The Palestinian-Syrian ‘protection gap’: inside an Egyptian police station

Anfoushy Detention Center in Alexandria, Egypt. 16 November 2014 (Photo by: Tom Rollins) Anfoushy Detention Center in Alexandria, Egypt. 16 November 2014 (Photo by: Tom Rollins)
Detention is a key part of the story of irregular migration in the Mediterranean Sea. While much international press coverage has focused on high-profile boat tragedies, dramatic search and rescue operations, and increasingly, the impact of European Union policy, many thousands are detained each year for irregular migration across the Mediterranean. These protracted struggles with border authorities seemingly do not make as good a story.

In Egypt alone, more than 7,000 people have been detained since August 2013.1 Activists and civil society organizations in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city and its irregular gateway to Europe, are now bracing for another unprecedented year of irregular movement and detention of human beings attempting to reach perceived safety, security and futurity on the other side of the Mediterranean. The risks of a journey like this, increasingly known as the ‘trip of death’, are high, many of them well-known. But for Palestinian refugees from Syria attempting to leave Egypt’s north coast, there are less visible, and perhaps less known, risks. Once a Palestinian refugee from Syria is detained in Egypt, systemic legal and protection challenges present themselves, often resulting in administrative detention and/or deportation, as well as rights abuses that contravene domestic Egyptian or international legal instruments.

The following account will focus on four Palestinian refugees from Syria’s al-Yarmouk camp: 27-year-old Ramy Fathy, Abdullah al-Shehabi, 22, and his 15-year-old brother Omar, as well as 32-year-old Khaled al-Khalifa. Interviews were conducted by telephone and social media platforms during the course of their detention (ongoing at the time of writing) between September 2014 and March 2015.

From Syria to KarmouzOn 17 September 2014, Ramy Fathy was caught by Egyptian naval forces at sea. He had fled Syria a second time after an explosion killed his daughter and other relatives in Qudsiya, near Damascus, on 14 February. Ramy had first come to Egypt before the July 2013 visa regime introduced by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s new government. He returned on the advice of his family (who said Qudsiya was relatively safe) and due to the atmosphere for refugees from Syria following the July 3 coup. Once at sea, the smuggling boat Ramy was travelling on had faced engine problems, not far from international waters. Ramy later described a sense of relief upon ‘rescue,’ amid assurances from the Egyptian authorities that they would be treated well — i.e. not as criminals.2 This language was repeated the same night when Ramy was transferred to Anfoushy Youth Centre, a state-owned youth club and sports facility that briefly became the one site in the city exclusively used for immigration detention between September and November 2014. Tareq al-Mahdi, then Alexandria’s governor, made a speech in front of Ramy’s group (and television cameras), promising that “on the humanitarian and moral level, you are our guests.”3 The refugees were given a meal wrapped in cellophane and told their stay at Anfoushy would be brief and tolerable. “We are not here to punish you for the mistake you have made,” Mahdi said.4

On 30 September, another vessel carried Abdullah and Omar al-Shehabi, and Khaled al-Khalifa back in to port after apprehension at sea. Omar, a minor, was worried. Khaled was bereaved having recently lost his wife and son to the September boat tragedy that left up to 500 people dead when smugglers deliberately drowned their boat near Malta.5

Yousef al-Zaytouni, a 23-year-old Palestinian refugee from al-Yarmouk also on the boat, who was ultimately allowed to leave Egypt afterwards thanks to a student visa in a Gulf state, meanwhile reported that "there was the media taking lots of pictures, filming us [at the port]. It was good treatment when we were first caught.”6

It soon became clear that this was not going to last. Weeks later, the group was taken — in handcuffs — to the immigration office in Alexandria, essentially to prepare deportation procedures.

