Syrian, Palestinian Refugees on Hunger Strike to Protest Arbitrary Detention by Egypt

This article is published in Middle East Monitor.

56 Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees are on an open hunger strike in protest of over 100 days of detention without charge in Karmouz police station in Alexandria, Egypt, according to reports by the Center for Refugee Solidarity (CRS), an independent Sweden-based organization devoted to monitoring refugee rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

74 refugees are being detained in Karmouz police station. The majority of them are Syrian and Palestinian-Syrians who had fled Turkey by boat on 23 October, in hopes of seeking refuge in Europe. In early November, the refugees found themselves stranded on Nelson Island, in Abu Qir Bay, where they were arrested by Egyptian coast guards. The government’s Public Prosecutor ordered the release of the detained refugees on 5 November. Egypt’s Homeland Security instead issued orders for their deportation.

At least 15 women and 15 minors, seven under the age of 10 and one only 10 months old, are among those detained, according to CRS. The center states that this ongoing detention of minors violates both Egyptian law and the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty.

The refugees have been on hunger strike since 9 February 2015. In addition to demanding to be released, they have criticized what they call “inhumane treatment” at the hands of Egyptian authorities. Amnesty International has reported that the “refugees are being detained in poor conditions with some held in rooms infested with cockroaches, mosquitos and mice.”

“At Grave Risk”

“By unlawfully detaining dozens of refugees and issuing them with deportation orders the Egyptian authorities have displayed a shocking level of indifference to their suffering,” Amnesty International Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba hadj Sahraoui said in November 2014.

“These are people who have had their lives devastated by the conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The Egyptian authorities are cruelly flouting their international obligations and Egypt’s constitution to offer protection and sanctuary to those seeking refuge in their country,” Sahraoui added.

CRS insists that the “lives of the hunger strikers will be put at grave risk if the Egyptian authorities continue to arbitrarily detain them.” Executive Director Nader G. Attar warns that “forcibly returning refugees and asylum seekers puts them at high risk of persecution. Egypt is therefore in breach of several international instruments, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement in particular.”

The center calls upon Egyptian authorities to release all refugees held without charges, drop the threats of deportation and honor the Public Prosecutor’s release orders, repeal its strict visa restrictions for Syrian refugees, and allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to carry out its protection mandate.

Nowhere to Go

Egypt has detained thousands of Syrian refugees, including scores of children, without trial. Many of these refugees have lost loved ones in attempts to seek refuge in Europe, as neighboring countries, already flooded with refugees, have clamped down on immigration. There are almost four million Syrian refugees officially registered with the UN, although the actual number of Syrian refugees (externally and internally displaced) is estimated to be eight or nine million.

In 2014, Egypt deported hundreds of Syrian refugees. Many were forced to go back to Syria, a country in the midst of a bloody civil war that, going into its fourth year, has left over 210,000 dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian refugees who face deportation say that, if they are faced to go back to Syria, they will die. One of such refugees told The Guardian that Egypt is not the only party to blame for the suffering. “It’s also the fault of the western governments—the Swedes, the British—who said they would help us, and encouraged us to make these journeys,” Mahmoud remarked.

Amnesty International has echoed this criticism. Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights, indicates that 95% of Syrian refugees have been taken in by just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The rest of the world has only offered 1.7% of the millions of refugees asylum. From the time the war broke out in 2011 to 13 February 2015, the US had only admitted 524 Syrian refugees.

“Out of Control” Refugee Crisis

According to UNHCR, more than 200,000 refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek sanctuary in Europe were rescued in 2014. Approximately 3,500 died.

Since 2000, over 22,000 asylum-seekers have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Most of these refugees flee war, violence, and extreme poverty in Syria, Libya, Gaza, and Egypt. In just five days in early 2015, over 4,200 refugees were rescued. UNHCR warns that the humanitarian crisis is “out of control.”