One hundred sixty-two people lost their lives off the Egyptian coast near the town of Rosetta on Friday. About 150 people are still unaccounted for after a boat carrying hundreds of illegal migrants capsized in the Mediterranean while attempting to head to Europe.
This tragedy, like many others in recent years, has obvious reasons, from apocalyptic wars to dire economics and suffocating political oppression. Tragedies in the midst of a search for a better life outside the Middle East, is not new. In fact, although little known, many victims of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic were Arabs. The difference between the Titanic tragedy and that in Rosetta, however, is not only in the numbers or circumstances, but also in the rationalization and mindsets. While early Arab immigrants calculated risks and tried as best as they could to prepare themselves for a life in the new world, current immigrants are fleeing based on a new level of desperation, such that they are willing to allow traffickers to exploit them.
“A boat that can take 200 had 450 or even 500 on board,” said Sarah Sirgany, in her report for CNN. Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese and Eritreans joined together for the doomed trip. The Egyptian news portal, Al-Youm al-Sabei, published interviews with several survivors who said that before their journey the migrants had been “stored” for several days in chicken farms by the traffickers to evade police. Some of the interviewees said the traffickers asked for $6,250 per family to be given upon arrival in Italy.
Apart from the hapless political bickering between pro and anti-Egyptian president Sisi on the reasons behind illegal immigration in Egypt, we have to admit that there are also some farcical assumptions and delusions prevalent among many Egyptian youth and people that encourage them to embark on doomed trips toward the unknown.
First, the exotic dream.
Away from the cities, in rural Egypt, where radio and television is the main source of entertainment, fascinated youth watch Egyptian movies that glamorize life in the West. Take for example the film “Hamam in Amsterdam,” which describes a young, unemployed Egyptian who succeeded in building a life in the Netherlands, coming back with money and a blond wife. The film portrayed some struggles, but attributed most of the negative encounters to the “evil Zionists” who hated this Egyptian guy. These types of movies, with unchallenged narratives are enough to embed exotic dreams in youth and make the fantasy plausible in the minds of many.
Calculating risk is generally absent from the Egyptian psyche. Even crossing the road can be an exercise in recklessness. The Arabic proverb, “Sit on a beehive and say this is fate” sums-up the mindset perfectly. Many pundits call this a backgammon mindset. Indeed Egyptians, particularly the many unemployed, do not just love to play backgammon, they have also adopted this game as a way of thinking, assuming that life is just up to one-stroke of luck. Moreover, there is a general unfounded perception among many Egyptians that success in the West can happen at a faster pace than in their native country. It makes many adopt a short-cut escalator-style mentality, wrongly assuming that all what they need is one opportunity to push them up the ladder.
Third, playing down the negative aspects of immigration.
There is a common theme prevalent among the handful of successful immigrants and the wannabe immigrants in Egypt. Both tend to paint rosy pictures about their success in the West. It is convenient and flattering to downplay the negative aspects of living in a new country. This down playing was almost non-existent in the writing of early immigrants such as by the poets Gibran Khalil Gibran and Elia Abu-Madi. Instead, they both wrote eloquently about the demoralizing impacts of immigration, and avoided giving false perceptions of an alleged paradise abroad. This trend has gradually vanished. Now, both legal and illegal immigrants, educated and uneducated tend, consciously or unconsciously, glamorize life in the West to please their own selfish ego.
The tragic deaths near the city of Rosetta should be a wake up call to everyone. The Egyptian leadership has the duty to provide youth with an incentive to stay and flourish in their homeland. Moreover, Egyptian society has to shake-up myths and assumptions about life in the Western world. Our youth must understand that handing over the live savings of their families to traffickers is a tragic waste of money and a huge risk to their life. The hope of easy sanctuary in the West is simply a mirage.