(New York) –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 Refugees (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’s 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