Middle East

Syrians in Egypt: Escaping a once safe haven

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Media captionMany refugees have risked their lives to escape Syria, as Orla Guerin reports

Refugees who fled the conflict in Syria are now fleeing Egypt, where they once found a safe haven. But in trying to leave Egypt by sea they are risking their lives, as Orla Guerin reports from the coastal city of Alexandria.

When Suha Omar Ali fled battle-scarred Damascus a fortnight ago, she was a mother of four. Now she is a mother of one.

Having survived years of conflict in Syria, her three youngest daughters perished in the Mediterranean Sea.

"We were running from death," Suha says in a trembling voice, "and we found it ahead of us.

"It was only five minutes after we got on the boat that they said it was going to sink. We couldn't imagine things would happen that fast.

"My brother-in-law very quickly put a life jacket on me.

Image caption Suha (at right) and her elder daughter survived the smugglers' vessel sinking

"I said: 'If my daughters don't have jackets, I don't want one, I want to die with them.' He forced me to put on the jacket."

They had set sail from Alexandria on an overcrowded smugglers' vessel on 10 October. The young sisters were among at least a dozen people who were lost to the waves.

A searing fragment of their lives remains - a family photo in which the brown-eyed trio pose side by side.

They wear matching outfits - crisp white T-shirts and trousers, with green cardigans.

Sama was the eldest, at eight, followed by six-year old Julia, and Haya who was five, and disabled. They left for her sake.

Suha was hoping she could be treated in Sweden.

Image caption Suha's three daughters, Haya, Sama and Julia, who drowned at sea

'Goodbye my child'

"I was kicking and kicking, trying to stay afloat," Suha said.

"I looked over and saw my disabled daughter was gone.

"She went under the water and did not come up. Goodbye my child. May God be with you my daughter," she said, weeping.

"My other daughter held on to my neck and said: 'Where is my sister Haya? Did she drown?' I had to tell her Haya was saved.

"Suddenly water came on top of us. I saw three white lights. I didn't know then my third daughter was also gone."

Suha's dream of escaping to Europe ended in a cramped police station in Alexandria, where she and other refugees are being held indefinitely.

Image caption Syrians in Egypt have tried to leave via the port city of Alexandria

No privacy

Mattresses and blankets are strewn on the floor, and piles of clothing dot the corners.

Suha has no privacy even to grieve. She has to hide her tears from her sole surviving daughter, 10-year-old Sara.

Human rights campaigners accuse Egypt of unlawfully detaining hundreds of Syrian refugees like Suha, without charge.

The youngest we found was a two-month-old baby boy, called Ward. He has spent half his short life in the police station.

His mother, Suhair, worries that he is not getting sunlight or enough air.

Image caption Baby Ward has spent half his life in Egyptian detention

'Deliberate strategy'

The miserable conditions in detention are part of a deliberate strategy, according to local human rights activist Nader Attar, co-founder of the Refugee Solidarity Movement.

He claims that the aim is to force the refugees to buy their own plane ticket, and agree to be deported. He says 600 people have been deported since August.

Image caption Human rights activist Nader Atter says the Egyptian authorities put pressure on Syrians to leave

"We documented cases where they don't get them the food aid," he told us, "or get them food at all so they stay for two days without food for example.

"So all of that is to pressure them, at the end of the day, for them to sign papers to leave the country."

Far from protecting the war-weary Syrians, Egypt is risking their lives, according to Mr Attar, by returning some to the warzone.

He claims five groups have been sent back home - and the most recent arrivals, a group of 36, faced arrest when they landed in Damascus.


We asked Egypt's foreign ministry for a response to Mr Attar's allegations.

A spokesman insisted no Syrians were forced to return to Syria.

He said whoever wanted to leave had to choose from the countries that would accept them. As to why Syrians were being held in prisons, he said there was no other suitable place for them.

Egyptian officials say Syrians are being treated decently. The refugees themselves say they are treated like convicts.

"What is my crime?" asks Sondos, a mother of two in detention in a mosque, attached to another police station.

"Here I am staying in jail, with flies and cockroaches. What have I done?"

Sondos and her two young children survived the shipwreck that claimed Suha's daughters. The traffickers had told her she would be brought to Italy legally.

She borrowed money to pay what they demanded - $3,000 (£1,860).

Rates vary - some smugglers charge more than $6,000 (£3,720) per person.

"I wanted my kids to live in peace," she told us. "This is what every human wants.

"My dream was for us to be able to live as well as even the dogs live in Europe.

"I wish I had drowned in the sea, along with my dreams."


Nearby another survivor of the shipwreck sat quietly. This was nine-year-old Esraa. The shipwreck claimed her father. She spent hours in the water, clinging to his body.

For many of the refugees, the greatest fear is to be sent back to Syria.

"My husband stayed there under fire so that the children and I could be saved," Sondos told us.

"Now they are going to deport us back to Syria.

"I am going back to be under fire with him again, what did I gain?"

Image caption Syrian refugee Shifaa says she has decided to leave Alexandria

In spite of the risks, more and more Syrians are attempting the perilous voyage from Alexandria to Europe. Many are fleeing increasing hostility in Egypt, where they once found a safe haven.

Twenty-three-year-old Shifaa, who used to study interior design in Damascus, is one of those now planning to go. With her stylish clothes, fashionable sunglasses and manicured nails, she looks like the young professional she intended to be.

Sitting by the shore, with waves lashing the beach, she told us the tide turned for the refugees after President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in July.

Since then Syrians have been accused of backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's recent political unrest. They feel their welcome has run out.

"For us Syrians, this second revolution has made things much worse," she said.

"Even those who used to help us have stopped. If you are walking in the street you will hear things like, 'Why did you come here?'

"People say, 'You deserve what Bashar Al-Assad is doing to you.' Our neighbours now try to avoid us."

Shifaa knows the risks she faces if she tries to flee - she could be cheated by the smugglers, arrested by the Egyptian police, or drowned at sea. But she is resolute.

"We already lost our dignity when we left Syria," she said. "I think the seas will be more merciful to us than the people here. Once you get to Europe you become a human being.

"Here I feel I am nothing."