Like much of Cairo, the sprawling low-income neighbourhood of Ard el-Lewa comes alive in the evening, once the sun has gone down.
On warm summer nights, children chase cats along streets too narrow for cars. Tuk-tuks weave between the shisha smokers and newspaper readers spilling onto the road as the cafés fill up.
But it’s not just Egyptians out enjoying themselves. Large numbers of young Eritrean men also cluster on street corners, or gather outside the newly opened Eritrean restaurant in one of the concrete tenements, exchanging news in their Tigrinya language.
“There are so many new Eritreans now in Ard el-Lewa,” Filmon*, an Eritrean community activist, told IRIN. “It all changed at the end of last summer. So many started arriving that now there is a shortage of flats to rent and the landlords have increased the prices.”
Cairo has long been home to a small community of Eritrean refugees fleeing war, oppression and traffickers, but local activists say the number of new arrivals has soared over the last year.
In the past, most Eritreans who came to Egypt registered asylum claims with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and waited years for a shot at resettlement to Europe or the United States.
But these recent arrivals don’t intend on staying that long. Filmon said most have come to Egypt with the intention of finding a boat to Europe as soon as possible from ports near Alexandria. “They are all just waiting for the smugglers to tell them their boat is ready,” he said. “Ard el-Lewa has become a big waiting room.”
‘Good smugglers and bad smugglers’
The newcomers are part of a surge of refugees fleeing Eritrea that began in 2014. UNHCR recorded a sharp increase in Eritreans seeking asylum in the EU that year. In 2015, the numbers increased again, with more Eritreans arriving in Italy via the Mediterranean than any other national group.
The refugees are fleeing a notoriously repressive state where political opposition is banned; freedom of movement, expression and religion are curtailed; and young people are forced to perform open-ended military service, which can last for decades.
Tekle, a 27-year-old Pentecostal Christian from Asmara, said he fled because he faced religious persecution.
“We have to pray in secret,” he said. “The risk of jail, especially for the prayer leaders, is very great. Hundreds of Pentecostals are in prison due to their beliefs.”
Tekle arrived in Egypt last autumn, guided by a series of smugglers across the Eritrean border into eastern Sudan, then by jeep to Khartoum, across the desert to Aswan, and by train to Cairo. He is now awaiting a call from a local simsar, or broker, who connects migrants in Ard el-Lewa with smugglers on the coast.
“I am waiting for my turn,” he told IRIN. “I don’t know where I will leave from. They will call me when they know the way is safe, and then we will go to the north coast to wait for the boat.”
Tekle is aware of the risks, but trusts his agent. “I know the good simsars. I only paid $2,000 for my trip – although some others pay much more – and I know he will find me a good boat.”
As Tekle hinted, the journey for many others is much harder.
Rahwa, a skinny 16-year-old, travelled alone from her small village in the Eritrean highlands and is still suffering from the effects of a lingering parasitic infection picked up from drinking the dirty water given to her by her smugglers. Sarah, an older Eritrean woman who is caring for her, says Rahwa was sexually abused by her smugglers during the journey.
“Ninety percent of the ladies who have come this route suffer wounds in their hearts,” said Sarah. “The way is so dangerous… you don’t know if you can even trust the people beside you.”
Filmon agrees that the journey is hardest for women. “There are good smugglers and there are bad smugglers. If you know who to choose and you are with a man, you can be safe. But travelling alone is very dangerous.”
Egypt route picks up
While most Eritreans who cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy still do so via Libya, there are signs that more and more are opting for the Egyptian route. A migrant boat that capsized off the coast of Crete last week had left from Egypt, according to survivors.
Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and director of the Stockholm-based Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, told IRIN that increasing dangers in Libya are pushing more Eritreans to try Egypt instead. In 2015, there were several incidents in which so-called Islamic State (ISIS) militants kidnapped groups of Eritrean refugees from their smugglers and then shot or beheaded those they determined were Christians.
“Libya is really bad,” Estafanos said. “Either they get kidnapped by Chadian [gangs] or they get kidnapped by ISIS. With the Chadians, at least you pay ransom and get out, but with ISIS there is no getting out… So a lot of people are trying to avoid that.”
Recent round-ups and deportations in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, are also likely to drive more Eritreans towards Egypt, according to Filmon. “For sure, more people will come to Egypt now if Sudan is not safe,” he said. “If refugees can’t live in Sudan, they will have to move.”
It isn’t just Eritreans choosing to take the Egypt route, explained Mohammad Al-Kashef, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who works with refugees in Alexandria.
“The most common nationality I see in detention [after being arrested for irregular migration] is Somali,” said Al-Kashef. “Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean are also very common. There are lots of Egyptians also who are trying to reach Italy to work.”
Figures provided by the International Organization for Migration’s Egypt office also suggest the popularity of the Egypt route is increasing.
According to IOM, more than “1,900 irregular migrants” arrived in Italy from Egypt between January and mid-April, more than double the 655 arrivals recorded in the same period last year.
Egyptian police regularly detain migrants caught trying to use smuggling routes both in and out of the country. Most are detained under provisions of the criminal code that ban leaving the country without official documents and authorisation.
But there are signs that the authorities may be changing the way they deal with irregular migrants. Some refugee advocates say those arrested are being released from detention quicker than previously, particularly if they hold a UN asylum seeker’s card. Parliament is also set to debate a draft migration law that levies stiff penalties against smugglers but would no longer criminalise the migrants themselves.
Despite this, the journey from Ard el-Lewa is full of hazards, particularly for new arrivals like Tekle, who has not yet been registered as an asylum seeker by the UN and is therefore particularly vulnerable to detention.
Estefanos said there have been cases in the last year of Eritreans being transferred to Cairo’s Qanatir prison and eventually deported back to Eritrea. In the past, detained Eritreans would often be returned to Ethiopia, but since last summer Ethiopia has stopped accepting them, she said.
UNHCR in Cairo told IRIN it was aware of a number of Eritreans detained in Qanatir and said it had requested access to them in order to assess their asylum claims. The UN agency couldn’t say whether or not they were being returned in “a voluntary manner”.
Back in Ard el-Lewa, Rahwa is resigned to the risks of the journey north to join her older sister in Sweden. She is hoping for a legal route, but if that fails she is still determined to leave Egypt by sea.
“Life in Egypt is hard. I don’t like leaving the house,” she said. “I want to go to Europe and be with my sister.”
*Names of refugees have been changed to protect their safety