Egypt: a desperate refuge for Palestinians fleeing the Syrian conflict

The Syrian conflict is entering its fourth year of destruction having impacted the entire population and forced millions to flee to neighboring countries. Among the nearly 3.8 million Syrians that have fled the country since 2011 are 80,000 Palestinians who previously lived in Syria and are now made refugees for a second, often third time. The conflict has affected all people from Syria, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, however Palestinians from Syria have been severely and disproportionately affected, apparent through the reception they have received by different host states, including Egypt.

It is estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000[1] Palestinian refugees from Syria have fled to Egypt since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Exact figures are hard to obtain as registering Palestinian refugees in Egypt is complex, primarily as a result of the government’s incorrect application of Article 1(D) of the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention). As Egypt is not one of UNRWA’s ‘operational areas’, Palestinian refugees (including those recently arriving from Syria) are entitled, as a matter of International Law, to the benefits of the 1951 Convention and come under the mandate of UNHCR. During the initial months of forced displacement from Syria, UNHCR had begun to register Palestinian refugees from Syria in Egypt until the Egyptian government had ordered the Agency to stop asserting that it is the responsibility of UNRWA, which retains only a liaison office in Cairo. The Egyptian authorities only permit UNHCR to advise and assist Palestinian refugees but not register them, which essentially would open up the possibility for third country resettlement and enable Palestinian refugees from Syria to receive access to critical services such as subsidized healthcare.[2] Egypt has continued to incorrectly interpret Article 1(D) of the 1951 Convention, resulting in the extreme vulnerability of Palestinian refugees from Syria and a lack of protection and assistance from either UNHCR or UNRWA.

Unlawful DetentionArticle 2 and 3 of the Egyptian Law of Entry prohibits foreigners to enter or leave Egypt without valid documentation or at an official border crossing. Since the beginning of the Syria conflict, Egyptian authorities have detained asylum seekers while at sea, in harbor or in some cases merely near to the coast, on suspicion that they are preparing to illegally enter or leave the country. Failing to comply with Article 2 and 3 of the Egyptian Law of Entry can lead to criminal trial and/or penalties that include imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine and deportation from the country (Art. 41). These penalties are also applied to asylum seekers, despite the protections against such measures provided in the 1951 Convention, to which Egypt is signatory.[3]

Egyptian authorities have detained 1,500 refugees from Syria being held on charges of violating Egypt’s Law of Entry. Many of the refugees were taken by the Egyptian police to police-station facilities on the grounds of national security and have been detained until they leave Egypt. While in detention, they have not received official explanations for why they are being held or provided with any recourse to legal representation to challenge their detention. Having been ordered by prosecutors, the detention has no legal basis in Egyptian law.

Conditions at the police station are reported to be overcrowded and substandard with reports of 30 males sharing one four meter by four meter cell, and one toilet. Doctors have been granted unofficial access to these facilities and several refugees are reported to be requiring surgical procedures, with many suffering from skin conditions and insect bites due to overcrowding, stagnant water and unsanitary conditions.

In November 2014, 74 refugees aboard a boat fleeing from Turkey to Europe were arrested and detained by the Egyptian authorities when found stranded on Nelson Island. Although the public prosecutor ordered their release on 5 November, Egypt’s Homeland Security instead issued orders for their deportation. The majority of these refugees are Palestinian refugees from Syria and among them are a reported 15 women, 15 minors, seven children under the age of ten and one ten-month-old child.[4] On 9 February 2015, the detainees began a hunger strike demanding their release and aiming to bring international attention to the inhumane treatment by the Egyptian authorities and lack of international response.

Forced Returns Egypt has been forcibly returning Palestinian refugees from Syria back to Syria, often through coercing their departure. The Egyptian authorities are reportedly informing refugees being held in detention that the only way to leave the prison facilities is to return to Syria. Moreover, a report from Human Rights Watch indicates that detained refugees have been forced into signing declarations stating that they are leaving Egypt voluntarily.[5] The Working Group for the Palestinians of Syria confirmed that in December 2013, Egyptian authorities began a campaign of prosecutions against Palestinian refugees from Syria.[6] The Egyptian authorities defended the campaign, claiming that the refugees held no legal residency permits, noting that the Egyptian Department of Immigration refuses to issue any type of residency permits for the Palestinian refugees and Syrians, who fled to Egypt.[7]

According to international human rights law, international refugee law and the 1951 Convention, all states are required to respect the principle of non-refoulement, prohibiting states from sending back asylum seekers to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. Although specifically mentioned in numerous conventions and human rights treaties, the principle of non-refoulement is also considered a principle of customary law, and therefore is recognized as a principle that must be universally observed. Refugees are entitled to an individual consideration of their claim for asylum and according to the African Refugee Convention, Egypt must ensure to use its best endeavors to receive refugees and provide them asylum. The League of Arab States has attempted to raise the deportation issue with the Egyptian authorities but have thus far been unsuccessful.

Detention of MinorsHuman Rights Watch reports that since August 2013, Egyptian authorities have detained over 250 children, Syrians and Palestinian Refugees from Syria, who have been kept in overcrowded and insanitary conditions without provisions for their basic needs.[8] Unaccompanied children are also being detained despite having family nearby, leaving unaccompanied minors with unrelated adults and not adequately considering what is in the best interest of the child.

