Dozens of detained Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Alexandria began a hunger strike on Friday to demand improved conditions.
The 52 refugees, detained in Alexandria’s Montaza Police Station, are being held for attempting “irregular departure” to Europe by boat, according to the Teddy Leposky, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Among the 52 refugees, 22 are minors as young as 14 months, and eight are women.
“The conditions there are very poor,” said Leposky. “They have a number of demands… Particularly the issues of prolonged detention and the conditions they’re being held in are of grave concern.”
The police station where the refugees are being held is in disrepair and is not designed to handle prisoners in such numbers, said Refugee Solidarity Movement member Mahienour Al-Massry. There is no toilet, and time outside of the cells is extremely limited
The refugees, being held on preventive detention as a threat to Egyptian national security, have been refusing food aid supplied by the UNHCR. While the UNHCR has been offering legal representation and has made missions to the detention facilities, they are unable to issue refugee identity cards because they do not have official access rights from the authorities, said Leposky.
Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Tamara Al-Rifai said that there is no legal basis for the refugees’ detention.
“These people are being detained despite being acquitted,” said Al-Rifai. “There are no legal charges against them, so detaining them is absolutely unacceptable from any legal or human rights perspective.”
The situation becomes more complicated because most of those detained are Palestinian refugees from Syria. The refugees have Syrian travel documents, but not Syrian passports, and since they are prevented from receiving identification from the UNHCR, they have no official standing in Egypt, said Al-Rifai.
Many of the refugees on hunger strike were detained on 17 September while trying to flee from Alexandria to Italy. The Egyptian Coast Guard opened fire on the boat, leaving two Palestinians dead.
Egyptian authorities have been widely criticised for gross mistreatment of Syrian refugees in the country, including mass detentions and deportations. HRW, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights and Amnesty International have all released reports highlighting the plight of refugees in Egypt.
“Egypt has detained over 1,500 refugees from Syria, including at least 400 Palestinians and 250 children as young as two months old, for weeks and sometimes months. Security officials have acknowledged that the refugees will be held indefinitely until they leave the country,” read the HRW report.
“More than 1,200 of the detained refugees, including about 200 Palestinians, have been coerced to depart, including dozens who have returned to Syria. As of 4 November, approximately 300 people remained arbitrarily detained at overcrowded police stations, 211 of them Palestinians.”
The Egyptian government reports there are about 300,000 Syrian refugees currently living in Egypt. Only 125,000 have been registered by the UNHCR. An additional 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria are also in the country.
At least 639 refugees have been charged with illegal migration, but the charges have been dropped in all cases.