ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — There was nowhere to run when the police stormed the beach where Amal, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee, waited patiently for the boat to take her to Europe. The last dinghy had been too full to ferry her to the bigger boats out at sea. The split-second decision to give up her seat saved her life.
The larger boat that would have taken her across the Mediterranean sank when the smugglers intentionally scuppered the vessel on Sept. 10, drowning some 500 migrants — Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians, and Palestinians who were looking to escape their war-torn or economically downtrodden home countries. Only nine people survived what was labeled one of the worst shipwrecks in recent history.
Amal, who had already paid traffickers $6,000 to cross the desert from Sudan, was thrown in a jail cell in Alexandria and threatened with deportation after her arrest on the beach. Despite her detention and recent brush with death, she is determined to attempt the crossing again.
"I'm dead in both cases, so I have to keep trying, until I reach land – in this life or in the afterlife," she said grimly, shortly after being released from detention.
The human smuggling business in the Middle East has boomed in recent years, as the Arab Spring turned sour. With their nations in shambles, many citizens have tried to escape — and an increasing number have paid with their lives. On Sept. 29, the International Organization for Migration reported that 2014 has been the deadliest year ever recorded for migrants making the Mediterranean crossing to Europe: 3,000 people have already died this year, more than double the previous peak three years ago. But the real number of dead could be as much as three times that, the group wrote, as thousands of bodies swallowed by the sea are not counted.
The grisly statistics make Europe the most dangerous destination for would-be asylum seekers in the world. Seventy-five percent of the total migrant deaths this year have happened on this perilous stretch of water.
Over 130,000 people have made the crossing this year, more than double the numbers who traveled in 2013. For Amal, the root cause for this exodus is simple: desperation.
U.S.-led airstrikes and the growing strength of the so-called Islamic State have forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to neighboring countries and then try for Europe. Amal was so desperate to leave her home country that she escaped to Lebanon, then flew to Khartoum, Sudan, and finally paid traffickers to take her through the desert to Alexandria — all to take the incredible risk of getting on a rickety boat bound for Europe.
New traffic is also coming from Gaza. Over 3,000 citizens, whose homes were razed in a seven-week war with Israel, have fled the devastation, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Most pay Palestinian brokers $1,000 to scramble through a network of underground tunnels across the border into Egypt, where they then head to the boats meant to ferry them to Europe.
A burgeoning civil war in Libya, whose open borders are a two-way traffic of people and weapons, is also driving an increasing number of migrants to use Libya as a thoroughfare to the West. Egypt is keeping a close eye on its neighbor, fearing that Libya's descent into lawlessness could spill over the border. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that Libyan and Egyptian jihadists are teaming up to launch joint attacks on the police and border guards, while Egyptian military officials offered this week to train pro-government forces in Libya battling Islamist insurgents in the east of the country.
Egypt has also implemented tough visa restrictions on Syrians and Palestinians since the military takeover last July, leading to fears among migrants that they could be deported back to their war-wracked homelands.
"They could send me back to Syria at any moment," said Amr, a 40-year-old Syrian computer technician who fled Damascus after being tortured for 29 days in a regime jail and who now lives in 6th of October City, a satellite of Cairo where many Syrian refugees reside. "If you have kids in school you can get the visa, but my child was born just over a year ago and my passport has expired."
Amr's legs are crisscrossed with scars where he was shackled and electrocuted. He is certain he would be executed if he returns.
For many Syrians, life in Egypt has become impossible. After the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian media whipped up the public with fiery headlines accusing Syrians in Egypt of backing the Muslim Brotherhood. As the authorities rounded up dozens of migrants for allegedly participating in anti-government protests, popular pro-regime TV presenter Tawfik Okasha called on Egyptians last summer to arrest Syrians in the streets. He gave the Syrian community in Egypt a 48-hour warning to stop backing the Brotherhood or risk their homes being destroyed.
"We get robbed, beaten up, and insulted," Amr said. "The Egyptians don't want us here, we don't want to be here — the only question is how to get out."
The migrants describe the Egyptian smuggling ring as a sophisticated, cell-like network. They say it is run by three mysterious figures: an Egyptian, a Libyan, and a Syrian, whom the refugees have nicknamed the general, the captain, and the doctor, respectively. No one has ever met the trio, but migrants speculate wildly about the size of their fortunes.
Six boats leave Egypt every day across the stretch of Egyptian coastline from the cities of Marsa Matrouh in the west to Damietta in the east. The weeklong journey to Italy, Malta, or Greece costs between $1,000 and $4,000, depending on the quality of the boat. It begins with a phone call to Egyptian booking agents, who change their mobile numbers every week and only communicate via intermediaries.
Travelers are notified about their crossing time just 24 hours in advance, and are taken to the rendezvous points in buses from their homes. On the shore, they wade several hundred meters into the sea to fishing dinghies that ferry them to the bigger boats. There, smugglers armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes can keep them for days until the boat fills up.
"We tried to cross everyday for a month," recalled Om Ahmed, a Syrian mother of four living in a crumbling flat in Alexandria. "But the sea would be too rough, sometimes there were armed gangs, once the smugglers had a fight, and then the coastguard caught us," she said.
Her two youngest sons crossed successfully two weeks ago. But it was a close call: The teenage brothers, speaking to Foreign Policy on Skype from Sweden, said the boat full of 450 migrants ran out of food and water.
"With every crash of a wave I thought we would die. For the last three days, we had nothing to eat or drink until a shipping liner rescued us," said Ahmed, 18. "There are no words to describe being stuck in the middle of the ocean. I have to remind myself I actually survived."
It's not only the crossing that's fraught with risks. The dangers begin before the migrants leave shore: Many are arrested from hotel rooms, cafes, and roadsides before they even make it to the beach. There are currently 750 migrants being held in detention centers across Egypt. If they do not present a valid visa or passport, they face deportation or jail.
"Every day, one boatload is arrested by the authorities," said Muhammed al-Kashef, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He believes that the arrests are part of a deal that the police make with the smugglers.
"Someone in the security forces gets a tipoff, and a cut [of the profits] — it keeps the industry going," he said.
But the threat of jail or death at sea does little to deter the desperate.
"We sold everything, we have begged charities, but no one has helped us," said Farah, 45, from the countryside surrounding Damascus. She has no money to feed her family of 11, and her husband needs urgent medical treatment after being shot multiple times in the stomach by the Syrian regime.
"None of us know how to swim, but we need to get out of here. I'm ready to risk all of our lives for the chance one could make it."
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images