More and more, it appeared Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled were being treated as criminals, not guests. This transformation was confirmed when an Interior Ministry official told state newspaper Al-Ahram in early February that refugees detained in Alexandria were “infiltrators,” not “official refugees.”7 After Anfoushy Youth Centre closed down, the group was separated and distributed across two different facilities. The conditions inside both stations were worse than Anfoushy, but also indicative of the inconsistency of Alexandria’s immigration detention estate. While Abdullah, Omar and Khaled were separated from other detainees at Gomrok station, Ramy was held in a cell with criminal detainees in Muntazah Second. Meanwhile, camera-phone pictures sent by Yousef, also detained in Gomrok for a time, revealed that conditions inside were squalid.

Later, the group — reunited with Ramy — was transferred to Karmouz police station where, on 1 November, a group of 104 Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees would join them. On 9 February 2015, at least 50 Karmouz detainees launched an open-ended hunger strike against their detention.8 After two weeks, that number dropped to about 30 hunger strikers following a visit by UNHCR representatives.

At the time of writing, Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled are still detained, as well as the 1 November group, in Karmouz, one of at least nine police stations, prisons or ad hoc shelters in Alexandria9 that are used as an informal detention estate for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Ramy, detained since 17 September 2014, is now the longest-held Palestinian-Syrian refugee in Alexandria since unprecedented migration flows began leaving the north coast in August 2013.10

Legal challenges in the ‘new diaspora’On 16 December 2012, a Syrian MiG jet bombed al-Yarmouk camp.11 Since then, the camp has been besieged, bombed and beset by fighting. Before 2011, Palestinian refugees who settled in Syria were generally regarded as among the best treated in the Arab world, faring “substantially better than in other countries” through comprehensive rights in terms of employment, education and social services — but, significantly, not citizenship.12 (Ironically, Syria’s Law 260 (1957) stated that 1948 refugees also qualified for military conscription in the Syrian army, a reason why Ramy and Abdullah, both of military age, were particularly terrified of refoulement.13) Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled are all descendants of 1948 Nakba refugees, making them ‘Palestine refugees,’ a definition laid out in the 1949 UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) that originally established UNRWA.

After Syria, secondary displacement has also created a complex legal situation for Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict. According to the reservations of Arab governments at the time of the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Palestinians were excluded from the protection of the convention through Article 1D. While this may have originally been an attempt (on the part of Egypt and other Arab states involved in drafting the convention) to ensure Palestinians were not “relegated to a position of minor importance” amongst the world’s multiple diasporas, it is a precedent that has had far-reaching consequences.14 Article 1D states that the convention’s provisions “shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance” — generally understood to mean Palestinian refugees receiving assistance from UNRWA.

As descendants of 1948 ‘Palestine refugees,’ Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled all fit under UNRWA’s mandate for assistance within Syria. And, having left one of UNRWA’s official areas of operation (Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank) for Egypt, the four therefore become “ipso facto entitled to the benefits of the [1951] Convention,” according to Paragraph 8 of UNHCR’s October 2009 Revised Note on Article 1D of the 1951 Convention, because they are not receiving UNRWA protection or assistance.15 Additionally, according to UNHCR’s authoritative interpretation of Article 1D, UNHCR should therefore be able to provide international protection to Palestinians from Syria under the provisions of the 1951 Convention. However, for political or security reasons, the Egyptian government has never permitted this.

Syria’s ‘substantially better’ atmosphere for Palestinians before 2011 arguably reflects one of the region's most faithful adoptions of the Arab League’s 1964 Casablanca Protocol, at the time the most extant commitment by Arab states to enshrine rights for Palestinians in Arab states without compromising the right of return. Both Egypt and Syria agreed to the protocol without reservations but, as Zureik notes, “only two states with a significant Palestinian presence, Syria and Jordan, fully ratified the Casablanca Protocol.”16 Egypt’s implementation was instead inconsistent, dependent on shifting political circumstances. Abed notes that before Casablanca, during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ for Palestinians under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the provisions of the protocol were “effectively observed for the most part…and they continued to be observed for a decade thereafter.” However, after 1978, Palestinians’ legal status in the country plummeted and, arguably, has never recovered.17

Like other Arab states, Egypt has claimed that its refusal to grant international protection to Palestinian refugees from Syria is based on concerns about preserving right of return, set out in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III). Indeed, Jordan’s prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said in a January 2013 Al-Hayat interview that accepting Palestinians crossing the border from Syria was a “red line” because it represented “a prelude to another wave of displacement [...] Our Palestinian brothers in Syria have the right to go back to their country of origin,” Ensour claimed. “They should stay in Syria until the end of the crisis.”18 This policy has resulted in entry refusals and refoulement of Palestinians fleeing Syria.19 Human Rights Watch reported that Jordan officially banned entry to Palestinian refugees from Syrian from January 2013, while forcibly deporting more than 100 who managed to enter the country since mid-2012, including women and children.20

The significant difference, though, is that Palestinians already inside Jordan are permitted to register with UNRWA, whereas no Palestinian in Egypt is recognized as a refugee eligible for protection. Egypt does not recognize Palestinians within its borders as refugees and, although not officially, has not allowed new Palestinian refugees from Syria to enter the country since 2013. This is generally understood as based on political and security considerations, not some haughty concern about Palestinians’ right of return.

From Karmouz to a solutionEgypt’s policies inside its borders have also been accused of “forcing Palestinian refugees from Syria into risky coping mechanisms,” including exploitation at the hands of Mediterranean smuggling networks and risking death at sea. Both represent “a direct result of Egypt’s refusal to recognize them as refugees and grant them refugee protection.”21

But the moment Palestinian refugees from Syria are detained in Egypt, they face two main sources of uncertainty. One is how they will fare according to the “distinctly arbitrary” application of immigration law by the competent Egyptian authorities — something experienced by irregular migrants of different nationalities.22 The other uncertainty stems from the fact they are stateless Palestinians subject to a “discriminatory” and “exclusionary” legal regime, both in Egyptian and international law.23 As a result, Palestinian refugees from Syria in Egypt experience another exclusive system — this time in detention — just as they do in international law. According to those monitoring detention in Alexandria, Egypt does not have “one solid rule” when processing so-called irregular migrants.24

Variables can include everything from nationality to the police officer in charge of the station where the refugee is first processed and detained.25 Even the time of year can be significant. According to sources, the group in Karmouz police station (including Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled) may not have been released or resettled between late 2014 and spring 2015 because of a concern by the authorities that others detained at the onset of the “peak” smuggling season (generally seen as starting in April) would see detention as a route to resettlement. Aly Abdullah Abdelghany, a Somalian asylum seeker, has also been detained in Alexandria since August, making him the longest-held individual in immigration detention there since August 2013.26 Immigration detention in Alexandria is inconsistent. Administrative detention is also not reserved for Palestinians only. However, beyond this, Palestinian refugees from Syria then face extenuating circumstances based on their legal rights and situation within international law, as well as Egypt’s interpretation of both.

Because Palestinian refugees from Syria are unable to register with UNHCR, those in detention are left with only at-the-point-of-need assistance from UNHCR’s implementing partners — in this case, Caritas and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).27 Caritas provides them with food; Medicins Sans Frontieres with medical treatment. This is an experience mirrored outside Karmouz, where 3,500 Palestinian refugees from Syria are eligible to receive food voucher assistance from the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), but not residency from the Egyptian government or clearly mandated refugee protection from UNHCR.

As Egypt does not form one of UNRWA’s official areas of operation, and the Egyptian government does not allow UNHCR to take over its mandate, there is little room to maneuver. Instead, UNRWA plays a tentative and mediatory role between other UN agencies outside Egypt and the Palestinian Embassy inside the country, in an attempt to resettle detained refugees.28 This is a slow, drawn-out process that also depends on the willingness of other states to absorb Palestinian refugees — increasingly in question as the Syrian crisis enters its fifth year and the number of Syrian nationals registered with UNHCR in countries neighboring Syria approaches four million. These countries, like Lebanon, are increasingly strained by the Syrian diaspora; while Western states have resettled barely 2% of the total diaspora population.

Without a UN agency to effectively advocate on their behalf, and with the Egyptian government unwilling to release them inside Egypt, Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled have had two choices from the beginning: resettlement or deportation. Without access to international protection from UNHCR, or assistance from UNRWA, each and every refugee is therefore vulnerable from the get-go. Moreover, in detention Palestinian refugees from Syria are immediately one step closer to more severe and arbitrary measures, including deportation or imprisonment.

Until Egypt reaffirms its commitment to international obligations, Palestinian refugees from Syria who attempt to leave Egypt irregularly will continue to experience the bitterest end of “intensified exile”; criminalized and castigated by Egypt’s interpretation of domestic and international law. And, as more and more refugees, asylum seekers and migrants continue to attempt dangerous sea crossings in 2015, Ramy, Abdullah, Omar and Khaled will not be the last.

*Tom Rollins is a freelance journalist currently based between Alexandria and Cairo, where he writes about irregular migration, refugees and immigration detention for international media including Al-Jazeera, Al-Monitor and Middle East Eye. In summer 2014 he launched a reporting series on irregular migration from Egypt's north coast through crowd-funded journalism platform, Beacon.

  1. Figures provided by researchers at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in Alexandria. See also Priyanka Motaparthy, “Why Syrian Refugees Risk the ‘Journey of Death’ to Europe.”

  2. Tom Rollins, “Unwelcome Guests: Egypt’s Failed Experiment in Refugee Detention.”

  3. Alexandria Governorate Youtube Channel, The Governor of Alexandria Receives 227 Illegal Immigrants, and the Allocation of a Youth Center to Detain Them.

  4. Tom Rollins, “Unwelcome Guests: Egypt’s Failed Experiment in Refugee Detention.”

  5. BBC News, “Malta Boat Sinking ‘Leaves 500 Dead.’”

  6. Tom Rollins, “Unwelcome Guests: Egypt’s Failed Experiment in Refugee Detention.”

  7. Ahmed Sabry, “51 Syrian, Palestinian and Somalis Refugees Go on a Huger Strike in the Police Department Protesting Their Detention Conditions.”

  8. “An Announcement of the Hunger Strike Was Published on Social Media on the Evening of February 8. The Refugees inside Karmouz Also Set up a Facebook Page and Twitter Hashtag, #KarmoozRefugees.”

  9. Global detention project, “Egypt Detention Profile.”

  10. Interview with Mohamed Kashef, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

  11. Martin Chulov, “Syrian Jet Fires Rocket at Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus.”

  12. Elia Zureik, Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process, 43.

  13. Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, “Syria: The Legal Rights and Obligations of a Palestinian Who Has Been Issued a Syrian Travel Document, Including Whether They Must Report for Military Service; Whether the Rights and Obligations Apply to Palestinians That Have Resided outside of the Country for the Majority of Their Life and Only Visited It Briefly (2009-November 2013).”

  14. Takkenberg, The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law.

  15. UNHCR, “2009 Revised Statement.”

  16. Elia Zureik, Palestinian Refugees and the Peace Process, 31.

  17. Oroub El-Abed, Unprotected: Palestinians in Egypt Since 1948.

  18. Al-Monitor, “Jordanian PM. We Can’t Accept Palestinian Refugees From Syria.”

  19. Tom Rollins, “Egypt Deports Palestinian Syrians back to Conflict Zones.”

  20. Human Rights Watch, Jordan: Palestinians Escaping Syria Turned Away.

  21. BADIL Resource Center, Closing Protection Gaps: Handbook on Protection of Palestinian Refugees in States Signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention (2nd Edition).

  22. Global detention project, “Egypt Detention Profile.”

  23. Jasmin Fritzsche, “Displacing the Displaced: Challenging the International Framework for Palestinian Refugees in Light of the Syria Crisis.”

  24. Interview with Muhamed Kashef, EIPR. See also Tom Rollins, “Egypt’s Jailed Refugees Caught between Hope and Despair.”

  25. Global detention project, “Egypt Detention Profile.”

  26. Tom Rollins, “Egypt’s Jailed Refugees Caught between Hope and Despair.”

  27. Maureen Clare Murphy, “Palestinian and Syrian Refugees Go on Hunger Strike in Egyptian Jail.”

  28. “Interview with UNRWA Official, Speaking on Condition of Anonymity.”