Alexandria, Egypt – As the waves of the Mediterranean lapped against the corniche in Alexandria, two young Syrians sat in a teahouse drinking cup after cup of thick black coffee.
After a nervous hour and a half wait, a casually dressed man walked in off the street. Middle-aged, lean and clutching a mobile phone in his hand, he had the appearance of an amiable insurance salesman.
The two cousins simply knew him as “the doctor”. But the man was a human trafficker, arriving to take his latest cargo of desperate refugees on a dangerous journey to Europe.
Al Jazeera has gained unique access to the smuggling networks which are now processing hundreds of Syrians as they make their bid for a new life away from the restive Middle East.
Scores of refugees are fleeing their adopted homeland in Egypt – in part because of the rising tide of anti-Syrian xenophobia which began to take hold during the violence and unrest which followed the toppling of Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
The Muslim Brotherhood were looking after us and now they are gone.
“The Muslim Brotherhood were looking after us and now they are gone,” said 27-year-old Sami Ahmed, one of the two men waiting to be trafficked by “the doctor”.
Morsi, a leading figure from the Brotherhood – an orthodox Sunni organisation – was a staunch enemy of Bashar al-Assad, whose regime brass is heavily drawn from Syria’s Shia Alawite community.
Under the Brotherhood, Syrians fleeing the civil war enjoyed visa-free entry, residence permits and full access to public services. Many also benefited from charity work provided by the Brotherhood.
But following Morsi’s downfall last month, the tide began to turn. TV talk shows started airing allegations that Syrians and Palestinians were fomenting pro-Morsi rallies in Cairo, while the government introduced strict new entry requirements.
In the hours after the July 3 coup, a planeload of Syrian refugees was turned back at Cairo airport. Scores of refugees were also stopped at army checkpoints and later detained.
“When we first arrived in Egypt a year ago we felt very welcome by Egyptians,” said 53-year-old Dima Mohamed, Sami’s mother. “Now they tell us: ‘Morsi has gone away, go away after him, we don’t want Syrians.'”
Refugees aiming for Europe
According to Elizabeth Tan, an official from the UN’s refugee agency in Cairo, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of refugees opting to leave Egypt since the introduction of new visa regulations. But she said the main incentive appeared to be the accompanying rise in anti-Syrian sentiment among the Egyptian population.
“I think this kind of public opinion trend against Syrians last month was the big issue,” she said. “If they no longer feel welcome, when they have somewhere else to go, they might consider it.”
The vast majority of Syria’s emigre community live in October City, a desert satellite town about a half-hour drive west of Cairo.
UN statistics suggest that around 80,000 are registered with the organisation’s refugee agency, although Egyptian authorities estimate there are up to 300,000 Syrians in Egypt.
In the living room of one household in the neighbourhood, Al Jazeera watched as a human trafficker sat with a group of ten men and discussed their prospects for leaving the country.
I want to set up a family and Europe would give my children a better future.
“I will not lie to you,” said Abu Ahid, a chain-smoking smuggler with a scorpion tattoo on his right arm. “It is a miserable and disgraceful journey.” The man, in his late 40s, was repeatedly interrupted by phone calls as he fielded questions from the group.
Another man, who gave his name as Abu Yazen, told Al Jazeera he left Syria five months ago after his home was destroyed by shelling.
The 32-year-old, one of Syria’s estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees, said he was being forced to consider fleeing to Europe for the sake of his two children.
“I want to set up a family and Europe would give my children a better future,” he said, adding that the hostility of some Egyptians towards the Syrian community had given him an added impetus. “I feel under pressure to leave and I’m happy to pay everything I possess for the smugglers.”
High cost of trafficking
For anyone thinking of fleeing Egypt by boat, the costs can be enormous. Sami Ahmed paid $3,400 to be trafficked, though the price varies according to the passenger. Many end up spending their life savings on the uncertain prospects of a better life in Europe – ferried across the Mediterranean on a six-day voyage with scores of other refugees, often in nothing larger than a sardine fishing boat.
The ultimate destination for many of them is Italy. The region around Syracuse, an ancient city on the south-east coast of the island of Sicily, has seen up to 5,000 migrants arriving since June, according to coastguards in the area. The issue hit the headlines across Italy in August when six bodies were discovered washed up on a tourist beach on the island.
But for Sami Ahmed and his cousin, the risks are more than worth the potential reward.
At the cafe in Alexandria where the two young men were waiting, “the doctor” told the pair there had been a delay. “Everything can change in a minute,” he said. “We have received information that means we have to delay the trip until early morning.” With that he left and walked off into the night.
Following a nervous five-hour wait, the smuggler returned. Gesturing towards Sami and his cousin, he ushered them out of the cafe and into the street. After a ten-minute walk through the back alleys of Alexandria, they arrived in a dark and narrow side street. In the gloom ahead of them was a white van with families getting on board.
“The doctor” turned to this reporter, and said: “You can say farewell to them here.”