News / Middle East

Surviving 'Death Boat', Syria Palestinians Locked Up in Egypt

Syrian refugees wait to register their names after their arrival at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, March 6, 2013.
Syrian refugees wait to register their names after their arrival at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, March 6, 2013.
Reuters
— After escaping shelling in Damascus and terrifying bloodshed at sea, 14 month-old Palestinian twin girls are now among hundreds of people living in limbo in grimy Egyptian police stations, with no end in sight to their plight.

Of the 2 million people who fled Syria's civil war, none may have it worse than Palestinians, who have known no other home than Syria but do not have Syrian citizenship and have therefore been denied even the basic rights secured for other refugees.

The United Nations says the Egyptian government has refused it permission to register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them to settle. As a result, hundreds of Palestinians civilians have ended up detained in police stations, with no place else to go.

The twins' family fled Syria after their house was nearly hit by shelling. But when they arrived in Egypt they were denied permission to work or to receive refugee benefits. After five months, with no other way of obtaining a living, they attempted to leave Egypt for Italy.

They were captured at sea on Sept. 17 by the Egyptian navy, which fired on the overloaded rickety craft, the mother of the twins said. She held her daughters tight as bullets flew by. At least one person was hit and the boat was filled with blood and flying shrapnel.

“The children were traumatized,” she said. “I was holding my daughter hunched down. The bullets were coming.... There was so much screaming... There was so much blood....”

If the family were Syrian citizens, once detained they would most likely have been permitted to leave Egypt for refugee camps in other countries in the region, says Human Rights Watch.

But because they are Palestinians they have been given no other option but to camp out in a police station indefinitely, or somehow make their way back to the war zone in Syria.

Turkey and Jordan will not accept Palestinians from Syria and Lebanon will only allow them to pass through for 48 hours.

So they live at the four story police station in Alexandria, where cold winter wind blows in from the sea and families of Palestinians sleep on blankets on cement floors.

“The most distressing thing is that these people are only in jail after they tried the most desperate thing they could, which is to get on one of these death boats,” said Tamara Alrifai of Human Rights Watch. “The fact that they were willing to take the risk with children sometimes only as old as one month shows how desperate they were.”

They receive one meal a day from an aid group. Many pass idle days praying. The sounds of children crying echo through the drafty chambers.

All those who spoke to Reuters asked that their names not be used to prevent reprisals by the police.

“The conditions are not good for young children,” one detainee said. “It is inhumane to keep them here.”

Options

Egypt once seemed like the best option for those escaping Syria's civil war. President Mohamed Morsi had welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms. But after the army ousted him in July, public sentiment quickly turned against Syrians, who were accused of backing Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

Among some 300,000 people who have fled Syria to Egypt are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinians, many born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, established in 1957, which was nearly destroyed by air strikes earlier this year.

The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians have never set foot in the Palestinian territories and have considered Syria their only home. But Egypt refuses to allow the United Nations refugee agency to treat them like other refugees from Syria.

“It is the view of the government of Egypt that Palestinians fall outside of UNHCR's mandate,” said Teddy Leposky, a UNHCR spokesman in Cairo. “UNHCR has therefore not been able to provide assistance or advocate effectively on behalf of Palestinian refugees in Egypt.”

Hundreds caught in Egypt without the proper documents or apprehended trying to leave for other countries have been detained indefinitely without criminal charge, say lawyers representing them.

“[Prosecutors] have ordered them released, but national security has ordered them detained until they are deported,” said Mahmoud Belal of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

The Egyptian authorities say the Palestinians at police stations are being detained for immigration violations: “Anyone who enters or exits the country outside the law will have it implemented against him,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif. “The police are implementing the prosecutor's orders.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty acknowledged that detaining children in police stations indefinitely was not a good solution, but said the government did not have resources for “rehabilitation centers” to accommodate such cases.

Running from death

Those being held are so desperate that they cling to rumors. Recently, detainees in several police stations heard that Sweden had announced it would resettle 200 Palestinian Syrians currently detained in Egypt.

“You can't imagine the joy we felt when we heard that,” a 52-year-old detained in Alexandria said before being informed there was no such plan.

Despite the hardship, many said going back to Syria would be even worse than remaining camped out in detention.

“I cannot travel anywhere except for Syria, where there is death and destruction,” said a man in his thirties arrested trying to flee Egypt by boat to Europe. He said he was from Ghouta, the neighborhood where a Sarin gas attack killed hundreds of people in September.

For those Palestinians from Syria who have not been detained, life in Egypt is still full of uncertainty. They live in fear that they will be stopped by the police without the proper documents, unable to seek protection from the Syrian embassy, the United Nations or the Egyptian authorities.

Wessim, 37, fled the Yarmouk camp in Damascus and now lives in a cramped apartment with his family in Alexandria. He too wants to leave Egypt.

“I would have tried [to leave by boat] if I had the money,” he said, sitting with his five-year-old son at a cafe near the perfume shop where he is working for free for a relative in exchange for being allowed to stay in his flat.

The mother of the twin girls at the police station said she had no regrets over attempting to flee Egypt, despite the trauma her family experienced at sea and the hardship of being held in detention ever since.

“We were running away from death,” said the mother. “We said to ourselves, 'We might die anyway', but at least we had some hope for something when we got on the boat.”

You May Like

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

Analysts say move by President Xi is an effort to win more party support, take step toward economic reforms, removing those who would stand in way of change More

South Africa Land Reforms Still Contentious 20 Years Later

Activists argue that the pace of land reform is slow and biased; legal experts question how some proposed reforms would be implemented More

In Vietnam, Religious Freedoms Violated, UN Finds

Beliefs reportedly prompt heavy surveillance, intimidation and travel restrictions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid