• Sheet of paper Report

‘We Cannot Live Here Anymore’ Refugees from Syria in Egypt

October 16, 2013

"We don't feel any more but we are alive, we live without hope as the days go past… All I want is to have my husband back. We want to be settled in any country where we can be safe… When we first came [to Egypt] everything was fine, but just before Eid [following Ramadan, in August], everything changed… We want a legal way to leave Egypt so that we don't have to use the sea. We cannot live here any more."

A refugee whose husband was arrested from a boat trying to reach Italy and detained in the 2nd Montaza police station in Alexandria.

In the early hours of 17 September, a boat carrying at least 200 people left the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. It was heading to Italy when it was intercepted and pulled back to shore by the Egyptian Navy. Most of those on board the boat were refugees from Syria. When Amnesty International later interviewed some of the refugees, they described how, as they saw the Egyptian Navy ship approaching their boat, people starting pleading with the Navy not to shoot, telling them that there were children on board. The Navy approached the boat and, according to witnesses, fired several shots into the hull of the boat. As far as Amnesty International is aware no shots were fired from the boat carrying the refugees. The incident resulted in the death of two people who were shot: Fadwa Taha Ali, a 50-year-old Palestinian refugee woman from Syria, and Amr Dailool, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee.

According to one of the refugees who was on the boat, the shots fired by the Navy narrowly missed children. All of the refugees were detained by police.

Mahmoud, a nine-year-old boy from Aleppo in northern Syria, was one of those on the boat with a family friend. His mother, father and siblings had stayed at the port, planning to follow him on a second boat. When the boat was intercepted, Mahmoud was detained in the 2nd Montaza police station in Alexandria. Mahmoud's mother told Amnesty International that she waited outside the police station while he was detained. Despite repeatedly asking to see him, she was told by officers at the police station that she could not as they were questioning the refugees as part of their investigations; Mahmoud remained in detention for four days. While Mahmoud and some of the other refugees from the boat were later released from detention, most of those who survived this ordeal have either been deported from Egypt or remain detained without a clear legal basis.

On the same day, another group of 70 refugees from Syria were reportedly arrested by the police at a café in Alexandria on suspicion of attempting "illegal immigration"; they were similarly taken to a police station and detained.

People who have fled the conflict in Syria, including both Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria, are now fleeing discrimination and human rights violations in Egypt. In recent months they have been subjected to verbal attacks and threats in the media and by public figures, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and – in some cases – refoulement to Syria. Their situation in Egypt has become so desperate that they are taking the huge risk involved in a sea crossing to Europe.

The dangerous journey, which has been used for years by Egyptians and others, is run by smugglers. Hundreds die attempting to cross the Mediterranean every year. 2011 was one of the deadliest years, with at least 1,500 people loosing their lives while trying to reach Europe from North Africa. On 3 October 2013, a boat from Libya carrying hundreds of people trying to reach Europe, sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving at least 319 dead.

The journey from Egypt's north coast to Italy – where the boats carrying refugees from Syria are heading – is significantly longer. On 11 October, a boat carrying refugees from Syria and heading to Italy sank off the coast of Alexandria; at least 12 people died and 116 were rescued. According to one report, at least five of those who died were children under the age of 10, including three young sisters. Those who were rescued have been detained in Dekhela and Karmooz police stations in Alexandria.

Between January and September 2013, an estimated 6,000 refugees from Syria have managed to reach Italy by sea from Egypt, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency. UNCHR has documented a particularly sharp increase in the last few months, with over 3,000 new refugees from Syria arriving by boat in Italy from Egypt since August.

Amnesty International has been monitoring the situation for refugees from Syria since early 2013. Since July, the organization has interviewed dozens of refugees from Syria including Syrian and Palestinian refugees. During a visit to Egypt between 7 and 11 October, Amnesty International met with refugees in Cairo and Alexandria, activists and lawyers working with refugees from Syria, the UNHCR office in Cairo, and civil society organizations. It also visited the 2nd Montaza police station, one of the locations where refugees are detained.

This report focuses on the arrest, detention and deportation of refugees from Syria in Egypt, particularly following recent incidents in which boats leaving for Europe have been intercepted by the Egyptian authorities off the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian authorities to immediately halt the unlawful detention and deportation of refugees from Syria who have sought safety on their territory and fulfill their obligations under international law to protect them. Amnesty International is also urgently calling on the international community to resettle refugees, including those unlawfully detained in Egypt after attempting to reach Europe and those who have been forcibly separated from their families due to forced deportations.