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

US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysia’s upgrade seen as removing barrier to country’s participation in the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership More

Turkey, US Try to Establish Buffer Despite Differences

Coalition airstrikes in proposed zone would aim to drive out Islamic extremists, allowing targeted area to come under sway of anti-Assad rebels More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs