his ability to facilitate the transportation of any number of individuals across the Egyptian border into Libya.
In an attempt to reassure me, he even added: “I consider them my own children, I swear to God!”
Around ten days later, I contacted Abu Mazen, and it appeared that the sheer number of callers had caused him to forget our previous conversation. He asked for a recap of our discussion, and then I requested a meeting with him. With clear reluctance, he opted to schedule our meeting in Marsa Matruh a week later.
At the end of May 2022, during our conversation, Abu Mazen proposed a change of plans.
Instead of meeting in Marsa Matruh as initially planned, he suggested that it would be more convenient for both of us to meet in Alexandria. He explained that he would be visiting a relative there and offered the option for me to meet him in Alexandria if I preferred.
We met as planned at a seaside café in the Al-Asafira district of Alexandria, situated about 230 kilometers north of Cairo. Our discussion primarily focused on how young individuals are recruited and the various techniques employed to smuggle them out of the country.
I noticed that the sixty-year-old man spoke with ease, but when it came to the details, caution overcame him.
With a touch of boasting, Abu Mazen, whose phone never stopped ringing, began to showcase how he possessed a strong network of connections within Libya.
Suddenly, he said, “I don't exploit or deceive young people. They come to us seeking help to smuggle them into Libya, and we assist them, never leaving them except in the specific region they specify.”
During our time at the café, Abu Mazen took pride in the abundance of phone calls he received in less than an hour, highlighting the growing demand for his services.
He made a point of emphasizing that he does not overcharge like “others,” stating: “We hold ourselves accountable to God when it comes to people’s children.”
“I charge 20,000 pounds per person from the Barani border to Tripoli (approximately $650), and 15,000 pounds to Benghazi.”
“Others charge 40,000 or 50,000 pounds and abandon or sell them,” he added.
Abu Mazen further remarked: “Today, the Libyan dinar is valued at five Egyptian pounds,” referring to the exchange rate between the two currencies at that time (with the dollar equivalent to 5.12 dinars).
After my insistence, Abu Mazen enlightened me about the smuggling methods and said: “This has been my work for years, and I have my connections inside Libya, just ten hours away from the customs.”
With great caution, he mentioned that he brings young people from various provinces to the city of Marsa Matruh at a specific time before transporting them to Saloum.
From there, they would embark on foot through desert routes and trails, alongside the land border crossing that connects Egypt and Libya.
Despite my repeated inquiry about the age of the young individuals he helps smuggle, Abu Mazen displayed little concern for this matter.
He simply responded: “We’re in it for the money, their age is inconsequential to us.”
He chuckled and continued: “There is a significant demand for transporting young children. But what can we do? It's what their families desire!”
He clarified that the individuals who he smuggles have intentions to migrate from Libya to Europe, with the journey costing between 120,000 to 150,000 pounds.
Furthermore, he confidently stated: “Where would they go without me? My associates in Libya will handle everything!”