Between deportation and public rejection, Syrian refugees suffer in Egypt

Zeinab El Gundy, Monday 2 Sep 2013

Syrian refugees in Egypt, already displaced by civil war, have recently faced general media vilification, accusing them of being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, activists say unjustly

A protester holds the Syrian revolutionary flag in front of police in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Some 88 Syrian refugees, including 25 children, are waiting to be deported to other countries after being detained in Alexandria.

The refugees detained are accused of attempting to emigrate illegally from Egypt. "They were deceived by someone in Alexandria who took money from them and convinced that they can emigrate from Egypt to Italy," said Safia Serry, an activist from Alexandria who is following the Syrian refugees file in the city.

Last Friday, Italian authorities reported that a boat carrying 140 asylum seekers from Egypt and Syria landed in Sicily, Italy.

"The 88 Syrian refugees will be deported soon to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Malaysia or even Syria," Serry told Ahram Online. "They are deported based on the recommendation of the internal security, despite that they were to be released by the order of general prosecution," Serry said.

Earlier this month, 48 Syrians, including 15 children, were detained in Alexandria on the same charge and later deported to Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. “There were two groups of Syrians: the one that departed Egypt earlier this month and the other one that is being deported [now],” said human rights lawyer Mahinour El-Masry, who is also following the refugees case in Alexandria.

“There is a group of 35 Syrians that have been deported to Syria that should have arrived there. We are worried about their safety, considering the situation there,” El-Masry told Ahram Online, adding that there was another group waiting to be deported to Lebanon as well as Turkey.

According to Serry and El-Masry, the Syrian refugees in custody are suffering extremely poor conditions as they were detained in narrow areas in Dekhila and El-Gomrok police stations. “Things even got worse for the Syrian refugees after the escape of nine refugees from El-Gomrok police station a couple of days ago,” El-Masry told Ahram Online.

“There are many children that contracted skin diseases and there is no medical care. Only activists are trying to help the refugees, insofar as they can,” she added.

Serry adds that some of the Syrians detained in Alexandria received official refugee refugee IDs. "Many of those Syrian refugees got yellow IDs as refugees registered with UNHCR, while Palestinians who used to live in Syria and that came to Egypt as refugees got white IDs," Serry told Ahram Online.

"Things are harder for the Palestinians who do not have money as they have no passports, only limited travel documents," Serry said, adding that deported Palestinians have no option but to return to Syria.

According to El-Masry, the Syrian National Coalition — the main Syrian opposition umbrella — as well individuals and activists in Alexandria are helping the refugees buy tickets to new destinations.

Syrians face harsh times in post-30 June Egypt

Since 30 June, Syrian refugees have been facing accusations from media in Egypt of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, especially that some Syrian songs and chants, as well Syrian independence flags, were witnessed in the pro-Morsi Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in dispersed by force 14 August.

Several media figures like Youssef El-Hossainy and Mohamed El-Ghaity — as well as Tawfik Okasha, who asked viewers directly to attack Palestinians and Syrians in Egypt — have frequently attacked the Syrians on their TV shows, portraying them not only as supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, but as trying to destabilise the country and transfer the Syrian experience to Egypt.

Even among Egyptian political figures the die is cast against Syrian refugees. Mostafa El-Gundy, a leading member of the Constitution Party, called on the Egyptian people in July to kill any Syrian or Palestinian on the spot if caught at any major checkpoint after the ousting of Morsi. Rumours spread at the time of the Rabaa sit-in alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood were hiring Syrians to participate in their rallies and that Syrian women were offered as brides in Rabaa.

“I do not understand why media figures go and attack Syrian refugees in this way, but I know very well that the Syrian community paid a high price. The Syrians have nothing to do with whatever is happening in Egypt, from near or far,” said Syrian human rights activist Rassem Al-Atassi.

The media campaigns led to pronounced xenophobia in some areas in Egypt against Syrians. Some Syrian refugees have reported being attacked and harassed by angry citizens in Alexandria and 6th of October City. Some Syrian owned shops and small restaurants in 6th of October City area, where there is a large Syrian community since two years, have also been targeted.

“These campaigns affected normal Egyptians who were once welcoming Syrians in Egypt as brothers. They turned against Syrians 180 degrees,” said Al-Atassi.

“Personally, despite that I am an old man, I am met with looks of suspicion if I go to a popular cafe and speak in a Syrian accent,” the Syrian activist said.

“Sometimes taxi drivers and bus drivers refuse to take young Syrian men or even drop them in the middle of the way if they hear their accent."

Some Syrian families have been forced to leave apartments they rented as owners refuse to have Syrians as tenants after the media campaign, said Al-Atassi.

“Families are scared to send their children to buy anything from the street. They now fear to speak in Syrian accent for fear of being spotted and attacked in the street,” another Syrian activist in Egypt told Ahram Online, preferring to remain anonymous out of concerns for safety.

“I know a man who was attacked and stabbed by an angry mob just because he is Syrian. This man is a father who lost a child and a wife in the war and came to Egypt searching for safety for the rest of his family,” said the activist.

An uneasy future

Nonetheless, there could be signs of hope as the media campaign against Syrians in Egypt began to fade, at least a bit. “The anti-Syrian campaign is not quite as intense in these current days, but still we need some sort of counter campaign to restore the friendly and welcoming relations that existed between the Egyptian people and Syrians,” said El-Atassi.

The negative media campaign also was accompanied with a security-based campaign to arrest Syrian at checkpoints in recent weeks. According to UNHCR, not less 200 Syrians have been arrested in the past few weeks, mostly for not having a residency permit or failing to ensure that their permits were transferred to their UNHCR registration cards.

Some of those Syrian detainees were released and continue to stay in Egypt while some of were deported back to Syria. Others were deported to a third country.

“Some of those deported to Syria are actually children and teenagers. To deport them to Syria in this time like an execution order,” said the Syrian activist who requested anonymity.

The UN and UNHCR, as well human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, spoke to and warned the Egyptian government on arbitrary arrests of Syrians, as well on the new visa and security clearance requirements for Syrians to enter Egypt. Despite that Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy announced that Syrians would not need a visa to enter Egypt, security clearance is mandatory.

According to Syrian activists in Egypt, very few Syrian refugees are granted security clearance and allowed to enter to the country. The majority of refugees are denied entrance. “Some families are split between Egypt and other countries because of the security clearance issue. Some Syrian students who are studying in Egyptian universities and travelled in the summer vacation cannot return because they are not granted security clearance from Egyptian embassies,” said El-Atassi.

In mid-August 2013, the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt registered with the UNHCR was 80,000, while over 20,000 had appointments with the agency to register as refugees.

“Egyptians should know that we will not stay forever in Egypt. In fact, if we were able to return back to Syria tomorrow, safely and away from the fighting, we would return immediately,” said El-Atassi, expressing hope that Egyptians would revive erstwhile brotherly relations with Syrians, especially as their country edges towards facing international military intervention.

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