Egypt passed legislation on Monday to crack down on people traffickers linked to a major surge in the numbers of migrants departing from the country's Mediterranean coast on often disastrous sea journeys to Europe.
A boat carrying about 450 people capsized off Egypt's coast last month. About 202 bodies were subsequently recovered from the sea and 169 people rescued. Some 320 migrants and refugees drowned off the Greek island of Crete in June, and survivors said their boat had set sail from Egypt.
The law passed by the Egyptian parliament is the first major official step by the largest Arab nation toward developing a strategy to combat what has turned into a growing smuggling industry along its northern seaboard.
After Turkey cut a deal with the European Union to stop the flow of migrants from its territory to the continent, increasing numbers sought to cross to Italy from the North African coast this summer, especially from lawless Libya where people traffickers operate with relative impunity. But more and more migrant boats now set off from Egypt, diplomats and non-governmental groups that work with migrants say.
The new law imposes prison terms and fines on those found guilty of smuggling potential migrants or acting as brokers or middlemen. It also imposes prison sentences on those who provide shelter to trafficked migrants, and gather, transport or otherwise facilitate their journey.
While seeking to stifle the lucrative trade, the law also makes provisions to protect the rights of migrants to humanitarian treatment and access to healthcare and legal assistance, with special emphasis on women and children.
The law also stipulates the creation of a cabinet-level committee headed by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail dedicated to coordinating various national and international efforts for the prevention of illegal migration and human trafficking.
Egypt has had a law against human trafficking but the new legislation deals more specifically with illegal migrants. Migration experts who saw the law in draft form said it was clearer than previous statutes and could make it easier to prosecute smugglers and others involved in their networks.
“This is the first law on smuggling of migrants in the Middle East,” said Naela Gabr, head of the National Coordinating Committee on Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration.
"It includes a definition of smuggling of migrants. We were lacking such a definition in our law and accordingly the smugglers used to escape … and there are the sanctions that could reach up to 25 years in prison," Gabr told Reuters.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said last month that more than 3,200 migrants had died while trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, while more than 300,000 had reached European shores. More than 1 million Middle Eastern, African and Asian migrants entered Europe in 2015.
The IOM said the number of migrants to arrive in Europe this year likely will not reach last year's level – but the number of fatalities was virtually certain to exceed the 2015 total.