“THERE is no humanity,” says Abu Firas, a Palestinian refugee from Syria talking by phone from a police station in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. “We are asking for a safe and secure place to bring up our children, away from war.” Sadly, the likelihood of that looks very slim.
Abu Firas is one of around 200 refugees still languishing in Egyptian police stations after failing to make the perilous journey by boat from Alexandria to Europe. The Egyptian authorities consider this a violation of a law that people must have proper papers for entry and exit. An order by the prosecutor to release them has gone unheeded. Lawyers say there is no legal basis for holding them.
Human-rights organisations and Syrian refugees criticise Egypt’s government for mistreating them. On November 22nd some of the 52 refugees in Montaza II police station started a hunger strike. Some of the detainees were on a boat in September that was shot at by the Egyptian coastguard, killing two. Taher Mokhtar, a doctor who visits those being held, says many are suffering from ailments that need treatment.
The problem for those inside is that if they leave, they will be deported (often at their own cost) and choices are few and far between. Syrians can go only to Lebanon, Jordan or back to Syria without requesting a visa in advance.
Palestinians, many of whom were born and lived their whole lives in Syria, have slimmer pickings. They have no legal status in Egypt since the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is not allowed to register them because a separate UN agency exists for the Palestinians. They are not welcomed by the West Bank or Gaza. Only Lebanon grants them visas, and then for 48-hours only, meaning most end up going back to Syria and back to the war. Human-rights organisations in Egypt say 1,500 Syrians have been deported so far. Campaigners are working to convince the government let them stay.
Until the coup in July against former president Muhammed Morsi, Syrians found Egypt more hospitable than other countries. It is much cheaper. But rumour after the coup, whipped up by official media, that Syrians supported the ousted Muslim Brotherhood soon led to a change in attitude both from officials and many Egyptians. Visas to enter the country must now be requested in advance. Syrians report an increase in harassment. So more Syrians attempted to leave by boat, with often fatal consequences.
Egypt is not the only country to blame for the sorry state of affairs. The UNHCR says it has registered 2.26m Syrians as refugees. They are concentrated in a small number of countries in the region. Western countries have so far agreed to take 10,000 Syrians for resettlement. Britain is not among them. Nor are countries such as Saudi Arabia which are involved in the now-proxy war.
Again, the Syrian Palestinians fare worse. They are not eligible for resettlement since that might compromise the Palestinians right to return, a matter to be negotiated in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “They are the world’s unwanted people,” says Mahienour el-Massry, a rights campaigner in Alexandria who is fighting for the refugees’ rights.