A Syrian-Palestinian refugee in Egypt: ‘If I go back to Syria I will die’

Mahmoud fled Syria with his 12-year-old son and lost his mother and brother when the boat that was carrying them sank in the Mediterranean. But worse was to come

For Mahmoud, a Syrian-Palestinian civil servant from the fringes of Damascus, the injustice did not stop after his 12-year-old son was maimed during the Syrian civil war. It did not stop when they fled Syria for Egypt, nor when Egyptian xenophobia forced them to try to reach Europe by boat, nor when the boat sank in the Mediterranean, drowning Mahmoud’s mother and brother, nor even when Egyptian coastguards refused to rescue them. For Mahmoud, the ultimate injustice came when he and his son were jailed for three months on their bedraggled return to Egyptian shores for trying to leave the country illegally.

Mahmoud is one of more than 1,400 Syrian refugees detained without trial in police cells along Egypt’s northern coast in recent months, including more than 50 children, after being arrested trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in October. At least 35 were arrested trying to make the crossing earlier this month.

Though 200 of the former detainees were granted three-month residencies in December, the vast majority of those released were let out on condition they left Egypt altogether. For Syrians of Palestinian origin, this has usually involved returning to Syria itself.

According to the UN’s terms – which state that all those fleeing Syria should be granted asylum by subsequent host countries – the Syrians’ months-long incarceration violated their rights as refugees. It also contravened Egyptian prosecutors’ orders, given soon after they were detained, that they should be released. Those held included a now five-month-old baby who has spent more time in jail than at liberty.

The refugees’ imprisonment began after they tried to sail to Italy from Alexandria, a port city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. About 5,000 Syrians have successfully made the journey, according to the UN. But up to 1,500 were arrested after their vessels were stopped – and in one instance shot at – by Egyptian coastguards, or sank. “We were about five hours into the journey when the captain started yelling at us that the boat was going down,” said Mahmoud, who was on a boat that sank on 11 October. “We said: ‘Call the coastguard.’ He said he had, but they didn’t reply. If the guards rescued us, there would be questions about how we had reached this point and people would know they had been bribed by the smuggler to let us pass.”

The boat’s 150-odd passengers spent several hours bobbing in the water and at least 12 drowned, including Mahmoud’s mother and brother. His 12-year-old son – who was maimed by an explosion in Syria and has large scars across his stomach and groin – survived.

“In the water, you could hear sounds, but you couldn’t see anything, so I could just hear people’s screams,” said Omar, a Syrian-Palestinian literature student. “My friend rescued a little girl but she was already dead.”

The group were finally picked up by fishermen after one of Mahmoud’s friends – Samer – swam to the Alexandrian shore to sound the alarm. “There the coastguards said: ‘It’s not on our hands,'” said Mahmoud. “So the fishermen had to rescue us themselves, in two boats. They took the live ones, but left the corpses in the water, because they were too scared, and said it was the job of security officials.”

On reaching the shore, the Syrians were taken to a naval base and then to at least three police stations in Alexandria.

The Guardian conducted interviews with several of those who were detained at Karmouz police station, in a working-class suburb of Alexandria, before finally being given three-month visas in December. Many may have to leave the country for Lebanon or Syria once their visa expires.

Conditions at Karmouz were marginally better than at the other stations, where activists report that Syrians were beaten by other prisoners, and where up to 80 detainees were kept in cells measuring 2.5 metres by eight metres. One detained Syrian woman was suffering from an untreated tumour while another had a broken leg, according to doctors from the Refugee Solidarity Movement, an Alexandria-based group campaigning on the Syrians’ behalf.

At Karmouz, a newly built station, the refugees were kept in larger and cleaner cells. But the adults were never allowed to go outside, while visiting officials taunted them with threats to deport them back to Syria. “They told me when they deliver me to Bashar [al-Assad, Syria’s president], they will get a reward,” said Omar. The 23-year-old also alleged that he lost $3,000 (£1,800) in a bag he had been carrying during the boat disaster. Naval officers returned his passport in the bag but not the money, he claimed. Others said they had been robbed by the smugglers after paying $3,200 each to get on board.

The detainees and their lawyers said their detention was illegal because they were refugees, and 20 of the 41 inside Karmouz already had residency papers. They also showed the Guardian official paperwork proving Egyptian prosecutors had ordered many of them to be released – orders vetoed by Egypt’s police force.

A spokesman for Egypt’s government said their detention was justified because they had tried to leave Egypt illegally. “That’s a crime according to Egyptian law, so according to the ministry of interior they should be detained,” said Badr Abdelatty, who said Egypt had a better record of welcoming refugees than nearby countries. “We don’t have detention camps or refugee camps like other countries. There are a few with problems, but we’re doing our best to improve the standard of the detention and we call on the international community to offer development assistance or to open their borders.”

Nevertheless, since July’s removal of ex-president Mohamed Morsi, Syrian refugees elsewhere in Egypt have borne the brunt of a wave of xenophobia. Syrians have been threatened with hate speech by Egyptian television hosts. Many report an increase in xenophobic street harassment and others greater job insecurity, which explains why some are so keen to leave.

Abdelatty denied Egypt had deported any jailed refugees back to Syria, saying they returned of their own accord. But detainees and campaigners say Syria is simply the only alternative to jail for Syrian-Palestinian prisoners.

While most Syrian-Palestinians have never been to Palestine, they are denied Syrian passports because of their Palestinian heritage, which means that unlike native Syrian refugees they cannot seek refuge in Turkey. Their only other options are Syria or Lebanon, where visa restrictions allow them just two days before they must return to Syria.

For those in Karmouz, return is unthinkable. “If I go back to Syria I will die,” said Mahmoud. “Because I left the government, they will say I abandoned them. That I’m a traitor. Besides, nothing is left in Syria – our houses in Yarmouk [a Syrian-Palestinian refugee settlement near Damascus] were destroyed.”

But Mahmoud was adamant western countries should share the blame for their predicament. “Don’t put this all on the Egyptian government,” he said. “It’s also the fault of the western governments – the Swedes, the British – who said they would help us, and encouraged us to make these journeys. They say they want to end the war, but they just send weapons instead of giving us asylum.”

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