ZENARA, Egypt -- The smuggler tantalized the young men of Zenara with a promise to get them out of the fly-covered poverty of their town 50 miles north of Cairo and transport them to a promised land of jobs and money in Italy.
For $2,500, he would arrange a boat to take them from Libya across a narrow portion of the Mediterranean Sea. Twenty-one men agreed to the deal. They took off by bus to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and went on to Zuwarah, a harbor town near Libya's western border. Some called home on the eve of their sea journey to say they were safe at the port and on their way. It would take 10 hours by boat to Lampedusa, the nearest Italian island.
Each year thousands of men try to sail from North Africa to Europe. This boat arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in August with more than 200 aboard.
They were never heard from again.
Parents and other relatives traveled to Libya to investigate. Three years of begging Libyan and Egyptian officials for help resulted in the jailing of the smuggler and an unprecedented Egyptian court decision in July criticizing the Foreign Ministry for failing to follow up on the case.
From the shores of North Africa, Western European affluence is only a short boat trip away, and each year thousands of illegal immigrants attempt the trip. Often the result is tragedy, as overloaded vessels overturn in high seas. Zenara's 21 missing are an unusual variation of the story -- they simply disappeared. Many people here suspect that they never left Libya, were thrown in jail and perhaps even died there.
In this town of 100,000, the loss was a shock.
"First we thought these men would be able to make their lives better and our lives better," said Magud Shalabi, a textile worker whose son Abul Yazid is among the missing. "And then they were gone, as if they didn't exist. Sometimes, I wake up thinking they will all come back wearing new clothes and telling us how fine everything was in Italy. But that's not the reality."
Summer and early fall are the seasons when the greatest number of boat people attempt the odyssey from Africa to Europe. On Friday, 500 migrants landed on Lampedusa. Another 800 arrived in various boats the three previous days.
That wave supplemented an influx in late August and early September that was interrupted by stormy weather: On Sept. 12, 480 arrived at Lampedusa on a single vessel. On the same day another 150 landed on another beach on Lampedusa and 130 made it to Sicily. On Sept. 6, 150 arrived on Lampedusa; on Sept. 4, 135 landed; and on Aug. 29, 241.
The influx overwhelmed a Lampedusa holding camp and Italian authorities whisked the foreigners to other incarceration stations on Sicily and the Italian peninsula. There, they await deportation or, if they can qualify as political refugees, asylum. Under Italian law, if applicants can drag a case for asylum on longer than 60 days, they are released.
Many never make it that far. First, migrants must cross harsh desert lands to get to Libya. Once they reach that country, they confront the world of illegal human trafficking. There is no one to appeal to if the deal goes wrong. The Zenara case is not the only one involving missing Egyptians. Another 50 men are missing from the nearby town of Tala and 13 from Saliya.
The wave of travelers approaching Libya includes refugees fleeing civil war in Sudan, war in Iraq, conflict in the Palestinian territories, anarchy in Somalia and poverty in places as far away as Chad and Nigeria. Libya is a magnet for the migrants partly because of its proximity to Italy but also because, for many years, the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi permitted Africans and Arabs to enter his country without visas, in the name of pan-continental solidarity.
Libyan officials estimate that more than a million migrants live within the country's borders. Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, has put the number at 1.5 million.
"Some neighborhoods in Tripoli are entirely under the control of immigrants," Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam told reporters in Tripoli recently. In remarks to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Shalqam indicated that the long barren frontier made it virtually impossible to stem the tide. "If for you Italians illegal immigration is a problem, for us it's much more. It's an invasion," he said.