Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Syrian refugee children who fled their homes with their families due to fighting between rebels and government forces, look outside their tent, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Feb. 11, 2013.

Detained at sea, Syrian refugees stranded in Egyptian limbo

Egypt has turned hostile towards an estimated 325,000 Syrian refugees. Activists allege police are pressuring refugees to return to their war-torn nation.

Five months ago, Wefa thought she was safe. The Syrian refugee and her family had made their way to Egypt, and though she and her husband couldn't find work and her children weren't allowed to attend school, at least the country had proven a welcome place of refuge from Syria's war. 

But then that all changed after July's military coup, which chilled Egypt's reception for refugees. Two months ago she decided to take a risk. Leaving her husband paid a smuggler $3,000 and boarded a boat in the dark bound for Italy, huddling in the hull under a blanket with her four children and around 150 other Syrians.

The boat capsized, dumping the passengers into the frigid Mediterranean Sea. Wefa clutched her 16-month-old daughter as she floated in dark, waiting for death. Her cousin grabbed Wefa's four-year-old daughter. When Egyptian fishermen pulled them out of the water four hours later, Wefa's two sons, three and five years old, were missing, along with at least 10 others from the boat.

The fishermen called the authorities, who then arrested Wefa, her children, and the other survivors.

More than 1,500 Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria have been arrested in Egypt since August for trying to leave illegally by sea. The attempted exodus underscores how unwelcoming Egypt has become to Syrians since the military ousted former President Mohamed Morsi.

A public prosecutor later dropped the charges against at least 615 of the detained refugees and ordered them released. But, in a move that underlines their perilous position in Egypt, police initially defied the order and continued to hold hundreds of refugees in crowded police stations while pressuring them to leave Egypt. So far, authorities have deported more than 1,200 refugees to countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and even Syria, where they face possible arrest and torture, raising an outcry from rights groups.

On Monday, authorities released most of those who were still detained, leaving 35 still in detention, according to activists. Wefa and her children were among those freed.

Refugee numbers grow

More than 2.2 million Syrians have fled the war raging in their country, and around 325,000 of them have come to Egypt. Syrian refugees in Egypt aren't confined to camps, and until July, they didn't need visas to enter the country, where their children can, in theory, enroll in public schools.

Before his ouster, President Morsi had voiced support for Syrian rebels, cut diplomatic ties with Damascus, and declared that the doors of Egypt were open to Syrian refugees. Since then, Egypt has imposed visa requirements on Syrians, and, via the media, accused Syrians of joining pro-Morsi protests and causing instability in Egypt. The friendliness they once experienced quickly turned to hostility, anger, and sometimes violence, say Syrians in Egypt.

Mohamed Hallak, a refugee from Aleppo, rents a sparsely furnished apartment in Obour City, a satellite city of Cairo. After the media turned on Syrians, his neighbors tried to convince his landlord to kick him out of his home. When the natural-gas company came to install new gas lines in the building, technicians refused to hook up his apartment after they heard his Syrian accent, he says. His is now the only apartment in the building stuck with using gas canisters instead of piped gas. 

“Even the tok tok drivers harass us,” Dr. Hallak says, referring to the three-wheeled vehicles used as taxis in the area. “They say 'you're like a plague; you give us problems.'” When Hallak complained to a driver who overcharged him, the driver took out a pocket knife and stabbed him, says Hallak.

European sea route

Such hostility is one reason why more Syrians are boarding smugglers' boats bound for Europe. Wefa, who spoke by phone from the police station in Alexandria where she had been detained, is among them. She asked to use only her first name to avoid retribution by Egyptian authorities.

Her family came to Egypt from Damascus in February. Her home had been bombed and her family was desperate to escape the fighting, she says. They also wanted to provide a better future for her four children, who were unable to go to school because of the violence, she says.

In the beginning, Egypt was welcoming. But over the summer, she says, things changed. “We wanted to leave Egypt because it's been hard,” she says. “We couldn't find jobs, we couldn't get residency, and our children couldn't get schooling.” That led her to the boat ride that ended in tragedy. 

According to a Human Rights watch report, Egypt's National Security Agency ordered police to continue holding Syrian refugees after charges were dropped, and told police to tell them “that they will not be released unless they leave the country at their own expense.” Authorities pressured the more than 1,200 who left to sign statements saying they were leaving the country voluntarily, “in effect coercing them under threat of indefinite detention,” says HRW.

Such tactics were commonly used in Egypt during the Presidency of Hosni Mubarak, particularly on Sudanese refugees who had fled the conflicts in southern Sudan and Darfur.

Among the refugees who were deported were about 200 Palestinians who had long been refugees in Syria. Without passports or a state to call their own, there were few legal options for them and many were deported back to Syria. According to HRW, some of the Palestinians sent back to Syria were detained upon arrival.

Randa Labib, an official in Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says no refugees were forced to leave and none were returned to Syria unless they chose to do so. She said if Egypt did not prosecute or deport those who were arrested attempting to leave Egypt illegally, “we will find that thousands are trying to leave the country. … So what we are trying to do is deter them right now.”

But with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan already overburdened with Syrian refugees, and few other options, most refugees have nowhere else to go. Nesreen, who was detained in the same police station as Wefa before her release on Monday, says the Egyptian authorities had pressured her and her two children and young sister to to return to Syria. “They're trying to push us to get us to leave back to Syria, but we can't go back to Syria. This is not an option,” she says. “If we go to Syria, we're traveling to our own deaths.”

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