Egypt’s poorest risk death in search of work
TARFA AL-KOM: In a bare room with nothing but a small pillow, a few pots, and a sheet to cover the dusty floor, Youssef Abdullah’s family was living in an impoverished Upper Egyptian village when they were told he was dead.
Abdullah was one of at least 22 Egyptians found dead this month from heat and starvation after trekking through the Libyan desert by foot in search of jobs.
“Youssef ’s circumstances were very bad. If he found work here he wouldn’t have travelled. I wish I had stopped him but I wasn’t able to… he travelled without me knowing,” his father, Abdullah Mahmoud, said.
The Libyan Red Crescent said the bodies were found in the Jaghbub desert, 400km south of Tobruk.
Many of them came from villages in Minya, an impoverished province south of Cairo, where residents say poverty and unemployment have been driving villagers to put their lives at risk to find work, even in he lawless chaos of Libya’s civil war.
Egypt last year began sweeping economic reforms as part of a three-year $12 billion (R156bn) International Monetary Fund loan programme, floating its pound currency and slashing subsidies in a bid to lure back foreign investment that fled after its 2011 uprising.
But the measures have pushed inflation above 30% and slashed purchasing power.
“Conditions are as bad as it gets,” said Abdullah’s mother.
Abdullah made about £50 Egyptian pounds (R35) a day working as a farmer, but that work was not available every day.
Before Libya descended into civil war, Abdullah’s brothers had travelled there for work, returning with enough money to build a modest two-storey brick home.
When Abdullah was unable to come up with the money to build his own, he decided to go too.
To get to Libya, Abdullah and others from his neighbourhood paid a broker from a nearby village, who took money in exchange for providing what he said was legal passage, the families said. He then passed them on to smugglers who left them in the desert without water or food.
The broker, who charged 5 000 to 7 000 Egyptian pounds (R3 594) for the service, remains free. Residents said he threatened revenge if they reported him to authorities.
Another victim was Ibrahim Abushusha, 26, who worked as a day labourer and had married six months earlier.
His brother Khalid, who himself returned from Libya when security there deteriorated, described the migrant brokers as “traders of lives” and “blood dealers”. He warned Ibrahim not to deal with them.
“People pay 7 000 pounds to head off to Libya… to die. After Ibrahim died the broker spoke to his father and told him ‘prepare the money, your son arrived’,” said Khalid.
“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.”
Though official unemployment figures show the jobless rate at around 12%, young people remain disproportionately impacted by the jobs shortage, which economists say is likely to be much higher in reality.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to reduce joblessness to 10% over the next few years, but economists say that would take higher economic growth.
Among the survivors was Said Abdullah, who dug his 17-year-old son a grave by hand after he died. Samir, Abdullah’s brother, said: “The state is not helping the people.”
Village workers travel along a road near the village of Tarfa al-Kom in Minya province, Egypt.