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 As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.