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Fisherman By Day, Human Smuggler By Night

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Fisherman By Day, Human Smuggler By Night

Africa

Fisherman By Day, Human Smuggler By Night

Fisherman By Day, Human Smuggler By Night

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An Egyptian fisherman describes his low-level but profitable roll in the migrant smuggling business. He helps place desperate Syrians on boats to Europe.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And that dangerous escape across the Mediterranean is often the final leg of a long and risky trek. Tens of thousands of people in Africa and the Middle East make that journey, which means smugglers are making lots of money. We're going to meet one of them now. NPR's Leila Fadel went for a drive in Egypt for a look inside the business of smuggling migrants.

ABU AYMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We pick up Abu Ayman in Baltim. It's on Egypt's northern coastline, hugging the Mediterranean Sea. By day, the middle-aged Abu Ayman is a fisherman. By night, he dabbles in smuggling people, many Syrians, into international waters to board other boats headed for Europe, where they're seeking a safer and a better life.

AYMAN: (Through interpreter) We take them. And we are afraid to take them, actually. But that's why we are taking them at night.

FADEL: He asks us just to use his nickname, Abu Ayman, because what he does is illegal, and he's afraid he'll be arrested. But he does the work anyway.

AYMAN: (Through interpreter) It's good money.

FADEL: He says for a night of fishing, he's lucky if he makes the equivalent of $65. But for smuggling someone, he makes about $650 a person.

For each person?

AYMAN: (Through interpreter) For each person.

FADEL: He'll sometimes smuggle around 20 people on a trip. Now, he's a small cog in the large smuggling network that spans from Sudan to Libya. The organizers collect up to $5,000 for each person sent. Abu Ayman's job is to take migrants through Egyptian waters and hand them off to bigger boats that will ship hundreds at a time toward Europe.

AYMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He shows us around Baltim. He points out the sand dunes and palm trees along the water where he's snuck people out to sea in the dead of night. And he shows us the little holiday huts where the migrants wait until the fishermen pick them up to begin the journey.

AYMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He points to a coast guard checkpoint on the water and an intelligence building near the port. Increased law enforcement is making his job harder. And he says he hasn't smuggled anyone out in more than two months. But still, people are making the trip using different points along the coast. Last year, a total of about 15,000 people took boats from Egypt to get to Europe. And today, only halfway through the year, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says at least 10,000 people have traveled by boat from Egypt to Europe. Mohamed El Kashef is the group's researcher. He says you have to think of the network like a corporation.

MOHAMED EL KASHEF: You can picture that you are dealing with the big travel agency. You find salesmen, that we call them brokers. You can find marketers, what they named mediators.

FADEL: Kashef says just like any business, smugglers provide deals. If you're under 11 years old, you travel for free. If you get 10 other passengers to travel, you get a free journey. Kashef says the business will keep growing as long as there are few other routes for asylum in Europe. Despite the fact that the U.N. says some 1,800 people have died on the sea this year, Kashef says they're willing to take the risk.

KASHEF: They are dying in a slow way. So they are just deciding to face the death faster.

FADEL: After our visit with Abu Ayman, the fisherman and smuggler on the north coast, we call him back to ask whether he ever feels guilty about all the people who drown at sea.

AYMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "Yes," he says, "I fear I'll be asked about it on Judgment Day." Leila Fadel, NPR News, Baltim.

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