On 17 September 2013, the Egyptian border patrol opened fire on a boat leaving Alexandria to Italy, carrying over a hundred Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Two of them, Omar Delol and Fadwa Taha, were killed. This is the latest lethal illustration of the dramas facing Syrian refugees in Egypt.
According to the UNHCR, as of September 2013, there are approximately 125,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt who are registered or awaiting registration. However it is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million Syrian refugees residing in the country. As the conflict continues, numbers will continue to rise.
Over past months hostility towards Syrian refugees has grown. After the removal of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian authorities tightened visa regulations for Syrians. Syrians were previously exempt from the visa requirement, but a change in policy requires them to obtain a visa prior to arrival. It has also become increasing difficult for Syrians to obtain residency permits in Egypt. Since July 2013, the Egyptian security forces have embarked on a series of arrests and detention of Syrian refugees.
A media campaign accusing Syrian refugees of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and attacking Egyptian protesters has further increased tensions. Several well-known TV presenters have accused Syrians of attempting to destabilize the country, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and participating in the violence that has gripped the country since 30 June. On 10 July, Omar Al Husseiny, a TV presenter for ONTV, directly incited violence against Syrians living in Egypt. Another popular presenter, Tawfiq Okasha gave Syrians a 48 hour ultimatum to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood or have their homes burned.
A small proportion of Syrian refugees risk their lives attempting to emigrate to Europe by boat. According to figures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 4,600 Syrian refugees have reached Italy this year with the majority arriving from Egypt.
Under Egyptian law, “illegal emigration” is considered a criminal offense, in violation of international law, in particular Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country”. Those who are prevented from leaving or who return are thus subject to criminal prosecutions and penalties of up to 6 months in prison.
According to information received by FIDH, two groups of Syrian refugees are currently detained in Al-Beheira governorate accused of attempting to “illegally emigrate”. 64 of them are detained in Rashid police station and 45 in Bourlus police station. In Alexandria, there are currently 512 refugees detained in several police stations for illegal emigration: 107 refugees in Karmouz police station, 265 refugees in Montaza police station and 140 refugees in Abu Keer police station. Another group of refugees were arrested in Alexandria in a cafe next to the coast, accused of preparing to “illegally emigrate”. In mid September, two other boats carrying Syrian refugees were intercepted at sea off the coast of the the towns of Edkou in Alexandria and Baltim in Kafr El Sheikh and returned to Egypt, where the refugees were detained.
In most cases, the Public Prosecution orders the release of detainees pending the decision of the National Security Services and the Passports and Immigration Unit. In practice, those without refugee status or a valid residency permit are generally issued with a deportation order.
From July to September 2013, FIDH received reports of over 50 Syrian refugees being deported from Egypt to Lebanon and Turkey. FIDH is extremely concerned that deportations are taking place outside the legal framework and without asylum claims having been examined, in violation of international law. FIDH has also received recent reports of refugees being returned to Syria.
FIDH recalls that Egypt is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee which requires all state parties to not “expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened”. Egypt has also ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and the African Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa, which prohibit Egypt from sending people to countries where they face a serious risk of persecution or torture.
Egypt is also party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which, under article 13, prohibits arbitrary expulsion and entitles foreigners to an individual decision on expulsion. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits refoulement (forced return) of people to places where they would be at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
FIDH calls upon the Egyptian authorities to uphold their international legal obligations and immediately put an end to deportations to Syria. Furthermore, in case of the arrest and detention of any Syrian refugee, the Egyptian authorities should immediately inform the UNHCR.
FIDH calls on the Egyptian authorities to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the use of lethal force against refugees attempting to leave Egypt by boat. FIDH further calls on the government to condemn xenophobic rhetoric inciting violence and to guarantee the safety of Syrians living in Egypt.
FIDH calls on the Special Rapporteurs on migrant’s rights of the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to coordinate efforts aimed at ensuring that the Egyptian authorities respect their international and regional obligations.
“The international community cannot continue to look passively on as the Syrian refugee crisis spirals further out of control. States, including EU Member States, must assume their responsibility towards the women, men and children fleeing the indiscriminate violence in Syria, who are entitled to protection as refugees”, said Karim Lahidji, FIDH President.