In March 2011, Mohamed, Khaled, Raed and Bashar were among the thousands of Syrian youth who chanted, “Syria wants freedom.” They chanted hoping that the winds of the Arab Spring would finally reach their country.
Those same youth are now waiting for spring for quite a different reason. This is the time when the sea calms down and they will get the chance to catch a boat and try to leave for Europe one more time.
Before, everyone in Syria thought it was a matter of time. The opposition thought it was a matter of time before Bashar al-Assad’s regime fell. The Assad regime thought it was only a matter of time before it re-established its control over Syria. Even the pessimists didn’t expect Syria to become another Somalia.
In June 2012, the United Nations declared for the first time that Syria was in a state of “civil war.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the refugee situation in Syria as the worst since the Rwanda genocide in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees have not found a safe alternative, with the semblance of a normal life, in neighboring countries. They haven’t found a safe exit to Europe either. Legal avenues have been blocked by regulations and procedures. Irregular means of escape have been circumvented by death at sea and detentions in places like Egypt.
The number of Syrian refugees in Egypt is estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000, of whom the UNHCR has registered 134,000, according to the latest tally in March 2014. Ninety percent of them live in greater Cairo, Alexandria and Damietta.
In the beginning, Syrian refugees weren’t keen on registering themselves with UNHCR, believing at the time they would only be in Egypt for a matter of months. But with the summer of 2013, the number of registrations spiked to some 1,000 refugees daily, according to UNHCR figures.
Hassan is a trader in his 50s who left Syria in early 2012 before the situation deteriorated there. “We left with a lot of money and with my wife’s golden jewelry. We came to stay here temporarily, living off of our savings. We thought that the situation wouldn’t last for more than a few months until it calmed down and we could go back to Syria. But it wasn’t like that,” he explains.
Hassan and his three sons were arrested last September as they attempted to leave Egypt on a boat and to reach the shores of Europe, before going on to Sweden. They spent a month in detention before they were released.
Life in Egypt does not seem to be an enticing option for Hassan, his wife, his three sons and grandson. “When Hassan and the boys were arrested, the landlady of the apartment we rent came and wanted to kick me out. She told me that my husband and my sons were arrested because we are terrorists and we smuggle arms to Egypt,” Hassan’s wife says.
“We sold all my wife’s gold and our savings have gone. There is no work for me or my older son,” Hassan adds. “We cannot depend on the support of UNHCR. My wife’s relatives, who live in Sweden, are enjoying a good life there now.”
When he stepped out of Syria for the first time, Hassan mainly feared that his older son would be arrested. Today, he doesn’t seem to be concerned about dying at sea. He doesn’t think he has any other option but to repeat his attempt to leave. “Either by sea from Egypt or from Libya, or through Sudan using fake passports, I will knock on all doors to leave this place,” says Hassan, who had always thought of himself as a cautious man.
In October 2013, 12 Syrian refugees drowned when their boat carrying tens of other Syrian refugees from Alexandria sank. “The higher percentage reaches Europe. We only heard about one case of drowning. Those who left the port one day after us reached their destination,” says Hassan.
Syrian refugees and those working in refugee aid agree on one assessment: that with the spring, the wave of departures across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe will only increase. From Europe, particularly from Italy, refugees continue north, particularly to Sweden.
Syrian refugees, lawyers working on cases of detained refugees and workers at UNHCR also agree on another thing: that refugees’ travel by sea is highly organized and ruled by intricate smuggling networks. They include big boats waiting in high seas after refugees have exited territorial waters in smaller boats.
“There is a known fee for the organization of these trips and it’s US$3,000 per person,” says Emad, a refugee who has tried to leave more than once by sea. “There are common points of departure. The smugglers are not commonly arrested when refugees attempting to leave are detained. It seemed to me that there was a clear intention to hand in our group when we got arrested.”
“I have tried to leave three times. Every time, we went to a gathering point and we were told that the trip was canceled,” Emad says. “The last time, the group was arrested in the river. Or to put it a better way, we were handed in as the trip’s organizers disappeared.”
More than 1,500 Syrian and Palestinian refugees were detained in Egypt between August 2013 and January 2014, for periods ranging from a few days to four months, according to numbers compiled by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Alexandria, which follows the issue closely.
“Trying to leave the country through an illegal channel is a violation but is not a charge, for which a fine is the penalty, not detention,” says Hebatallah Mansour, a volunteer with Tadamon, which works with refugees. “Refugees shouldn’t be detained. The prosecutor issued release orders for them but their detention is continued on orders from security bodies.”
