Syrian and Palestinian refugees detained at Karmouz police station in Alexandria, Egypt, launched a hunger strike earlier this month to bring international attention to their plight.
The hunger strikers stated in an announcement emailed to The Electronic Intifada that “The hard conditions and hell of war in Syria have forced us to flee to Turkey by the sea seeking for a place in Europe that provides human conditions of a decent life.”
However, they add, “we were victimized and used by the mafia of illegal immigration” and they “were forced by arms” to reroute to the Egyptian coast, where they they have been detained and issued deportation orders.
According to the Center for Refugee Solidarity, the majority of the 74 refugees detained at the Karmouz jail “are a group of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrians that was arrested in early November 2014 by Egyptian coast guards. The group had left from Turkey by boat on 23 October aiming to reach Europe.”
The Swedish monitoring group adds that after a dispute between the smugglers, the refugees were left stranded on an island four kilometers north of Abu Qir, near Alexandria. They were arrested by the Egyptian coast guard on 1 November.
Also held at the Karmouz jail are four additional Palestinians from Syria who were arrested in September and fifteen Somali nationals, “one of whom was arrested on 25 August 2014 and the remaining fourteen were arrested on 1 December 2014,” according to the Center for Refugee Solidarity.
The detained refugees include fifteen minors, “seven of whom are under ten years old and one of whom is ten months old,” the group stated earlier this month.
Hebatallah Mansour, an Egyptian volunteer working to support asylum seekers, told The Electronic Intifada late last week that fifty Palestinians and Syrians being held at Karmouz were on hunger strike.
She said that the Palestinian representative office in Alexandria is following up on the case of the detainees and, along with Doctors Without Borders, providing some humanitarian aid materials such as blankets.
Mansour said that the refugees are not being subjected to abuse and that they are being held in a newly-built facility. But she said that while Egyptian lawyers are volunteering with solidarity efforts to support the refugees, they “are in need of another kind of intervention — an official intervention.”
In a bid to be reunited with their family members already in Europe, the hunger strikers are calling on supporters to bring their case to the attention of the United Nations refugee agencies UNHCR and UNRWA, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN children’s agency UNICEF and European Union state embassies.
The Center for Refugee Solidarity notes that the arbitrary detention of refugees in Egypt “has increased immensely” and the crackdown on Syrians and Palestinians in particular “is a result of a shift in Egypt’s foreign policy on Syria amid growing anti-Syrian sentiment in the country since the ouster of [Egyptian President] Muhammad Morsi in July 2013.”
Tight visa restrictions imposed on Syrians “make it virtually impossible for refugees from Syria to obtain a visa prior to their arrival and to enter Egypt officially,” the group states. “Hence, they are at an immense risk of arrest and deportation.”
Egyptian law allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial.
The group adds that the majority of refugees detained in Egypt are Palestinian refugees from Syria. Palestinian refugees in Egypt, unlike Syrians, are not eligible to register with the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“UNHCR’s ability to register Palestinians is constrained by a longstanding Egyptian policy to not acknowledge and accept Palestinians as refugees,” according to the center.
“The protection gap faced by Palestinian refugees in Egypt results in denied access to many basic services, including health, education, employment, as well as in a high vulnerability towards the arbitrariness of the Egyptian state’s policies, such as deportation orders.”
Amnesty International last November called for the immediate release of 66 refugees from Syria and Gaza being held in Egypt and for the revocation of their deportation orders.
“The refugees are being detained in poor conditions with some held in rooms infested with cockroaches, mosquitos and mice,” the rights group said.
“Those under threat of being forcibly returned to Syria or Gaza are at particular risk of being killed by shelling or of arrest, torture or other ill-treatment,” Amnesty stated.
Most dangerous journey
Alexandria is a major disembarking point for migrants attempting to reach Europe via smuggling boats.
There were 3,419 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean in 2014 — the worst year on record.
An estimated five hundred migrants drowned in the sea after their ship was deliberately rammed and capsized by suspected traffickers last September.
Many of those on board were Palestinians from besieged Gaza, which had just endured a brutal Israeli military onslaught that wiped out dozens of families in single airstrikes.
Meanwhile, European governments are stepping up efforts to keep migrants out, with Britain going so far to say it would no longer support Mediterranean rescue missions — what critics are calling a “Let Them Drown” policy.
The siege of Gaza is entering its eighth year and the youth unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 70 percent, while the death toll climbs ever higher in Syria. Desperation will continue to compel people to make the perilous Mediterranean journey.
There are 3.8 million Syrians now registered as refugees with UNHCR.
That doesn’t include the approximately 280,000 Palestinian refugees internally displaced within Syria, or the 80,000 Palestinians from Syria who have fled to nearby countries.
According to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, there are approximately 15,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria recorded in Jordan and a further 44,000 in Lebanon, where authorities are imposing onerous restrictions on them.
Palestinians in Syria
The information on Palestinian refugees coming out of Syria is scant but the situation is clearly dangerous and disastrous.
Yarmouk was once the largest population center of Palestinians in Syria. Before the violent upheaval in the country, the camp’s residents “comprised some 180,000 Palestinian refugees and several hundred thousand Syrian nationals,” according to Amnesty International.
Yarmouk has been under siege by Syrian government forces since December 2012 after armed rebels entered the camp. Dozens died from starvation there after government forces “began to prevent all access to Yarmouk” in July 2013, states Amnesty.
Residents have not had reliable electricity since then, as the main supply was cut, according to UNRWA.
Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and their descendants, as well as those displaced after the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.
Last year UNRWA was able to distribute the “equivalent to only 400 calories per resident per day, drastically short of the World Food Programme recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in crisis zones.”
UNRWA recently tweeted the following updates about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria:
Budour Youssef Hassan contributed reportage to this story.