Egypt has detained over 1,500 refugees from Syria, including at least 400 Palestinians and 250 children as young as two months old, for weeks and sometimes months.
Security officials have acknowledged that the refugees will be held indefinitely until they leave the country.
Palestinian refugees from Syria are especially vulnerable because Egyptian policy prevents them from seeking protection from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), contrary to UNHCR's mandate under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Egyptian authorities tell detained Palestinians that their only alternative to indefinite detention is to go to Lebanon, where they are only permitted to legally enter on a 48-hour transit visa, or to return to war-torn Syria.
"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, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Egypt should immediately release those being held and allow UNHCR to give them the protection they are due under international law."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, currently in Cairo to meet with Egyptian authorities, should use the opportunity to insist upon the immediate release of detained refugees.
The more than 1,500 refugees from Syria who have been detained had been trying to migrate to Europe on smugglers' boats, as they faced desperate economic conditions and increasing xenophobia in Egypt. Security forces continue to make arrests, including as recently as November 4, 2013, according to UNHCR.
More than 1,200 of the detained refugees, including about 200 Palestinians, have been coerced to depart, including dozens who have returned to Syria. As of November 4, approximately 300 people remained arbitrarily detained at overcrowded police stations, 211 of them Palestinians.
A Palestinian father who had set sail with his 3-year-old son, a brother, and 4-year-old niece, told Human Rights Watch that, "We faced a tough choice: go on the boat and risk our lives for dignity or return to Syria to die."
According to the Egyptian government, 300,000 Syrians are in Egypt, of whom UNHCR has registered over 125,000 as refugees.
There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 additional Palestinians from Syria currently in Egypt, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Since July 8, when the government imposed restrictions on their entry to Egypt, Syrians have had to acquire visas and security clearance in advance to enter. They have typically received a one-month visa, which many have overstayed, refugees and lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
Egyptian authorities initially sought to prosecute those detained from the ships on charges of illegal migration, but, in the cases of at least 615 refugees represented by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and in all two dozen cases documented by Human Rights Watch, prosecutors dropped charges and ordered them released.
National Security - formerly State Security Investigations, a bureau within the Interior Ministry - has ignored release orders, though.
It 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.
On October 12 and 13, Human Rights Watch visited Dakhliya and Karmooz police stations in Alexandria, which each held 50 to 75 refugees from Syria at the time, and interviewed two police officers and 14 refugees, including two children, at the two stations.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with lawyers, doctors, UN and embassy officials, and other Syrians and Palestinians from Syria who have been or currently are detained at three other stations.
Eight of the refugees interviewed survived an October 11 incident in which a crowded boat holding over 150 people sank off the coast of Egypt, killing at least 12 and leaving many missing. Three others were on a boat that Egyptian forces fired upon on September 17, killing two and wounding two others.
In a statement to the media on October 17, Ambassador Badr Abdel-Attai of the Foreign Affairs Ministry denied that the government had an official policy of deporting "Syrian brothers."
But eight of the refugees and each of the three lawyers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the authorities have pressured detained refugees to sign declarations saying they are voluntarily leaving the country, in effect coercing them under threat of indefinite detention.
One police officer told Human Rights Watch that refugees could travel anywhere they like if they left Egypt. However, Palestinians from Syria have few legal options to enter anywhere but Syria.
Human Rights Watch documented the cases of four Palestinians - two fathers, each with a young child - who, faced with the prospect of indefinite detention, returned to Syria on October 13.
One of the fathers, held in detention in Egypt for over a month with his 3-year-old son, told Human Rights Watch that he was willing to travel to any country other than Syria but, when threatened with transfer to a Cairo prison where he and his son would be held with criminals, he felt he had no choice but to return to Syria.
"I can't keep my son here without sun any longer," he said. According to UNHCR, two separate groups of about 35 Palestinians from Syria have been sent back to Syria, with some detained upon arrival at the airport.
Human Rights Watch regards asylum seekers from Syria as having prima facie claims to refugee status. This is consistent with an October 22 UNHCR statement that said, "UNHCR characterizes the flight of civilians from Syria as a refugee movement.
Syrians, and Palestine refugees who had their former habitual residence in Syria, require international protection until such time as the security and human rights situation in Syria improves and conditions for voluntary return in safety and dignity are met."
