Driven out of Egypt

The Egyptian authorities are taking a very heavy-handed line against refugees from the Syrian civil war. Amnesty International says Cairo is forcing those who have fled the violence and entered Egypt to leave the country again, thereby pushing them into a highly uncertain future. Andreas Gorzewski reports

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Andreas Gorzewski

For Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war, Egypt was meant to provide safe refuge. Now, demonized by locals and sometimes arrested indefinitely by Egyptian police, many have said they no longer feel safe in the country, according to Amnesty International.

In its new report, the human rights organization documented numerous instances of arbitrary detention by Egyptian authorities of Syrian refugees. Egypt, the organization said, is failing in its obligation to protect the roughly 120,000 Syrian refugees within its borders. Unofficially, Cairo puts that number at roughly 250,000. The country of 85 million, however, has still taken on far fewer refugees than other countries in the region.

In mid-September, when roughly 200 refugees attempted to flee conditions in Egypt by setting sail from the coastal city of Alexandria toward Italy, they didn't make it far. According to eyewitnesses quoted in Amnesty International's report, an Egyptian navy ship stopped the boat and fired upon it, killing two. The others on board were taken into custody.

On the same day, police in Alexandria arrested 70 refugees in an Alexandria café. Authorities accused them of illegally entering the country.

Children detained

Hundreds of Syrians now sit in prison cells along the Mediterranean coast, said Sharif Elsayed Ali, director of Amnesty International's department for refugee rights.

From the frying pan into the fire? Syrian refugees in Egypt often face illegal detention or deportation, according to a report recently released by Amnesty International

"Although their release was ordered by [Egypt's] prosecution, they have been in detention for weeks," he said. "They include families and children as young as one year old."

Egypt has not given an official justification for the indefinite detentions. Many tried to enter Egypt by sea, Ali said, adding that the rationale behind the recent move could be an attempt to put pressure on Syrians and to force them to sign deportation papers. Hundreds of them, the rights expert said, have been flown out of Egypt to countries like Lebanon or Turkey.

"We also know that there have been two incidences that have been reported where two groups of up to 71 people [in total] have been forced to go back to Damascus," he said. Those Syrians have been returned, in other words, to the war they once fled, a violation of international law.

In addition to police harassment, many Egyptians want the Syrian arrivals out of their country as well. Syrian refugees are considered default supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the political party of former President Mohammed Morsi, who was deposed by Egypt's military in July.

"This created a lot of paranoia and ill will and anti-Syrian sentiment toward the community," said Edward Leposky, who works for the UNHCR refugee agency in Cairo.

Physical attacks and verbal abuse

Since July, Egypt's police and state prosecutors have taken aim at the Muslim Brotherhood. The media, too, has helped to stoke the anti-Islamist flames. As influential Egyptian talk-show moderator Tawfiq Okasha said to Syrian refugees: "If you sit with the Muslim Brotherhood after 48 hours, the people will come out to destroy your houses." Tawfiq added that Egyptians had the addresses of flats where Syrians were staying.

Physical attacks and verbal abuse against refugees are the result, Leposky said. Syrians have also been driven out of jobs.

Fleeing from the killing in their country's civil war, refugees from Syria are now under fire in Egypt's inner turmoil: Many Egyptians consider them to be default supporters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, now under attack by Egypt's military

That wasn't always the case in Egypt. In the past, Syrians were openly-received guests, Leposky said. Even as the first wave of refugees arrived, the government worked hard on their behalf. At that time, it was easy for Syrians to obtain residency visas. Many who had originally intended to flee to Lebanon or Jordan continued their journeys onward to Egypt.

"The environmental was favorable. It was welcoming," the UNHCR's Leposky said. "And also the cost of living in Egypt was considerably less than some of the other countries the refugees had been residing in."

"We cannot live here anymore"

Syrian refugees are no longer welcome in Egypt. It's a fact felt directly by those who have fled there, living among the locals. There are no refugee camps in Egypt, unlike Jordan or Turkey – which is also one part of the problem, according to UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards in London. Having brought little with them, refugees require accommodation and assistance.

"They do rely largely on the support of the host communities, and the aid that we and others are able to provide to them," Edwards told DW.

For Leposky, the prevailing emotions now felt by Syrian refugees in Egypt are worry, frustration and rejection.

In Amnesty International's report, a Syrian woman in Egypt whose husband remains in prison no longer views a life in Egypt as tenable. "We're ready to live in any country where we can settle safely," she said. "We cannot live here anymore."

Andreas Gorzewski

© Deutsche Welle 2013

Deutsche Welle editor: Sean Sinico / editor: Lewis Gropp