Cairo - Ayman has been talking about getting a boat to Europe since last summer.

"Life here is getting worse," he tells Al Jazeera from inside his apartment on the desert-swept outskirts of Cairo. "My son can't go to school, I can't work properly and the Syrian and Egyptian governments are not willing to help us at all. Europe is like a heaven compared with living here."

A Syrian refugee originally from the Damascus countryside - arrested and then tortured by regime forces as the civil war took hold - Ayman has no steady job to support his two-year-old son, Mohamed. His assistance package from the United Nations World Food Programme was recently cut from 200 Egyptian pounds ($28) to 120 ($16).

Europe is like a heaven compared with living here.

Ayman, Syrian refugee

Insecure and desperate to travel, but too poor to pay for a way out, Ayman says he feels trapped: "If I had any chance to leave the country, I'd take it. If I take a boat and leave, I won't mind doing that, even if I know I might die - because at least I know my situation here will be over."


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On the other side of the Mediterranean, Europe says it has been preparing decisive action in the name of the region's refugees. Last month, the European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told the European Parliament it was time for Europe to "take credible and effective action on migration" following unprecedented flows across the Mediterranean in 2014 that saw more than 170,000 people arrive in Italy, most from Egypt and Libya.

"We cannot allow ruthless smugglers to make a fortune through criminal acts [and] exploiting migrants," Avramopoulos said. Instead, he advocated for "better coordination and a more comprehensive approach … to address the roots of the current flows of irregular migrants and of smuggling". The commissioner is currently drafting an action plan to be implemented later this year. 

Judith Sunderland, a senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, praised some of the commissioner's more nuanced points, but added: "I was really hoping Avramopoulos would have more concrete things to say about the plans and proposals the commission is developing. I didn't hear anything new."

According to a European Commission official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, the plan will focus on "enhanced investigation and prosecution of the criminal networks of smugglers and on prevention of migrant smuggling, through a reinforced cooperation with third countries".

To some observers, this has more to do with securing borders than with saving lives.

Yes, it's important to go after smugglers who engage in dangerous tactics and cost human lives, but ultimately many more lives will be saved by creating those routes into Europe.

Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch

In the Mediterranean, the latest incident to grab headlines came in December and January, when two "ghost ships" were abandoned by smugglers at sea. Earlier, in September, a boat from Egypt's north coast was deliberately sunk by smugglers off the coast of Malta, drowning between 400 and 500 people on board. Estimates suggest more than 3,500 died at sea last year.

Yasser, a Syrian refugee who worked as a "connection" with the smugglers, said his friend drifted into the "Sea of Death" between Libya and Malta while crossing to Italy.

"There was a problem between [the smugglers]… because of money," said Yasser, who spoke to Al Jazeera using a pseudonym. The smugglers were trying to drop them in Malta, despite everyone paying for a trip to Italy; they then hit a fierce storm, he said. The ordeal eventually ended in Italy, when Yasser slipped a bag full of cash into a car in a Cairo backstreet.

"They are just businessmen … they don't care about anyone's safety," he said. "All they care about is their own money."

Like any good businessman, a smuggler has to be enterprising - whether that means developing new methods to evade capture, or offering package deals and discounts. "Sometimes if a refugee has no money, a smuggler will say to bring more people and then they can travel for free," Yasser said.

The risks of these journeys are high, but some say Europe's push against the criminal networks involved may actually hit refugees the hardest.

"What I find difficult to swallow is the border control approach cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric, when we hear EU officials and national leaders deploring the 'evil smugglers' and their 'evil tactics', and promising greater efforts to find, prosecute [and] punish them as a way to prevent further deaths at sea, [versus a] clear reluctance to actually resettle refugees," Sunderland said. "Yes, it's important to go after smugglers who engage in dangerous tactics and cost human lives, but ultimately many more lives will be saved by creating those routes into Europe."


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UNHCR expects the total number of places available for Syrians in Europe to reach 100,000 in the coming months. However, for more than 3.8 million Syrians still in third countries, the most immediately viable option is still smuggling.

"The smuggling business will continue to flourish, and refugees will continue putting their lives in the hands of these criminals, as long as smugglers have the monopoly to give people in need of international protection their only chance to reach it," said Kris Pollet, a senior legal and policy officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. "Europe should focus on greater responsibility-sharing, rather than the current overwhelming focus on the strengthening of border controls."

Meanwhile, some migration advocacy organisations have criticised a leaked EU report that details the numbers behind October's mainland Operation Mos Maiorum, which saw over 19,000 "irregular migrants" and 257 smugglers apprehended in two weeks. The operation's aim was to root out smuggling networks, map migration patterns and "impact … illegal immigration."

But by attacking smuggling networks without presenting sufficient alternatives, Europe may witness more deaths at sea, more refugees languishing in third countries already strained by conflicts, and multiple, growing diasporas.

Back in the outskirts of Cairo, Ayman is still talking about getting a boat to Europe.

"My problem now is that I don't even have the money to leave by boat," he admits. Still, he is trying: "We don't want to leave this way - we want to go legally. But we have no alternative."

Source: Al Jazeera