Egypt has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and as such is obliged to always consider what is in the best interest of the child. Detaining children solely based on immigration status (or that of their parents) violates Article 78 of the CRC which states that children should not be criminalized or subject to punitive measures because of their or their parents’ migration status.[9]

XenophobiaPrior to 2013, Palestinian Refugees from Syria found Egypt more hospitable that other countries surrounding Syria. However, Egypt’s treatment of refugees has always been severely affected by the ever-changing political dynamics of the country. After the coup against former President Morsi in July 2013, a growing culture of xenophobic sentiments increased the harassment and negative perceptions towards refugees from Syria, both Syrian and Palestinian. As mentioned by Nader G. Attar, the Egyptian co-founder of Refugees Solidarity Movement in a report by Al-Jazeera, Egyptian television stations often show xenophobic rhetoric against Syrians and Palestinians.[10] Rumors began that refugees from Syria had supported the former President and the Muslim Brotherhood that led to a change in the attitude towards refugees from Syria at both the local and national level.[11]

In May 2013, hundreds of Palestinian Refugees from Syria began a ‘sit-in’ at the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, demanding equal status with Syrian refugees in Egypt, who not only benefit from educational and health rights but the option of registration with the UNHCR, which provides financial assistance, educational grants, food coupons, protection from deportation, health care and counseling and resettlement.[12]

The harsh treatment and unwelcoming behavior exhibited towards refugees from Syria in Egypt are compelling many into life-threatening situations, including entrusting their lives to smugglers in order to embark on the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of a brighter future.[13] On 17 September 2013, Egyptian authorities opened fire on a boat carrying approximately 200 Syrians and Palestinian refugees from Syria killing two and injuring two others.[14] Reports show that the Egyptian authorities surrounded the boat moments after leaving the shore and proceeded to fire shots into the hull where refugees were tightly packed. An over-crowded boat carrying dozens of refugees from Syria heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa sank on 11 October 2013, killing 12 people.[15]

The overwhelming need of all those affected by the Syrian conflict has overshadowed some of the more vulnerable populations. The struggles of Palestinians from Syria have attracted far less media attention, but their fate is much worse. Those who fled to Egypt have found extremely little or non-existent support, and cannot return to Syria since two-thirds of Palestinian camps have been destroyed or caught up in the conflict. Palestinian refugees from Syria are finding few remaining doors open to them compared to their Syrian counterparts, clearly demonstrating the system of discrimination in place. Singled out for increasing restrictions on access to asylum, Palestinians have become the target of growing hostility within the host countries and communities.[16]

Highlight: The treatment, protection and assistance provided to Palestinian refugees in the Arab states surrounding Syria, including Egypt, have thus far been inadequate, discriminatory and very often in blatant violation of International law.

The treatment, protection and assistance provided to Palestinian refugees in the Arab states surrounding Syria, including Egypt, have thus far been inadequate, discriminatory and very often in blatant violation of International law. Instances of discriminatory treatment, forced return, indefinite detention, border closures, detention of minors, violence and xenophobic attitudes characterizes the current treatment of Palestinian Refugees from Syria in the Middle East. Having been instrumental in excluding Palestinian refugees from the ambit of the 1951 Convention and mandate of UNHCR, Egypt and surrounding Arab states vowed to protect, assist and treat Palestinian refugees on par with their own citizens. However, these commitments made in the Casablanca Protocol have proved empty and the Palestinian community continues to struggle on a daily basis for survival and basic human rights.

The gap in protection and assistance for Palestinian refugees continues to deny Palestinians of their fundamental rights and freedoms and reverses hard won gains in their development and integration into host communities.[17] Fleeing the Syrian conflict and the subsequent treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Egyptian authorities demonstrates what will continue to happen to the Palestinian community under the current regional and international legal framework surrounding the protection of Palestinian refugees. Despite commendable efforts in providing for the increasing number of refugees arriving at their borders from Syria, Egypt and other host countries must provide asylum, treatment and status without discrimination and in line with international humanitarian principles.
* Leah Morrison is an activist for the rights of refugees with a particular interest in the advocating for the rights of the Palestinian community. She recently completed her Master's degree in Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes University, focusing her thesis on the plight of Palestinians from the Syrian conflict and the treatment received in neighboring countries. Leah is currently working for the International Organization for Migration in Kabul, Afghanistan.

  1. UNRWA, “Syria Crisis | UNRWA” UNRWA has received reports of around 4,000 Palestine refugees from Syria in Egypt. Other sources estimate there are around 10,000.
  2. Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return.”
  3. Global detention project, “Egypt Detention Profile.”
  4. Ben Norton, “Syrian, Palestinian Refugees on Hunger Strike to Protest Arbitrary Detention by Egypt.”
  5. Mariam Rizk, “HRW Report: Egypt Detains Syrian Refugees and Coerces Them out of the Country.”
  6. Al-Resalah, “Egyptian Authorities Detain Palestinian Refugees Fleeing Syria.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return.”
  9. bid.
  10. Brenda Stoter, “Syrian Refugees Embark on Exodus from Egypt.”
  11. S.B., “No Place to Call Home.”
  12. bid.
  13. Amnesty International, “Egypt: Boat Sinking Underlines Wider Tragedy for Refugees from Syria.”
  14. Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return.”
  15. Ibid.
  16. Jessica Purkiss, “A Series on Statelessness: Palestinians Fleeing Death and Destruction in Syria Are Unwelcome Visitors in Host Countries.”
  17. Forced Migration Review, “The Syria Crisis, Displacement and Protection.”