They were looking to make a living but were denied the opportunity for decent work in their own country, so they left for a neighbouring land in the hope of earning a few hundred dollars and fulfilling their dreams of making a home. Instead, though, 74 young people from the village of Nazlat Al-Shareef south of Cairo came home in coffins, victims of Storm Daniel that struck Libya last week. Their funeral was a solemn affair.
A number of Egyptian villages in several governorates also had their share of victims in the Libyan flood disaster. Funerals have taken place in Qambash Al-Hamra, Bani Otman, Fazara, Sods, Arab Al-Tataliya, Kafr Mit Siraj, Jiris, Shama and Zaafaran, as well as the city of Sidi Barani. As the search for victims continues, the fate of others remains unknown.
Nazlat Al-Shareef in Beni Sueif Governorate is home to agricultural workers. Economic conditions are hard; the poverty rate is high and there are few job opportunities. This has prompted hundreds of its people to migrate to Libya to seek work. Bereaved families usually had more than one victim of Storm Daniel to bury.
The village is small enough not to feature on official maps. Whole families have left their home in the search for a better life.
Most of the storm victims from Nazlat Al-Shareef were living in Derna when the floodwaters swept through the city. They were united by kinship, blood and marriage. Aged between 18 and 35, they included 44 victims from the Daba’a family alone; 15 belonged to the Attiya family; there were three brothers from one family; and two brothers who were preparing to get married.
Unidentified bodies are in unknown graves.
The tragedy is ongoing as more bodies are found. They are being buried in mass graves in Libya because the bodies have decomposed badly and Egypt refuses to accept them. Unidentified bodies are in unknown graves; many more are still listed as missing; others are injured. The death toll is still rising, say local residents.
One of the village elders told me that poverty is why around 2,000 young people from Nazlat Al-Shareef went to Derna. Ninety per cent of them were supporting their families back home. They left behind their parents, widows and children.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he explained that they have requested urgent aid from the Egyptian government, a monthly payment for the families of the victims, and the reconstruction of dilapidated homes. “We also demand projects for the village that will [provide employment and] stop the migration abroad.”
Young people from the village were working on building sites in Libya as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. Wages ranged from a minimum of 1,500 Libyan dinars (about $300) to 2,000 dinars ($413). Most migrated to Libya illegally for the sake of a better life. It was not to be.
Witnesses confirmed that the high number of victims was due to the storm and subsequent flooding sweeping them away while they were sleeping. With Egyptians still missing in Libya, the hopes of recovering the bodies of more victims are dwindling. Although many have been washed ashore by the sea, even more may never be found.
According to Egypt’s foreign ministry, the bodies of 84 dead Egyptians have been identified. The Libyan authorities put the number of Egyptians killed in the disaster at 145, among dozens of other nationalities. A spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), however, put the number of Egyptian victims of Storm Daniel at 250.
The collapse of the two dams outside Derna exacerbated the scale of the disaster, in which more than 11,000 people are known to have been killed. At least 10,000 are listed as missing, while 40,000 have been displaced, according to the UN. All of these figures are likely to increase.
Storm Daniel also highlighted another aspect of the suffering of Egyptian workers seeking a better life. When a fishing boat sank off the Greek coast in June with about 700 people crammed on board, most of them were Egyptians, Syrians and Pakistanis. That was one of the worst cases of a “death boat” full of irregular migrants sinking in the Mediterranean. In the same month, thousands of Egyptian immigrants were deported from Libya due to their illegal residency status after raids on human trafficking gangs.
In 2021, more than 26,000 Egyptians were arrested on the Libyan border, according to a document issued by the European Commission, published by Reuters.
Egyptian migrants and others are often subjected to inhumane detention conditions in Libya, including abuse, torture and attacks. The harrowing details are contained in the “Nowhere but Back” report issued by the UN Human High Rights Commissioner last year.
Libya has historically been one of the favoured destinations for Egyptian workers, as they did not need a visa or work permit. They were Libya’s second largest migrant population after immigrants from Niger. The IOM estimated that Egyptians working in Libya made up 21 per cent of all foreign workers there. Official data issued by the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics in 2011 said that there were more than two million Egyptians working in Libya.
The faces of the victims’ families reveal the pain and grief, not only over the loss of their loved ones, but also over the poverty and unemployment that pushed their children to leave for a country that has endured violence and unrest due to foreign interventions and warring militias since the fall and death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.
The majority of Egyptian workers in Libya live in the eastern cities due to the close relations between the regime of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the militias of General Khalifa Haftar. There are smaller Egyptian communities in Tripoli and some cities in the West, and very few in southern Libya.
The risks facing Egyptian workers there are increasing, explained political researcher Mohamed Abdel Ghani, due to the spread of armed groups, some of which are outside the control of the state. This exposes many workers to harassment and violations, especially in light of the worsening illegal migration crisis and the increasing numbers of Egyptians and Africans using Libya as a springboard to go to Europe. This is cited as justification for the deportation policy against Egyptians and others.
With the deterioration of living and economic conditions, the collapse of the Egyptian currency, and the increase in repression by the Sisi regime, migration has been a way out for a generation of young Egyptians. The countries of the Gulf, Jordan, Libya and Europe have been the intended destinations, but caught between the death boats, deportation campaigns and now Storm Daniel, not all of them have made it.
Bereaved families in Egypt have taken to social media in the search for information about missing loved ones. “I wish someone could reassures us about them,” wrote one family on Facebook. “My brothers, Karim Hosni Suleiman Ali, Hassan Hosni Suleiman Ali from Assiut Governorate, Markaz Badari. They were in Derna in Libya. Whoever has any information about them, please let us know, for God’s sake.”
The Egyptian tragedy in Libya is clearly not over yet.