Syrian refugees in Egypt ©Amnesty International
Egypt unlawfully detains hundreds of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in police stations in and around Alexandria. Conditions are overcrowded and dirty.

“In Egypt, Syrians in detention are forced to sign declarations indicating that they are willing to leave the country voluntarily and then buy their own tickets to return to Syria”

In a report published earlier this month, Amnesty International illustrated how people who have fled the conflict in Syria are now fleeing discrimination and human rights violations in Egypt. Many see no option but to risk their lives on the Mediterranean in the hope of finding safety in Europe. Over 3,000 refugees managed to make it to Italy since August 2013, according to UNHCR, with more perishing during the dangerous crossing. 

The ECRE Weekly Bulletin has talked to Hesham Issa, Country Director of AMERA Egypt, a leading refugee rights organisation providing legal aid and psychosocial support services to refugees about the situation of Syrian refugees and other persons in need of protection in Egypt and about why Syrians are increasingly feeling compelled to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in order to seek protection in Europe. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians currently live in urban areas across Egypt, out of which more than one third has been registered with UNHCR.

What has changed for Syrians in Egypt?

Since the Syrian crisis started two and a half years ago and until 30 June, Syrians were very welcome in Egypt; there were no visa restrictions at that time and the refugees felt very welcomed by the host community and Egyptians in general. Many of them settled down, opened businesses or shared small businesses with Egyptians and had free access to public education and health care.

Syrians and Egyptians share the same culture and are alike in many respects. Syrians also preferred to come to Egypt because of the relatively low cost of living compared to other countries in the region, such as Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.

Before 30 June, Syrian refugees were considered to have preferential treatment, because they were welcomed by the Egyptian society as well as by the government. Former president Morsi had issued presidential decrees to grant them access to Egyptian schools and also to primary free health care. Non-Syrian refugees were not very happy about this preferential treatment and the issue was raised with UNHCR at that time that other refugees should also be treated in a good way like Syrians are treated.

Since 30 June, however, the situation has changed drastically in terms of the treatment of Syrians, mainly for political reasons. Syrians are now considered by the Egyptian authorities and by the interim government as supporters of the former regime of president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“Since 30 June, the treatment of Syrians in Egypt has changed drastically”

In early July 2013, the government issued visa restrictions, meaning that Syrians were not allowed to enter the country without having a pre-issued visa. However, Syrians were not informed about this in advance and many flights which came from Damascus and Latakia at that time were returned to Syria. Passengers were not even allowed to leave the planes. It is not easy to obtain a visa because it requires a security clearance and the Egyptian embassy in Damascus does not have the capacity to issue a high number of visas. Many people were turned down and had to return to where they came from.

Now, Syrians risk being arbitrarily detained if they are not carrying any ID or passport or the protection documents if they are registered with UNHCR. We have noticed a large number of people are arbitrarily detained. It is even very frequent that large groups of people are stopped, searched and detained at the same time. This has happened especially after the imposition of the curfew since July.

“Since July, Syrians are not allowed to enter Egypt without having a pre-issued visa”

Lately, we have also found that there are many cases of forced deportation for people who may have not committed any criminal offenses. Many are returned to Syria or third countries in the region such as Lebanon and Turkey.  One of the policies the government is using now is to detain Syrians and force them to sign declarations saying that they are willing to leave the country and make them buy their own tickets. We refer to this as “self-deportation”.

In addition, we have also witnessed a change in the way Syrians are treated by the host community. There is more abusive language against them and we have heard of landlords increasing their rents for Syrians and cases of house evictions.

Is the media playing a role regarding attitudes towards Syrian refugees?

The difficult living conditions, arbitrary detention and deportation faced by Syrians are not on  the list of priorities of Egypt’s media at the moment. The press is more interested in the issue of ‘illegal’ migration and boats being intercepted by the coast guards.

What reservations does Egypt have in relation to the Refugee Convention and how do they affect asylum seekers in the country?

Egypt has reservations on four of the five articles of Chapter 4 of the Refugee Convention. All support and assistance given to refugees in Egypt has to be done by UNHCR and its implementing partners. Only a small fraction of the total population of people seeking protection is entitled to financial aid or assistance from UNHCR. People whose claim have been rejected and people who have not registered with UNHCR are not entitled to any services.

Furthermore, refugees, with the exception of some groups such as the Sudanese, are not allowed to work. The process to issue a work permit is very difficult and most asylum seekers and refugees have to work in the informal sector.

According to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Egyptian government and UNHCR, it is the UN Refugee Agency, and not the State, which conducts refugee status determination.

“Because of the difficulty of applying for a visa and going through legal channels, many Syrians have decided to take the risk and make the journey by boat in the Mediterranean”

Some weeks ago, the Egyptian coast guard opened fire on a group of Syrian refugees trying to leave Egypt by boat, killing two people. How could something like this happen?

The issue of irregular migration is going on for years but what we have been observing recently is an increase in the numbers of Syrians trying to leave in an irregular manner to reach Europe, particularly to go to European countries such as Sweden, Germany or Austria.  Because of the difficulty of applying for a visa and going through legal channels, many have decided to take the risk and make the journey by boat in the Mediterranean. Since July we have seen many people attempting to leave the country irregularly.

One month ago, a boat with around 250 people on board was intercepted by the Egyptian coast guards within Egyptian waters. According to the coast guards, they asked the boat to stop because they thought that it was carrying arms and drugs. When the boat did not stop and did not obey the instructions, the guards started shooting and two people were killed. This was not the first incident of a boat being intercepted but it was very tragic because the coast guards opened fire. This is the coast guards’ version, but of course they knew that these were migrants and they were intending to leave the country, because they saw the women and children on board. It is not clear what happened exactly and what triggered the coast guards to shoot at them. Some of these people have already been released but others are still in detention.

There are many cases of Syrians and Palestinian Syrians in detention. In recent weeks, another boat was intercepted by Egyptian authorities carrying 94 people on board, namely Syrians and Palestinians, as well as Egyptians. They were all detained. Migrants on their way to coastal cities or to Alexandria are also routinely detained for allegedly attempting to leave the country irregularly, although there is no proof or evidence that they were planning to do this. There is no justification for such detention to be taking place.

“Migrants on their way to coastal cities are routinely detained for allegedly attempting to leave Egypt irregularly”

What can the EU and European governments do to help the situation of refugees from Syria?

There are many things which need to be done. There should be a political solution to this crisis and the EU could play a role in this context.

From the humanitarian side, the EU should open its borders to Syrian refugees and be clear and specific about eligibility criteria European countries consider for resettlement or family reunification cases or chronic diseases. There should be more consideration for vulnerable cases, such as children and women at risk. The EU should do more in terms of sharing responsibility with other countries at the south of the Mediterranean which are hosting most Syrian refugees, namely Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

“The EU should open its borders to Syrian refugees and be clear about eligibility criteria European countries consider for resettlement or family reunification cases or chronic diseases”



This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 08 November 2013
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