BRUSSELS – As the European Union struggles to seal off migrant routes into the continent, people seeking sanctuary or work in Europe are turning to a longer, more expensive option.
Mostly Syrians, but also other nationals, are increasingly setting out from Egypt, boarding bigger boats for sea voyages of up to 10 days toward Italy, as the EU, NATO and Turkish coast guard tighten controls in the Aegean Sea. The coastline near the port city of Alexandria is a preferred jumping off point.
The problem has become so acute that the EU is seeking talks with Egyptian authorities to see what can be done.
The EU's border agency, Frontex, says that some 19,000 migrants arrived in Italy last month, in part due to "a growing number of departures from Egypt."
The deputy director of the European Commission's migration and home affairs department, Olivier Onidi, told EU lawmakers this week that talks with Egypt are needed "to try to better understand why this is happening."
According to experts, some migrants, many of them Syrian, are paying up to $5,000 to leave Egypt in ships. These vessels meet up south of Italy with smaller boats coming from Libya and bound for the Italian coast so the passengers can transfer. Some Egyptian police are thought to be working with the smugglers.
Tuesday Reitano, from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, says the Egyptian migrant route "is the business class departure point."
"Whereas people pay 1000-1,500 dollars to depart from Libya, you would pay 3-5,000 dollars to depart from Egypt and you would have a totally different class of voyage," she said.
The trip west takes more than a week. Food and water is stored onboard and vessels have a proper crew. Unlike on the perilous crossings from Libya, few incidents of migrant abuse have been reported.
The route is not new - such departures have been going on since 2011 - but given the way the smugglers work, with transfers happening at sea, the operations are almost impossible to detect.
Any EU talks with Egyptian officials are unlikely to be easy. It comes even as the 28-nation bloc steps up financial assistance to the country under a migration partnership scheme it is developing with several nations, most of them in Africa.
"It's a very discreet, very effective, highly corrupt industry that's been going out of Egypt the whole time," Reitano said. "It's really well sewn up. It's very, very organized."
It's also a variation on an old theme. According to Frontex, smuggling networks in Egypt used to use small fishing boats but switched a few years ago to larger "mother ships" with strings of fishing boats towed behind.
On leaving Egypt, the migrants were stowed in the mother ship. Once close to the Italian shore, migrants were transferred to the fishing boats while the mother ship returned to port. It's a modus operandi that makes it difficult to track where migrants are coming from and who is smuggling them in.