From Libya to Egypt, the changing dynamics of the migration routes

Libya has always been one of the main departure points both for economic migrants and asylum seekers coming from Africa and Near East and directed to Europe. Nevertheless, in recent times, European measures to face migration flows caused a slow but constant shift of the routes managed by human smugglers. This fact disclosed the rising importance of Egypt as State of transit especially for those trying to reach Europe, and for the human smuggling network that work behind them.


Libya, the main crossing point for Europe
After the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya experienced a rapidly growing number of migrants arriving at its borders. In fact, the political, social and economic instability that came right after the Arab Spring made Libya a perfect place for a discreet transit and departure of migrants coming from other regions and directed to Europe.
Unfortunately, this growing flows were rapidly noticed by the human smuggling networks already operating in those territories: as a consequence, they took advantage of the potentiality of this ‘human market’ starting to organize complete journeys from remote regions of Africa and Near East to Libya and then to Europe behind remuneration. Overtime, this kind of dynamics strengthens the efficiency of the smugglers that became a serious problem for the EU policies against illegal migration. Data shows how mixed migratory movements to Libya and from Libya to Europe appear to have significantly increased until they reached their peak in 2016. UNHCR estimates that 181,436 refugees and migrants arrived by the Central Mediterranean route in 2016, in addition to which 4,578 were reported to be dead and missing along the route, by the most conservative estimates. 90% of these refugees and migrants would have passed through Libya on their way to Europe. In 2016, 90% of refugees and migrants who arrived in Italy by sea departed from Libya, while the remaining 10% departed from Algeria, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, or their departure site was not known.


The inefficacy of the European counter-action
Since the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the European Union made periodic steps forward to achieve an effective migration management, but despite many attempts the results have been really scarce. Every day, we can see how the security-based and short-term approach has been praised by national policies at the expense of a more inclusive and balanced approach. As an example, the EU border surveillance agency, Frontex, has been recently transformed into a fully-fledged European Border and Coast Guard Agency: it will see an increasing of its budget up to €281 million in 2017, which will reach €322 million in 2020. As a consequence, the staff of the agency will gradually increase to 1,000 by 2020. Moreover, these numbers seem to pale in comparison with the costs spent by the European Union and its Member States on deportation. As argued by many academics, in this volatile environment the European Union has failed in pursuing a long-term and stable strategy that could effectively counter the irregular flows at the source, and this fact brought terrible consequences. As asserted also by many experts, of greater concern other that the enormous amounts spent on these border-control and deportation strategies is their simple lack of efficacy as a deterrent. Year on year, the number of people attempting to illegally migrate to Europe have increased, and ‘creativity’ and ‘skills’ of those facilitating illicit migration has improved. Without the provision of alternative legal channels, border-control strategies simply increase the vulnerability of migrants, even when the intention is for purposes of protection. Stringent border protection also increases the financial costs for the migrants to undertake a migrant journey, which, in turn, increases the demand for the services of migrant smugglers. As a result, numerous researches have demonstrate how smugglers are consolidating their transnational character, creating networks specialized in articulated methods of human smuggling, and also that they are quickly rising in numbers.


The emerging Egyptian hub
In addition to the vulnerability of migrants, evidence has shown that the human smuggling networks operating in North Africa can easily change the smuggling routes adapting to the European border-control strategies thanks to sophisticated technologies, logistic networks and solid financial basis gained from illicit activities. In recent times, the already mentioned European choice to exercise a strict control over the Libyan route by the securitization of EU’s external borders brought a shift in the selection of the departure points to Europe. In fact, evidences have shown that while the arrivals from Libya are decreased of 3.47% in 2016, there has been a worrying rising number of migrants coming from Egypt. This is also fostered by the continuing conflict and terror attacks in the Sahel region that create new refugees day by day: for those seeking refuge or passage to Europe, Egypt has become a promising alternative. So, within the area of the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt stands out as a country of origin, transit, and destination for smuggling and trafficking, with several networks active across the country. Both economic migrants and asylum-seekers, attracted primarily by work opportunities and in some cases by welfare benefits, seek to go to Egypt as a transit country to facilitate their entry to Europe or Israel. Moreover, Egypt’s unique geographic location on the Mediterranean and the fact that it links the African continent with Asia and Europe makes it an integral part of the trafficking process that takes place through both regions.


The changing geopolitical environment is affecting irregular migration and smuggling dynamics in complex and multidimensional ways. The article has illustrated how the smuggling activities in contexts characterized by major gaps in centralized State control has led to a worrying freedom of choice about how to implement these illegal practices. Armed groups such as militias, or violent groups belonging to tribal systems, have capitalized their capacity of using violence in order to exploit migrants in transit. The expansion of the market also brings increasing geographical complexity of smuggling routes and the progressive enlargement of the region involved in smuggling activities. In the last few years, in the Mediterranean, this dynamic has led to increasing relevance of alternative Eastern Mediterranean routes due to the growth of risk along the Libyan route. The strengthening of border controls and the upgrade of international cooperation to counter smuggling activities lead to increases in the risks, and therefore costs, faced both by smuggling networks and by migrants. In fact, strengthened law enforcement responses can promote the reorientation of flows and the diversion of some routes, as it happened with Egypt. This may in turn increase risks for and vulnerability of migrants, or it may generate unforeseen difficulties for unprepared authorities in previously unaffected areas.


Tania Spiga
Master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs (University of Bologna)



Notes and references
Altai Consulting & IMPACT Initiatives (2017). Mixed Migration Trends in Libya. Changing Dynamics and Protection Challenges. Retrieved from
El Kamouni-Janssen, F. (2017, February). ‘Only God can stop the smugglers’. Understanding human smuggling networks in Libya. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. Retrieved from
International Organization for Migration (2016). Study on migrants’ profiles, drivers of migration and migratory trends. Retrieved from
Micallef, M. (2017, March). The Human Conveyor Belt: trends in human trafficking and smuggling in post-revolution Libya. The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Retrieved from
Reitano, T., & Tinti P. (2015, November). Survive and advance. The economics of smuggling refugees and migrants into Europe. ISS Paper, 289. Retrieved from
Themistocleous, A. (2013, May). Securitizing Migration: Aspects and Critiques. The GW Post Research Paper. Retrieved from
Zijlstra, J., & van Liempt, I. (2017). Smart(phone) travelling: Understanding the use and impact of mobile technology on irregular migration journeys. International Journal of Migration and Border Studies, 3(2-3), 174–191.

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