After being held for 11 days without charges, six Syrian cousins, aged between 14 and 22, were forced to leave Egypt where they had arrived a month earlier from war-torn country.
On July 19, the cousins were returning home from work in Obour City when their bus was stopped at a checkpoint and an army officer demanded that all Syrian citizens on the bus get off.
“When my son called me, I went to see our detained children and took their passports with me,” Abu Mohamed, a father of one of the deported children, recalls.
An army officer told Abu Mohamed that the children will be held for two hours while he inspects their documents.
Abu Mohamed told Mada Masr that at the checkpoint, he saw “many Syrians held by the army, and none of them were let go even if all their papers were legitimate.”
The two-hour detention extended until July 30. At 5 am on July 31, Abu Mohamed received a call from his son telling him that he and his cousins had finally arrived in Istanbul, with one of their parents.
The children were among 72 Syrian men and boys arrested on July 19 and 20 at checkpoints on main roads in Cairo, according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch. Those in custody have not been charged with any offense. 14 of them have been threatened with deportation to countries neighboring Syria.
HRW said that two children from Abu Mohamed’s family, aged 14 and 16, were arrested in violation of international law protecting the rights of children.
After the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, local news reported the arrest of a Syrian citizen at a pro-Morsi protest, claiming that he was given orders to shoot Morsi’s opponents in the clashes that occurred on July 5 at the October 6 Bridge near the state television building. These clashes left three people dead.
This triggered a widespread media campaign targeting Syrians residing in Egypt, implicating them in violent clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents, which, according to Human Rights Watch, fueled “an atmosphere of mistrust and xenophobia.”
Fadi, a Syrian refugee, explains that Syrians have been suffering since June 30.
“It’s not just a crackdown by the government, some Egyptian civilians make direct threats at me, saying they will send me back to Syria if I am in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says.
Fadi acknowledges that “some Syrians have made mistakes” and “sold their conscience to the Muslim Brotherhood for money but that doesn’t mean that all Syrians did that.”
Until recently, Syrians could enter Egypt without a visa. But without any prior warning, on July 8 Egypt’s new transitional government introduced a stricter entry policy for Syrian nationals, requiring them to obtain a visa and security clearance before arriving in the country.
State media disguised the measure as one underscoring Egypt’s support for the Syrian people. However HRW said the new rules represent “a hardship for those fleeing fighting.”
According to HRW, many Syrians with valid visas remained subject to deportation.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says some 476 Syrians have been deported or denied entry into Egypt since the visa measures were put in place. The UNHCR has appealed to the Egyptian government to consider at least allowing women, children and the elderly to enter the country without visa restrictions, it said in a statement issued late last month.
HRW’s report called on the Egyptian authorities to stop what they call “arbitrary arrests” of Syrians.
This sentiment was echoed by UNHCR which expressed concern over the detention of an increasing number of Syrians by Egyptian military and security personnel.
Government figures estimate that some 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Egypt, 80,000 of whom were registered with the UNHCR by July 25 in addition to around 28,800 who had appointments for registration in the coming weeks, a statement by the UN agency said.
UNHCR has registered, or is in the process of registering, some 90,000 asylum seekers from Syria in Egypt. HRW urged the Egyptian authorities to provide lawyers and UNHCR staff immediate access to all Syrians in detention to ensure that there are no registered asylum seekers among them.
HRW also urged the authorities to ensure that all asylum seekers from Syria have access to the UNHCR, which conducts refugee status procedures in Egypt under a 1954 agreement.
For his part, Abu Mohamed does not seek refugee status since he does not consider himself a refugee. He set up a business in Egypt and would like to be able to go back and forth between Syria and Egypt whenever he pleases.
“I am not a refugee, I am just a Syrian citizen who moved to Egypt to start a business and make a decent living,” Abu Mohamed says.
As for his son and cousins, their lives remain in limbo. The children had dropped out of school in Syria when they fled and took on jobs in Cairo. Having been separated from their parents, it remains unclear what awaits them in Istanbul.