Emsaed is a small desert town unknown to most. Recently, its inhabitants have rejoiced because, after so many years of waiting, public lighting has finally been restored . Here, just a few steps further, one is in Libya . 

Then, on the outskirts of the city, a large arch with a large Libyan flag in the center is clearly visible. Behind, is a guard post for soldiers and then an Egyptian flag. Passing through the arch then, one enters Egypt .

It is one of the most delicate border crossings in the world. On the one hand there is a country still at war , without common institutions and without any stability since 2011. On the other, there is an Egypt halfway between high hopes for development and a serious economic crisis exacerbated by Covid and war in Ukraine . 

In Emsaed, a checkpoint in the heart of the desert divides these two realities. Not enough, however, to avoid making that border one of the hottest points for the transit of illicit trade and smuggling. Sometimes even humans.

The smuggling of migrants between Egypt and Libya

In 2022 in Rome, the Viminale recorded a figure that was perhaps muted, but equally very important. In fact , 20,542 Egyptians landed in our country last year . A number more than doubled compared to 2021 and capable of even exceeding the figure relating to Tunisians, for years the main nationality present among the migrants who landed in Italy.

The increase in arrivals of Egyptians is to be directly linked to another phenomenon observed in 2022: the landing of large fishing boats in Calabria . Where a few days ago the coasts became a place of death for almost a hundred migrants who left from Turkey, in the last 12 months there has been an increase in the landings of boats sailing from eastern Libya. Many of the migrants who arrived in Italy aboard these fishing boats are Egyptians.

The problem therefore seems to lie precisely in the dunes surrounding the border post of Emsaed. Here more and more Egyptian citizens manage, probably also with the complicity of some local forces, to cross the border and arrive in Libya. 

Once inside Libyan territory, the migrants then head towards the coast to set sail for Calabria. “But this is not a new phenomenon – commented on InsideOver the analyst Jalel Harchaoui , who has always been very close to Libyan issues – On the contrary, Egyptians have been crossing this border since the time of Gaddafi“. 

With one difference: during the Rais era, the Egyptians arrived in Libya to stay. Here they found many job opportunities, especially in the years following the end of the embargo against Tripoli.

Now, however, they find human traffickers who promise to get them to Italy in a short time. “They take them on large fishing boats – underlines Harchaoui – they present a safe situation, they say that there is no danger of death in these boats because they are very large. Then they make them go. 

It is a different situation than in the west of the country, where migrants are placed in small boats”. It starts from Benghazi , Tobruck , Derna and other cities of Cyrenaica . 

There are not only Egyptians, but also Bengalis. They too cross the Emsaed border en masse and join their compatriots already in Libya and waiting to embark for Italy.

The role of Haftar

Traffic between Egypt and Libya takes place in a part of the North African country controlled by General Haftar . Indeed, it should be remembered that the Libyan territory is fragmented and divided into different areas of influence. 

Tripoli is in the hands of the militias formed during and after the war against Gaddafi, there are two governments that claim sovereignty over the country (that of Ddeibah recognized internationally and that of Bashaga , with less and less weight), Benghazi and Cyrenaica are instead under the control of the Libyan National Army , precisely the army created by Khalifa Haftar.

“It is impossible not to think that the militias that control eastern Libya do not notice the smuggling – observed Jalel Harchaoui – those who act do so because they have a sort of permit from whoever holds the territory”. 

Yet, as underlined by the same analyst, Haftar’s army has carried out many arrests in Cyrenaica against traffickers in recent weeks: “The general – commented Harchaoui – plays with a certain ambiguity . 

The reason is probably to be found in the desire to return to having a certain political influence, especially in relation to Italy”.

A double problem for Italy

In a nutshell, even in Cyrenaica they discovered how much money revolves around the macabre market of human beings. In 2022, a thriving business on the skin of migrants was thus activated and, after years in which departures were the prerogative only of western Libya, now the boats have also begun to set sail from eastern Libya. 

Mostly Egyptians and Bengalis on board transiting through Emsaed. 

Italy must therefore try to persuade Haftar and convince him to stop the departures of fishing boats towards Calabria. 

Not an easy task: Rome recognizes Ddeibah’s government and in the past, just think of the story related to the fishermen of Mazara del Vallo in 2019, the general asked for onerous political compensation to meet Italian needs. 

Our government could leverage the good relations that currently seem to have been established between Haftar and Ddeibah.

Then there is the problem concerning Egypt. Italy should operate on the North African country led by Al Sisi to reduce the number of migrants leaving for our coasts. 

Relations between the parties, despite the weight of the affair relating to the Regeni case, are good. “Cairo – however a diplomatic source reminded InsideOver – could also say that Egyptian migrants do not leave from Egypt and therefore the problem is exclusively Libyan”. 

Egypt could therefore limit itself to exerting pressure on Haftar to avoid new departures. In September, a group of nearly 300 Egyptians discovered in Tobruck by the general’s men were repatriated. 

A first sign perhaps, but only in the coming months will it be possible to have comparisons to better assess the situation.


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