Paradoxically, those who were detained for trying to leave the country illegally were pressured to promise to leave the country ahead of their release. “Some of them were given the choice between booking a ticket to go outside of Egypt or to be deported to the central foreigners’ prison, which means open-ended detention. Palestinians in particular are exposed to more pressure,” says Mansour.
The question of leaving the country legally has very little logic left for refugees. “We know that the way through UNHCR is blocked,” says Emad, a father of three girls, who had just registered his family at UNHCR. Registering at UNHCR automatically grants Syrians a refugee status which means they are entitled to legal protection and the right to education, as well some basic health services.
But resettlement to third countries in the West is another story. In October 2013, UNHCR announced a plan to resettle Syrian refugees outside their first countries of exit. According to this plan, some 30,000 refugees will be resettled by the end of 2014 and 16 Western countries announced their willingess to host varying numbers of resettled refugees. For example, Hungary will receive 10, while Germany will receive 5,000, which is the biggest number pledged by a European country until now.
Mohamed al-Dayri, the regional representative of UNHCR and its spokesman in Egypt says, “30,000 was a reasonable number in relation to hopes from the Geneva 2 Conference that would offer a political solution to the situation in Syria, which may have ended the reasons for the humanitarian crisis. But the situation now is different.”
Dayri draws attention to the fact that UNHCR had pledged in Geneva last February to resettle another 100,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2016, but their map of distribution hasn’t been determined yet. “Maybe this number has to be revisited in the future and augmented, but 100,000 is the number of Iraqi refugees who UNHCR had previously worked on resettling,” Dayri adds.
But 130,000 Syrian refugees is too little a number when compared with the 2.5 million refugees living outside Syria today.
There are no steps that refugees can take to demand third country resettlement. UNHCR presents its nominations from its database of registered refugees to hold resettlement interviews. In the case of Egypt, between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees were given the chance of resettlement in Western countries out of a total 134,000 registered refugees.
“The issue is tied to the numbers that countries that committed to hosting resettled Syrian refugees can take. These numbers are different in the case of each country and they don’t exceed thousands. The issue is also connected to the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt compared to the ones in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and the proportionality of their distribution to countries of resettlement. If nine refugees from Jordan are resettled, only one will be resettled from Egypt,” explains Mansour. Despite the difficulties that Syrian refugees witness in Egypt, their situation remains relatively better than those living in camps in Jordan for example.
The crisis is compounded for refugees twice removed.
Mohamed, a Syrian in his 20s, remembers a story he heard about the fleeing of Palestinians from their homes back in 1948. “When they left their houses in Palestine, the father told his son, ‘Let’s take a kilo of sugar with us.’ The son answered, ‘Half a kilo will be enough. We won’t be out for long’.”
This story about the Palestinian “Nakba” (catastrophe) sums up the condition of Syrian refugees today, because the return to Syria is no longer possible due to the ongoing war. Syrian refugees replaced their search for temporary arrangements for their life outside of Syria with a search for permanent life solutions based on the impossibility of going back home.
The conditions of refugees of the first Nakba have only deteriorated in the country witnessing a new catastrophe. There are some 13 Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, where more than half a million Palestinians lived as long as Syria offered them services and privileges that almost equaled those offered to Syrians themselves. These are refugees who fled to Syria since 1948 and had to flee again since the war came. A lot of Palestinian refugees were raised in Syria, where they got an education with no difficulties in procedures or for residency.
All numbers announced by UNHCR in Egypt of Syrian refugees doesn’t include Palestinians from Syria mainly because Palestinian refugees are not part of the work of UNHCR. “The Egyptian government has a clear position in demanding that UNHCR doesn’t deal with Palestinian refugees. In Turkey, for example, where UNRWA (which handles Palestinian refugee issues in Arab countries) doesn’t exist, UNHCR is mandated to register Palestinian refugees,” sources within UNHCR say.
There are some 6,000 Palestinian refugees who reached Egypt from Syria, according to numbers registered by the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo. None of them receive any support from UNHCR or can receive any of the already limited third country resettlement opportunities.
Those who have experienced this double defeat are more determined to leave Egypt at any cost.
Fouad is married to a Palestinian from 1948, who lives with his four kids in Nablus in the West Bank. He cannot see them because he is a Palestinian refugee who can only return to Palestine after a final resolution to the Palestinian question is reached. They cannot go to him either because they cannot get a visa to Egypt. Fouad thinks that he has no hope but to leave to Europe via the sea and to demand asylum there. “Having a European passport will be enough to spare us the humiliation we experience in Arab countries. It will also allow me to go to Palestine without anyone stopping me,” he says.
Fouad lives with this hope, along with thousands of others.
This article is published as part of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ campaign: “Not mere numbers: The stories of Syrian refugees in Egypt.” Visit the campaign here.
Translated by Lina Attalah