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No Way Out

Syria's Palestinian refugees thought Egypt would be safe. Now they want to get to Europe.

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday, 50 Syrian and Palestinian refugees detained in the Montaza II police station in Alexandria, Egypt began a hunger strike. Men, women, and even some children are participating.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed that they refused food Friday morning, and said that it is in touch with the police and the refugees, trying to convince them to eat.

The detainees are protesting both their detentions and the conditions they have been held under after they were arrested on boats bound for Europe. Though the public prosecutor has ordered their release, National Security, a bureau within Egypt's Interior Ministry, insists they remain detained in police stations until they leave the country at their own expense, saying they are a "threat to national security." Often those with medical conditions can’t get the care they need. A 57-year-old man with a chronic knee problem can’t sleep because of the pain. A 16-year-old Palestinian Syrian says she was sexually harassed by one of the officers. As to the reasons for the strike, one woman detainee explains, “We want the European countries to solve the problem. The conditions are so bad. I just want to feel that I am human. I want to feel respected and get out of the depression I am in.”

Over a thousand Syrian and Palestinian refugees have been detained in police stations across Egypt's North Coast since August. The police station with the hunger strikers is particularly bad.

“The police move the refugees to Montaza II police station when they really want to put pressure on them,” says Nader Attar, an activist with the Refugees Solidarity Movement, “it’s the worst one.”

Last week I was barred from entering the prison when I tried to go up to the second floor, where the Syrian and Palestinian refugees are detained. Mohamed Mamluk, the head officer, told me, “they’re in a place like this,” gesturing to his carpeted, air-conditioned office with wooden furniture and gilt picture frames, “they’re not in prison, they’re not in detention.”

But when I visited over a month ago, there were piles of sand on the floor, the bathroom door hung off of its hinges and women said that sometimes the officers spied on them as they bathed. Detainees shared one bathroom with the policemen and slept on the floor, many of them without blankets. Young women slept in a hallway behind a dirty blanket hanging over a string, while the men were crammed into a small room next to rusted pipes and concrete bricks. Thirty of the detainees were children under eight.

Though a very small proportion of Syrian refugees in Egypt hold Palestinian nationality, the majority of the 200 or so detainees currently held in Alexandria police stations do.

Nine of them are members of Mohaned Mansour’s family and have been held in Karmouz police station in Alexandria since their boat bound for Italy sank on October 11. Among them are his sons Ossama and Zahra, ages nine and six, and his nieces, Sultana and Khediga, ages four and one and eight months. Mohaned himself is still free, as he had stayed behind with his pregnant daughter who was not well enough to travel by boat.

Mohaned’s family moved from Nablus in the Palestinian Territories to the Yarmouk refugee camps in Syria in 1967. Mohaned himself was born in Syria and has never set foot in Palestine, though he holds Palestinian, not Syrian, nationality. When the Syrian uprisings began in 2011, he and his family moved seven times in two years within Syria. At one point, pro-regime fighters began kidnapping women who wore the niqab—the full face veil—so Mohaned’s wife stopped wearing hers. In December of 2012, intense fighting broke out in the Yarmouk camps. On January 12, 2013, after the schools in the camps closed, Mohaned and his family fled to Egypt.

As Palestinians, their flight from Syria is only the latest in a series of migrations that began in 1948. But many, like Mohaned, consider Syria their home. “I am Syrian,” he says, “My affection for Syria is more than my affection for Palestine.”

But in the eyes of the Egyptian government, Mohaned and his family are Palestinians. As such they are not entitled to any of the benefits accorded to Syrian refugees. The Egyptian government does not allow UNHCR to deal with Palestinians, because they are supposed to be covered by UNRWA, which does not have a mandate to operate in Egypt. As a result, though they are fleeing the same conflict as those who hold Syrian nationality, they have no access to services.

“It’s being taken up at the highest levels. There’s a dialogue between both agencies (UNHCR and UNRWA) and the government to set up a mechanism to assist Palestinians,” said Teddy Leposky, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Cairo.

Last month Mohaned’s son-in-law managed to make it to Sweden on a boat from Alexandria where he has sought residency. The next group was not so lucky. Two of Mohaned’s sons, his second wife, his brother’s daughter and her two daughters were on the boat that cracked in half minutes after they set sail.

They spent the next two days in the same wet clothes, and a full week sleeping on the ground. Today, they are living in a police station and don’t know when they’ll be let out. But Mohaned is just grateful they’re alive. “I made them wear life jackets he said,” he said, “though my children can all swim.” Two of his nephews, Shams and Hekmat, drowned in the accident.

Now Mohaned visits his family in detention as often as he can and hopes that a European country will open their doors to Palestinian Syrians.

Like desperate people everywhere Mohaned lives on shadows of hope. Last week there was a rumor going around after confusing remarks by the Swedish migration minister on a radio program that Sweden would accept 200 refugees detained in Alexandrian police stations. Information is difficult to come by, particularly in detention, and different people tell the refugees different things.

Mohaned says that ten days ago a representative from the Syrian embassy threatened the refugees in the police stations, saying that the embassy will “bring a big plane and give them all up to Bashar.” Yaser Salman, Public Relations officer at the Palestinian consulate says that he has lodged a complaint against the Syrian embassy.

Since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on June 3, there has been a backlash against the Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Egypt. The Egyptian media repeatedly linked them to the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians are often accused of supporting Hamas. Once welcomed in this country, many Palestinians have been attacked, their shops vandalized.Those who can have already left. But Palestinian Syrians have few options.

George Assandas with Caritas, the United Nations partner that distributes food in the police stations says that some refugees “are very happy they are arrested. Their wife and children are outside. They say, 'ok I will stay here. My family is outside. I don’t want to go to Syria or even Turkey where it costs $25 per day.'”

But Tamara Alrifai of Human Rights Watch tells a different story: “Those who are left in detention are people who can’t afford to leave, those who have family in Egypt who didn’t go on the boats—they don’t want to risk never seeing them again, and those waiting for something to happen with the European countries.”

While Syrians can go to Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, Palestinians only have the option of going to Lebanon, where they are given a 48 or 72 hour visa, after which they are supposed to return to Syria.

In the meantime, Palestinian Syrians survive as best they can. Mohaned and his wife each received a one-time amount of 500LE (about $71) from the Palestinian consulate. Most of his family’s savings were lost in the accident, either in fees paid to smugglers—$35,000—or cash that sank when the boat capsized, along with their passports, which cost $245 each. Mohaned says that right now, he can’t afford to buy new ones.

There is a historical reason for why there are so many Palestinians in Syria. Palestinians were treated better in Syria than anywhere else in the Arab world. They could work and own houses. They were even allowed to serve in Syrian security forces. In Egypt, life for Palestinians has always been more difficult.

“Palestinians have needed a security clearance to work since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said Mahmoud Al Assadi, Palestinian Consul General. He worries about the future, after the conflict is over: “Syrians in the end will go back to their country, but Palestinians have nowhere to go back to.”

Laura Dean is a writer living in Egypt.