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture, the Egyptian government may not return refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be at risk or anyone to a place where they risk being tortured.
UNHCR's October 22 statement further called on all countries to ensure that refugees fleeing Syria, including Palestinians, have the "right to seek asylum" and to keep measures in place that "suspend the forcible return of nationals or habitual residents of Syria." The statement specified Palestinians from Syria as a group in need of international protection.
Under article 1 of the Refugee Convention, Palestinian refugees in Egypt fall under the mandate of UNHCR, the agency charged with refugee protection.
They are not excluded from UNHCR mandate under article 1D of the Convention, which excludes Palestinian refugees under the mandate of UNRWA, because Egypt is not within that agency's area of operations - Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Syria. Yet, the Egyptian authorities have not permitted UNHCR to register Palestinians or to consider their asylum claims.
Human Rights Watch urges the Egyptian authorities to:
- Release all refugees held without charge and despite prosecutors' release orders. Pending their release from detention, separate unaccompanied children from unrelated adults and ensure that conditions of confinement correspond to international standards;
- Investigate which security officials ordered the arbitrary detention of refugees from Syria and hold them accountable;
- Compensate those who have been arbitrarily detained under article 9(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- Stop coercing refugees to leave Egypt, particularly to Syria; and
- Allow UNHCR to bring Palestinians from Syria under its protection mandate.
"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, "Egypt should stop trying to force migrants to leave the country and grant these beleaguered and terribly vulnerable people the protections they deserve as refugees."
Status of Palestinians from Syria in Egypt
As of January 1, 2013, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had registered 529,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. The majority are in Syria as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Before the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, Palestinians in Syria enjoyed many of the same rights as Syrians, including access to education, health care, and other social services provided by the government.
As the armed conflict between the government and opposition forces spread to areas with significant concentrations of Palestinians, including the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in the country, at least 60,000 Palestinians have fled.
A Palestinian mother of two from Syria and survivor of the boat sinking on October 11 told Human Rights Watch, "We could not stay in Syria. I could not send the children to school, because [both sides] ask which side you support and, if you answer wrongly, they will kill you... bullets showered down, there were planes that dropped bombs."
Officials in the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo told Human Rights Watch that as of October 31, the embassy had registered 6,834 Palestinians who arrived in Egypt from Syria since December 2012. Other estimates put the number of Palestinians who have come to Egypt from Syria at around 10,000.
The UNHCR office in Egypt conducts refugee status determinations for and registers Syrians, which opens up the possibility of third-country resettlement and enables them to access critical services such as subsidized health care.
Egyptian authorities, though, refuse to allow UNHCR to carry out its mandate when it comes to Palestinian refugees from Syria, citing article 1D of the Refugee Convention, which excludes Palestinian refugees from UNHCR's mandate in areas where the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) provides services, such as in Syria.
Because Egypt is not within UNRWA's areas of operation, though, Palestinian refugees from Syria fall under UNHCR's protection mandate.
However, Egypt permits UNHCR only to advise and assist Palestinians from Syria, but not to register them or consider their refugee claims, leaving members of the Palestinian community without the protection they need.
Palestinians from Syria, who only hold refugee travel documents issued by the Syrian government, enter Egypt on a one-month visa.
According to the Palestinian consulate in Alexandria, they cannot obtain residency unless they have children enrolled in school or are investing significant resources in the local economy.
Harrowing Experiences At Sea
Eight survivors of the October 11 boat sinking incident described to Human Rights Watch how they tried to stay afloat for hours in the middle of the night after the overcrowded boat overturned while watching others, including the elderly and children, drown in front of their eyes.
A mother of two told Human Rights Watch, "My husband grabbed our young daughter and held my hand - we were all in the water, the children were crying and we could hardly see anything."
A young woman from the Damascus area with a 7-month-old son said, "I don't know how to swim, so, when the boat flipped, I held the person next to me and told him not to let go. It was just like the Titanic, a movie I used to watch all the time. We used to say insh'Allah [God willing] it will not happen to us, but now we have become Titanic part 2."
Human Rights Watch also spoke with two survivors of the September 17 incident, in which Egyptian forces fired on a boat carrying between 170 and 200 Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians, killing two and injuring two others.
They described how the Egyptian Navy surrounded the boat soon after it left the coast and fired shots into the hull, into which dozens of refugees had been tightly packed.
