Following a dispute between the smugglers, the refugees were left stranded on Nelson Island, 4 km north of Abu Qir, Alexandria. Don’t worry if you can’t find it on a map: it is not much more than a rock in the sea, approximately 350 meters by 150 meters. In 2000, Italian archaeologist Paolo Gallo discovered there a series of graves, and now the island hosts a site for picnics and recreation. After their arrest on November 1, 2014, the Public Prosecutor ordered the refugees release only four days later. Despite this, Egypt’s Homeland Security issued orders for their deportation. Where? The unofficial plan is to send them back to Syria, under a sky full of bombs and empty of hope. Nevertheless, until now, they have been held without charge at Karmooz police station.
With them there are other four Palestinian-Syrians – three of whom were arrested on September 30 and one on September 17 – and fifteen Somali nationals – one of whom was arrested on August 25 while the remaining fourteen were arrested on December 1. According to the Center for Refugee Solidarity, the detainees include fifteen minors, seven of whom are less than ten years old and one of whom is only ten months old. The majority of detainees are part of the 529,000 Palestinian refugees that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has registered in the area surrounding Damascus. When the Syrian uprising started four years ago, they moved from one corner of the country to another. The fighting between Assad’s government’s army and the rebels has harshly affected the refugee camps. Several of the camps’ schools were shut down and many families decided that the time had come to leave that open-air prison.
What started on Nelson Island is just the latest in a series of events showing the extent to which arbitrary detention of refugees in Egypt has increased in the last years. As we already described in a 2013 reportage from Karmooz, the crackdown on Syrians and Palestinians in particular is a clear result of a shift in Egypt’s foreign policy toward Syria amid growing anti-Syrian sentiment in the country since the ousting of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013. One should bear in mind the words spoken on July 15, 2013 by Tawfiq Okasha, a famous and influential anchor, and the owner of the television channel Al Faraen, who, addressing the Syrians present in Egypt, launched an ultimatum: “The Syrian people know your addresses. If you protest together with the Muslim Brotherhood, within 48 hours those people will come and destroy your homes.” Very soon the refugees were labelled as Brotherhood collaborators and consequently as terrorists. And while the rift between Morsi’s supporters and his opponents increasingly divided the country, the Syrians who had fled from a land torn by divisions became sucked into the vortex of Egyptian polarization, which positioned them as an enemy of the faction that regained power following the disposal of the Islamist president.
Nowadays, tight visa restrictions imposed on Syrians make it virtually impossible for refugees from Syria to obtain a visa prior to their arrival and to enter Egypt officially. Considering that Egyptian law allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial, they face an immense risk of arrest. At least 150 refugees from Syria had been deported from Egypt to Syria or other countries, including Lebanon and Turkey last year.
Once again, the Palestinians are the most unlucky of all. The UNWRA does not operate in Egypt and the about 6,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who cannot get hold of this agency fall under the UNHCR’s mandate. The authorities in Cairo allow the UNHCR to assist Palestinians arriving from Syria, but this agency cannot register them, nor consider their requests for asylum. As a result, they do not have access to many basic services, including health, education and employment. This is one of the reason why last November Amnesty International called for the immediate release of the 66 refugees from Syria and Gaza being held in Egypt and for the revocation of their deportation orders.
And this is probably one of the reason why Egyptian media – loyal to the regime – do not like to cover the Karmooz events extensively. Those few bloggers who report the story rely on the Karmooz detainees’ Facebook page and NGOs reports. The virtual sphere is, at the same time, the place where the detainees themselves try to express their demand for instant coordination between the concerned parties, in order to provide them access to European countries where their families are waiting for them.