Egypt 'unlawfully' detaining hundreds of Syrian refugees - new report

Amnesty International has denounced Egypt’s hardline policy of unlawfully detaining and forcibly returning hundreds of refugees who have fled the armed conflict in Syria.

In a new report published today (17 October), Amnesty reveals how hundreds of Syrian refugees - including scores of children, many without their parents - have been intercepted in the Mediterranean when trying to leave Egypt and unlawfully detained in often deplorable conditions. Some have been held in unsanitary, overcrowded police stations - without food, medical assistance, or milk or nappies for babies.

During a visit to a police station in Alexandria last week, Amnesty found approximately 40 Syrian refugees unlawfully and indefinitely detained there, including ten children. The youngest of these were one-year-old twins who had been held there since 17 September. In another case a nine-year-old boy from Aleppo was arrested on a boat with a family friend, detained and denied access to his mother for four days.

In most cases, once arrested people are kept in detention under the orders of Egypt’s National Security agency, even after the public prosecution has ordered their release. Lawyers told Amnesty that they have been prevented from representing refugees detained in police stations along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) does not have access to those detained.

Amid increasing hostility toward Syrian refugees in Egypt in recent months, numerous refugees have attempted to leave the country and travel to Europe. Since August the Egyptian navy has intercepted some 13 boats carrying refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean. According to the latest UNHCR figures, 946 people have been arrested by the Egyptian authorities while attempting the crossing, and 724 - women, children and men - remain in detention.

Last week 12 people drowned when a boat carrying refugees from Syria sank off the coast of Alexandria. The deaths form part of a tragic pattern of fatalities in the Mediterranean, culminating in the death of more than 300 people - including Syrians - off the Italian island of Lampedusa on 3 October. One woman, interviewed by Amnesty whose husband was detained trying to reach Italy, said: “We live without hope as the days go past … All I want is to have my husband back. We want to be settled in any country where we can be safe … [or a] way to leave Egypt so that we don’t have to use the sea. We cannot live here anymore.”

Amnesty International’s Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights Sherif Elsayed Ali said:

'The Egyptian authorities have a duty to provide protection to anyone who has fled the conflict in Syria and is seeking safe refuge in their country. At present Egypt is failing abysmally to meet its international obligations to protect even the most vulnerable refugees.

'Instead of offering vital help and support to refugees from Syria, the Egyptian authorities are arresting and deporting them, flouting human rights standards. Most refugees lost their homes and livelihoods when they fled Syria. Failing to help and protect them is a stain on the reputation of Egypt and could seriously damage its image as a key stakeholder in the region.

'Sending refugees back to a bloody conflict zone is a serious violation of international law. Refugees who have fled are at an obvious risk of human rights abuses.

'Egypt should be helping Syrians get back on their feet, not hindering them at every turn.'


Detention or deportation

Detained refugees face a choice between accepting deportation to another country or prolonged and unlawful detention. Most of those deported are sent to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey - countries that host the largest refugee populations from Syria - though there have been cases of people being forced back to Syria.

Lawyers told Amnesty that in at least two instances refugees were collectively deported back to Damascus. Most recently a group of 36 mostly Palestinian refugees from Syria were deported to Damascus on 4 October. On arrival many are believed to have been detained at the Palestine Branch of Syrian Military Intelligence in Damascus.


Political scapegoating in Egypt

Syrian and Palestinian refugees have been accused by the Egyptian authorities of being supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and being complicit in political violence in Egypt following the deposition of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July. They face deep stigma and have been subjected to xenophobic attacks in the media.

In recent months, the Egyptian authorities have also imposed new restrictions on Syrian nationals entering Egypt, requiring them to obtain visas and security clearance before they arrive. Amnesty calls upon Egypt - and all countries in the region - to keep their borders open to those fleeing the conflict and upon the international community to increase the opportunities for vulnerable refugees to be resettled outside the region.

Read the full report: 'Egypt - We cannot live here anymore'

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