"It was a horrible situation," one said. "We were desperate, we were seasick, it was hot, and everyone was throwing up... we were trapped in a tight room and paralyzed - we could not even move when we started hearing bullets... afterward they started showering us with bullets."
The shooting killed Fadwa Ali, a Palestinian woman from Syria who had traveled with three young children, and Omar Dalool, a Syrian man who traveled with his pregnant wife, Najah Kordi, and their 2-year-old daughter.
Egyptian authorities apprehended the majority of the 1,500 detained refugees from Syria at sea, in a harbor, or in some cases at locations near the coast on suspicion that they were preparing to leave illegally, according to lawyers who work with refugees and spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Refugees face charges of violating articles 2 and 3 of the Law of Entry and Residence of Aliens in the Territories of the United Arab Republic and their Departure (1960), which prohibits foreigners from entering or leaving Egypt without valid documentation and at other than official border crossings. The law was passed when Syrians and Egyptians were citizens of the United Arab Republic.
Prosecutors dropped charges in the cases of at least 615 refugees represented by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and in the two dozen cases Human Rights Watch documented, and ordered them released.
Instead of releasing the refugees, police took them to police stations and held them, under orders from National Security to detain them until they left the country, the head of the Karmooz Police Station, refugees, and lawyers told Human Rights Watch. With no orders from prosecutors, these detentions have no basis in Egyptian law.
Refugees received no official written explanation for why they are being held and have no legal recourse to challenge their detention.
Volunteer lawyers, who have sought to help the detainees, told Human Rights Watch that, without a legal framework, they can do little more than negotiate with National Security and the police regarding specific cases.
Fewer than 10 percent of detained refugees, according to numbers obtained from UNHCR, have been released into the community. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights has filed suit challenging these detentions in a case that the Council of State, the top administrative court, is to hear on November 19.
Human Rights Watch documented overcrowding and substandard facilities in both of the police stations visited. Police in Dakhliya police station held a dozen women and children, survivors of the October 11 boat sinking, in a small prayer room adjacent to the police station.
Human Rights Watch visited the station over 24 hours after the incident, but many still wore the wet clothes they had nearly drowned in.
Police did not grant Human Rights Watch access to the area where 30 men were being held. A doctor who had access told Human Rights Watch that police were holding the men in a dirty, overcrowded 4-by-4-meter cell.
The men shared a single toilet. They were denied food or water for 24 hours, the lawyer said, and many resorted to drinking from the water hose affixed to the toilet in the cell. In Karmooz station, police divided groups of 25 to 30 refugees among several rooms, where they slept on the floor and shared two bathrooms and toilets per group.
Witnesses described similar conditions at other police stations. Kordi, the pregnant wife whose husband died when Egyptian security forces fired on their boat on September 17, spent 20 days with her 2-year-old daughter at Montazah II, where about 150 people were held in late September, before she became one of the few refugees released.
She told Human Rights Watch that for nine days, she had to wear the bloody clothes she had on when her husband died in her arms.
Quarters at the station were so tight, she said, that people sometimes resorted to sleeping on top of one another or even while standing.
Refugees shared a single bathroom and toilet along with police officers stationed there, With long lines at the bathroom, she only managed to take a single shower in the almost three weeks she was there, which she abruptly ended when she noted police officers peeping in at her through a gap in the wall. She described the water as "salty" and the bathroom as full of mosquitos.
A doctor who treated patients in the station noted pools of dirty, stagnant water both inside and outside the station. Not able to eat, affected by the strong smells, and mourning her husband's death, Kordi fainted on her fifth day at the station.
She told Human Rights Watch that she obtained a doctor's report that indicated that she had low blood pressure and issues with her nervous system that could cause her to lose her child if she remained in detention, but the police refused to release her for almost three weeks.
The head of the Karmooz station told Human Rights Watch that police stations had not received any funding to provide refugees with sufficient food, clothing, medicine, or other basic necessities like blankets, diapers, or baby formula.
Aid agencies, such as Caritas, with funding from UNHCR, and the Palestinian consulate in Alexandria, have provided some basic needs. Refugees still need to ask police officers, local activists, or "good Samaritans" in the Syrian community in Egypt to secure other basic items for them.
Although often unofficially granted access, doctors said they faced obstacles in providing services to refugees in police stations.
