Egyptian authorities detain Syrian refugees under difficult conditions and coerce them to leave the country, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report issued Monday.
The New York-based rights group said Egypt held over 1,500 refugees from Syria, including children as young as two months old, leaving them little choice between facing detention in over-crowded local police stations, returning to their war-torn country or seeking illegal migration on smugglers’ boats to Europe.
“Egypt is leaving hundreds of Palestinians from Syria with no protection from Syria’s killing fields except indefinite detention in miserable conditions,” said Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
According to the report, in disregard of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Egyptian policy is preventing Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin from seeking protection at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, leaving them only two options: travel to Lebanon on a 48-hour transit visa, or return to Syria.
"Egypt should immediately release those being held and allow UNHCR to give them the protection they are due under international law," Stork said. Hundreds have been forced to leave back to Syria, the report details.
As refugees are either arbitrarily detained in miserable conditions or forced to leave the country, the status of Syrians in Egypt has become a growing concern for international and local rights groups.
In October, London-based human rights group Amnesty International accused Egypt of “unlawfully detaining and deporting hundreds of Syrian refugees, many of them women and children fleeing civil war at home.”
Scores of Syrians who fled their war-torn country resorted to Egypt when it did not require a visa for their entry.
However, on 8 July, immediately following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, additional legal restrictions were imposed requiring Syrian nationals entering Egypt to obtain visas and security clearance before arrival.
Legal procedures came hand in hand with growing hostility against Syrians and Palestinians after a number were alleged to be carrying weapons and appearing at pro-Morsi rallies. A growing trend in the Egyptian media began to depict them as mercenaries supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and participating in the violence that gripped the country.
The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a non-governmental legal group, has filed two lawsuits at the State Council Administrative Court against Egypt’s interim president as well the ministers of interior and foreign affairs, petitioning the court to revoke a decision to deport around 500 detained Syrian refugees whom the Egyptian public prosecutor had previously decided to release.
Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied any exceptional measures or systematic policies hostile to the 300,000 Syrians living in Egypt, but said "it was impossible to say [whether] they were subject to any kind of harassment."
Top Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials told Al-Ahram’s Arabic news website regarding the Amnesty report that legal procedures were only taken against those suspected of criminal involvement or participation in pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests.
Egyptian officials added that the state retained the right to implement the measures necessary to ensure the security and stability of the country.
"It [National Security] has instead ordered police to detain the refugees without any legal basis and to tell them that they will not be released unless they leave the country at their own expense. Under pressure, detained refugees have been departing Egypt on almost daily basis in recent weeks," Monday's HRW report stated.
"Authorities have pressured detained refugees to sign declarations saying they are voluntarily leaving the country, in effect coercing them under threat of indefinite detention," it added.
HRW called on Egyptian authorities to abide by the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture stating that the "government may not return refugees to a place where their lives or freedoms would be at risk or anyone to a place where they risk being tortured."
In its final remarks, the report demanded that all refugees held without charge are released, that their conditions abide by international standards, and that cases of arbitrary detention are investigated.
“Egypt has detained hundreds of Palestinians from Syria without charge apparently solely to push them to return to the war zone they fled,” Stork said.