Given that Syria is being torn apart by a horrible civil war, it's inevitable that many are fleeing the country. Some are seeking shelter in Egypt, a country with strong ties to Syria where the cost of living is cheaper than in Jordan, Turkey, or Lebanon. But what’s harder to fathom is the sudden change in Egyptian policy toward Syrian refugees.
Welcomed with open arms before the fall of Mohamed Morsi, Syrian refugees are now targets of the Egyptian Army’s latest witch hunt. As with the disgraced Muslim Brotherhood and anyone else who supported Morsi, Egyptian society is beginning to turn against the refugees and increasing numbers of Syrians are making a dangerous decision—to cross the Mediterranean illegally, in search of more welcoming shores.
According to the latest UNHCR figures, there are 123,229 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt. In July, the Egyptian government said that there were nearly 300,000 Syrians in the country, with 45 percent of them under the age of 18. It’s hard to settle on a figure, because neither report accounts for the exodus of Syrian refugees in the past three months, or for the Syrian-Palestinians, whose cases do not fall under the UNHCR’s mandate.
Until June 30, most Syrian refugees were better off in Egypt than in the crowded camps of Lebanon and Jordan. Morsi’s government tried to support Syrian refugees, offering them residency visas, helping them to find employment, and allowing Syrian children to register in schools. But when the army—supported by millions of Egyptians—overthrew Morsi, government assistance for Syrians dried up. On July 8, the government stated that Syrians must now obtain a visa and a security clearance before being allowed into the country for the first time in history.
A side effect of this is that refugees arriving in Egypt from Syria are now met with suspicion, discrimination, and violence. A Syrian father of two named Thair said that since the June 30, Egyptians who notice his Syrian accent have spread rumors that he’s affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, now seen by many as bona fide enemies of the state. Accused of supporting the Brotherhood, Syrians and Palestinians have been victims of “systematic physical and verbal attacks,” according to Marwa Hesham of the UNHCR. Many Syrians have lost their jobs and Syrian-owned businesses have been destroyed in Cairo and Damietta.
Spurred by a past they would like to forget and a present they are afraid of, increasing numbers of Syrian refugees are embarking on boat trips to Europe. But leaving Egypt by sea carries its own risks and Syrians are often exploited by the travel agencies and fixers who promise to arrange the dangerous journey.
At the beginning of October, Sukher—a Syrian mother of three young girls—went to a tourism agency in Alexandria to pick up travel papers she thought were legal. Sukher and her family were planning to meet their relatives in Europe, where Sukher hoped to get treatment and medication for her disabled daughter. Arriving at the office with her daughters and their suitcases, Sukher was joined by 170 other people, mainly Syrian and Palestinian refugees, also waiting for papers. When they entered the building, they were greeted by a group of armed men brandishing knives. Stripped of their possessions, the refugees were forced onto four small boats and after a few minutes, were moved to a bigger boat. It wasn’t big enough; the ship could hold only 50 passengers. After five minutes, the alarm was raised: the ship, groaning beneath the weight of 170 refugees, was sinking. Twelve passengers drowned, and 35 are missing. Eighteen of those 35 are children.
Sukher cannot swim, and nor could her daughters. She put on a life jacket and clung to her three girls, trying to keep them all afloat. When the refugees were rescued after over five hours in the water, Sukher’s daughters were lost.
I met Sukher four days after the shipwreck, in a crowded police station where she was being held in Alexandria. Refugees who are caught attempting to cross the Mediterranean illegally by the Egyptian authorities are arrested and taken to prisons in Alexandria and the Nile Delta. UNHCR says that 946 Syrians have been arrested trying to cross the sea to Europe and 724 remain in detention, 200 of whom are under the age of 18. The refugees are initially charged with attempting to leave the country illegally, but this charge is soon dropped by the public prosecutor, under one condition: they accept an uncertain future in quasi-legal and hostile state detention.
“The public prosecutor says that the refugees must be put into the custody of Egypt’s National Security Agency,” said Mahienour al-Massry, the spokesperson of Alexandria’s Refugee Solidarity movement. “The Syrian and Palestinian ‘victims’—who, under Egypt’s bizarre laws, are not criminals—are detained for long periods without charges and without trial.” After hundreds of pro-Morsi supporters died during the violent dispersal of recent protests, the government announced a state of emergency under which detention without trial is technically legal. However, it appears that the law is being used against people who were not its target when it was conceived.
Indefinitely detained, not criminals but not free to leave, the refugees live in “inhumane conditions in Egyptian prisons,” according to Taher Mukhtar, a doctor who works with some detained refugees. Up to 60 men are packed into tiny cells, while women and children simply sit in filthy corridors because there are no more free cells. The men don’t have blankets or mattresses and must sleep in shifts because there isn’t enough space for everyone to lie down at once; they are not allowed to use bathrooms without specific orders from the guards. Some of the men said that to use the toilet, they had to bribe the guards.
Dirty water and sewage covers the cell floors; many Syrian refugees have caught infections in their overcrowded cells, with no treatment and no way to stop the spread of disease. Lice and fleas are everywhere. Depression and hopelessness are breeding, too.
There is only one escape. Refugees can choose to be deported back to Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. One underage boy, about to be deported home to Syria, told me that he was terrified of returning. His family are well-known members of the Sunni opposition, but he was to be sent to Latakia, one of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite strongholds. Under international humanitarian law, this practice is illegal. Amnesty International highlighted the issue in a report released last week. “Sending refugees back to a bloody conflict zone is a serious violation of international law," said Sherif Elsayed Ali, Amnesty's head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights. "Refugees who have fled are at an obvious risk of human rights abuses.”
The Egyptian authorities are playing a dirty game, and Syrian refugees in Egypt are paying the price. Faced with concern from Europe about illegal immigration across the Mediterranean, al-Sisi’s interim government states that it is determined to prevent ships of refugees landing on the shores of southern Europe. In intercepting boats setting out from the Egyptian coast and detaining the refugees under emergency law, the government is fulfilling this promise. At the same time, they're accusing Syrian refugees of being in league with the Brotherhood and implementing policies that prevent Syrians from settling in Egypt. Its actions are one of the things driving the refugees onto the boats in the first place.
Mohamed, a Syrian refugee who has made several attempts to cross the Mediterranean illegally, knows this. He was detained and his passport was taken away, but he escaped from the police station where he was being held. Waiting for the final phone call from a smuggler offering him a place on a boat bound for Europe, he reflected on what it means to be a Syrian refugee in Egypt.
“I lost everything in Syria and then again in Egypt, the country that welcomed me,” Mohamed said. “I know I could die, but even if there’s only a slight chance I can make a better life for myself and my children, it’s worth the risk. All that’s left for me is the sea.”
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