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.

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.

Occasionally, Libya deports foreigners. Egyptians are shipped to the border, then picked up by Egyptian police for transfer to Cairo. Even those trips are dangerous. In August, two migrants suffocated during such a journey in a van. Stuffed with 40 returnees, the vehicle was ventilated by only six small windows. No one has been held responsible for the deaths.

Zenara sits among cornfields and date palms on the Nile Delta. In Egypt, it is renowned for its pigeons, which are raised for food and for the fun of sending them in flocks over the fields and getting them to come back to coops shaped like giant cones. Narrow, unpaved lanes wind among low-rise, unpainted brick apartment houses. Donkeys munch on piles of corn husks. Women in scarves squat on doorsteps and sell mangoes, tomatoes and dates. They weep when asked about the missing men.

Many say that the town's legions of young men have nothing to do. Officially, the Egyptian government estimates national unemployment at about 11 percent. In Zenara, they scoff at the figure.

"We're just sitting around doing odd jobs. I carry boxes at a store in Cairo," said Mohammed Said Abdel-Rahman, who has a cousin among the 21. "What is work here is not work anywhere else. And there isn't much of that."

Ahmed Abdo Hamadi Baza, whose son Abdo Ahmed is lost, said, "These boys wanted to get married, and they needed money for that."

In June 2001, an Egyptian named Yassir Abdel-Rahman Ishmael came to Zenara to offer trips to Italy. It was not his first appearance. He had arranged dozens of journeys and some clients, once settled in Europe and Italy, praised his service. Residents estimate that 2,000 men from Zenara have emigrated to Europe during the past five years.

Two agents of Ishmael in town spread word of his arrival. Twenty-one men, many of them cousins and friends, decided to travel together. They gave him half the $2,500 as a down payment. He said he would meet them in the Libyan town of Zuwarah.

Relatives of the migrants pooled their money to pay for the trip. Some of the fathers said they initially resisted.

"I received a bonus for early retirement from the telephone company and I gave it to the smuggler," said Essayed Andil, whose son Essayed Essayed went to Libya. "I advised my son" not to go, the father said, "but he persuaded me. He said there was nothing for him here. He wanted to travel. He said he would send money."

In October, the men took buses to Tripoli. Another agent of Ishmael arrived in Zenara to collect the rest of the money. Then came silence. No word of having left Zuwarah. No word of arrival in Italy. No reports of boats sunk at sea.

Egyptian acquaintances in Italy inquired among the Egyptian community there. Nothing. Relatives waited for three months. Then Andil and others traveled to Libya. They visited the prosecutor general's office in Tripoli, the police and the Egyptian Embassy.

The only break came in September 2002, when Ishmael showed up in Egypt and was arrested on smuggling charges.

He told investigators that the 21 had embarked from Zuwarah but that police had intercepted them at sea and thrown them into jail.

The Libyan government has remained silent about the issue, said officials of the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners, an Egyptian organization, although the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli acknowledged possessing the passports of the 21 Egyptians.

"They simply don't give any information about detainees, period," said Atef Said Hafez, a lawyer for the center.

Residents of Zenara are bitter that the Egyptian government has failed to help them. "I was told at the embassy in Tripoli that even if our men were in the next room, they would tell us nothing," said Magud Shalabi.

But they got some satisfaction from an Egyptian court's decision in July ordering the Foreign Ministry to use "all legal means" to find out what happened to the emigrants. The ministry is appealing the decision.

"I hate to say it, but Bush and Sharon treat their people better than our government treats ours," said Essayed Andil, referring to the American president and Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who are both unpopular figures in Egypt. "We are poor and without connections, so we get nothing."

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.Would-be immigrants wait at the harbor on Lampedusa. The influx of hundreds of boat people in August and September overwhelmed holding camps on the island.