One doctor told Human Rights Watch that he has several patients who require surgical procedures or external care, but that police refused all but one request.
Many suffer from skin conditions and insect bites as a result of overcrowding and substandard conditions. When Human Rights Watch visited Karmooz police station, a doctor said he had diagnosed three children with scabies, which he attributed to poor sanitation and lack of access to natural light.
Children in Detention
Since August, Egyptian authorities have detained over 250 Syrian and Palestinian children, some very young, in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities without providing for their basic needs.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of detained small children as young as 2-months-old, held with family members in squalid conditions, without access to recreation or outdoor facilities.
Detainees do not have consistent access to basic children's provisions, including baby formula, diapers, and nutritionally appropriate food. Detaining children solely because of their immigration status - or their parents' - violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Unaccompanied children should never be detained, yet authorities continued to hold, as of October 28, at least 10 unaccompanied or separated children - those traveling without parents or guardians - according to UNHCR. In all ten cases, the unaccompanied children were detained with unrelated adults.
A 15-year-old girl whose parents live in Alexandria and who was held in an Alexandria police station along with her older brother, told Human Rights Watch that the police "will allow my parents to come and see us, but we are not allowed to leave."
Human Rights Watch spoke at Dakhliya police station with a 9-year-old Palestinian girl from Syria whose father drowned in the October 11 incident. She remained in custody with unrelated adults for 18 days, in spite of having family members in Egypt.
Egyptian authorities also detained a 16-year-old Syrian boy for 45 days, even though his mother lived in Egypt and had petitioned for his release.
The prison authorities told him that Syria was the only place he could go as an unaccompanied migrant child and that his passport would be stamped for deportation if he did not leave on his own, which he feared would result in his detention upon arrival in Damascus, he told Human Rights Watch.
On October 14, Egyptian authorities supervised his transfer to a flight bound for Syria, though he had no living relatives there.
The best interests of the child should be a key concern in all proceedings concerning unaccompanied children and authorities should conduct family tracing in the home country.
Apart from the fewer than 10 percent who have been released, Egypt has been keeping the detained refugees from Syria in custody until they leave the country.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry in October denied in a statement to the media that it had an "official policy on the forced deportation of our Syrian brothers," in accordance with Egypt's obligations under international law not to subject them to refoulement, the forcible return to a territory where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
In practice, though, Egypt's arbitrary detention of refugees from Syria in squalid, overcrowded conditions and threatening to transfer them to regular prisons coerces them to leave Egypt, according to the six refugees who had decided to leave by the time they spoke to Human Rights Watch.
In some cases, they head to territories where their lives or liberty are at risk, as refugees from Syria, particularly Palestinians, have few options.
Every refugee Human Rights Watch interviewed said that police officers plainly informed them that they would remain in detention unless they raised enough money to purchase plane tickets to leave Egypt.
A Palestinian chef from Syria being held in at a police station in Alexandria told Human Rights Watch: "When we asked about [release], the officer said you can either leave or wait for us to get bored with you and release or deport you."
A 47-year-old man detained at Dakhliya police station described a similar conversation with police officers there: "They told me you can stay in Egypt in detention for a month or two or longer or we can help you travel by asking National Security to file your papers as fast as possible."
A police officer in Karmooz station told a Palestinian refugee there that he had "no hope" of being released in Egypt. Two other refugees in Karmooz police station told Human Rights Watch that the head of the station had assembled all those detained and announced that anyone who failed to make plane reservations to leave within the week would be transferred to a prison, where they would be placed with criminals.
Decisions made while one faces the prospect of indefinite detention in terrible conditions cannot be characterized as voluntary, Human Rights Watch said.
The head of Karmooz police station told Human Rights Watch that they receive a list from National Security with information about where those held could be deported.
While Syrians generally may travel to Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria, Turkey and Jordan do not permit entry to Palestinians from Syria, and Lebanon only grants them 48-hour transit visas.
Lebanon, though, has not consistently enforced the 48-hour limitation and has granted visa extensions, according to Egyptian lawyers who worked with Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinian Authority has formally requested the release of the refugee detainees, according to the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, but Egypt's Foreign Affairs and National Security have refused to grant their request.
Attempts by the League of Arab States to raise the deportation issue with Egyptian authorities have also not been successful.