In limbo: Refugees held for months at Alexandria police station

Zeinab El-Gundy , Thursday 19 Mar 2015

At least 74 Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees have been detained for over 100 days at Karmooz police station

A photo from inside Karmooz police station showing the refugees in the men's cell (Photo: Karmooz Refugees Facebook page)

For more than 100 days a group of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees have been detained at Karmooz police station in Alexandria.

Dozens of them have been on a hunger strike for more than 20 days demanding their release while their fate remains in limbo.

The story of 74 of the refugees started in late October 2014 when they decided travel to Italy illegally from Turkey.  

"We paid $6,000 each to go to Europe from Turkey by sea, there were nearly 104 passengers from Syria and Palestine on a small ship," a detained Palestinian-Syrian refugee called Mohamed told Ahram Online by phone.

Mohamed recounted how things turned ugly when a fight broke out with the smugglers during the journey.  

"The smugglers decided to leave us stranded and we agreed for the sake of our safety to be left on Nelson Island near Alexandria. A guy with us had a mobile phone and he called the Egyptian police who told the coast guard to rescue us on 1 November 2014," he said. 

Nelson Island is 4km north of the Abu Qir district of Alexandria. The security forces detained the refugees at Karmooz police station where men and women have been placed in two separate cells.  

On 5 November 2014, the prosecutor general issued a decision to release all the refugees. But days later the National Security Apparatus ordered all the refugees to be detained until they are deported.

"Already 30 Syrian refugees who had passports have been deported back to Turkey but the rest of us are stuck here," Mohamed said. 

There are 16 Syrian refugees, including 14 men and two children—a boy of 13 and a girl of 8— who have no travel documents, and only one of them is officially registered as a refugee with the UNHCR.  

The 58 detained Palestinian-Syrian refugees have travel documents and are registered by UNRWA as refugees.  

However, as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has no official office in Egypt, things are complicated for the Palestinians. In previous similar incidents the Egyptian authorities have deported Palestinian-Syrians to Lebanon and from there to Syria.

"So far no country has agreed to host us," Mohamed told Ahram Online.  

In an attempt to create pressure at least 50 detainees started a hunger strike in February.

 "A group of us started a hunger strike in February but many of them stopped for health reasons," Mohamed said, adding that there are still a few refugees continuing the strike.   

From its side the UNHCR issued an official statement expressing concern at the "prolonged detention" of the refugees.  

"UNHCR continues to advocate with the Government for the release of the entire group who have now been in detention for more than four months," the UN agency said in a recent statement.  

Four years after the start of the Syrian revolution, there currently 136,661 Syrian refugees in Egypt registered with the UNHCR, out of at least 300,000 refugees in the country, according to official Egyptian estimates.  

The UNHCR, and its partners from NGOs like Caritas Egypt, are helping the detained refugees. 

Earlier this week, 15 NGOs and human rights organisations called on the Egyptian authorities to release all the detained refugees, to allow the UNHCR to extend its role in Egypt to include the Palestinian refugees, and to lift all visa requirements for Syrians. 

Among the NGOs that signed the statement are the Nadeem Centre, the Swedish Centre for Refugee Solidarity and the British International Refugee Rights Initiative.

One Somali refugee has been detained in Alexandria since August 2014.  Registered with the UNHCR, Ali, 22, left his war-torn country in 2007 in an attempt to migrate to Europe.  

Arrested for illegal migration twice before, Ali was detained at Karmooz police station after a failed attempt to migrate to Europe through Alexandria in August 2013.

Just like those refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, Ali's fate is in limbo.

"People treat us well in the police station," Mohamed said.

Recently sick refugees were temporarily transferred to hospital for treatment. 

"There are toddlers among us, they should not be in the prison in the first place," Mohamed told Ahram Online. 

Up until now these refugees do not know their fate and are still waiting for a country to accept them. 

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