Stopped in the middle of the sea by the Egyptian Coast Guard, aboard a boat that was sinking shortly after the start of its journey to Europe. Locked within the premises of a police station in Alexandria, where the police prevent the arrival of relief supplies of Caritas
WRITTEN by STEFANO PASTA, translated by Mary Rizzo
MILAN- Through WhatsApp, we interviewed Syrian refugees held since 14 April in Al Rashid police station in Alexandria, Egypt. Having failed to reach Europe with a barge, they were handed over to the Egyptian authorities, but now risk transfer to the prison of Al Burj , or – even worse – repatriation to Syria.
What is your situation like today?
Disastrous hygienic conditions are dangerous due to a broken sewer. We are 144 persons living in two rooms measuring only a few meters, one room for women and one for men. We sleep on the ground and we cannot wash. We try to keep calm, but when it happened a few days ago there were moments of tension between us, the police prevented the visits for that day and suspended the coffee and the food brought from outside by Caritas Alexandria. The boys and men are still able to resist in some way, but the women and children are really at the limit; there are two women with heart problems who finished their medicine and they need to get out immediately.
What is the situation of children?
There are 44 children under the age of 12, while the total number of children is 63. There are a few who are trying to play with water bottles and they are the only ones who can get distracted for a moment. At night, however, they find it difficult to sleep. As of yesterday, almost all of them have developed a sort of skin disease that no one can identify. Two children of one and two and a half years, alone with his mother because his father was killed in Syria, were suffering particularly yesterday , they were taken to the hospital five times because they suffer from asthma and staying in this place of detention is equivalent to sleeping in a garbage dump. We are also concerned about another 4 year old girl, suffering from cardiac difficulties, who had begun to complain about the chest pain already in the midst of the sea.
Why did you flee from Syria?
Many of us have fled to avoid conscription in the army of Assad, others are activists against the regime who are risking their lives. Then there are families who have fled their homes because they could not survive in some cities, people are dying of hunger because of the siege of the regular army (regime army), which does not allow the entry of food. There is no bread and milk for the children, while the rice when one can find it, costs almost twenty dollars a kilo. Life like that is simply impossible, that’s why we escaped.
Have you talked with a lawyer or with international authorities?
No, none of us was able to speak with a lawyer or has received a sheet with the written reasons for why we are being detained. We met a lawyer named Ahmad, who initially presented himself as belonging to UNHCR, but then he began to terrorise us by threatening to have us repatriated and he revealed that he works for Egyptian National Security. This is our greatest fear, because it would be tantamount to a death sentence; also return to Lebanon would be very dangerous, since it has already happened that Hezbollah has handed over some refuges to Assad. After a week from the meeting with Ahmad, presented to us is a UN official, at least this is what he is telling us, along with an interpreter, in which we explained how we ended up in the police station.
How did it happen?
What happened before our arrest was a nightmare. We were ready to face the Mediterranean to reach Europe and we had entrusted ourselves to smugglers, who treated us badly, screaming profanities and threatening to beat us with bars, even children. With small boats, we were taken in groups on a larger boat, where we were parked at sea for seven days waiting for it to fill up to 250 people. When we were ready to leave, the same smugglers noticed that the boat was about to sink. It was the worst time since we left Syria: we could die and nobody would know. Then, after a fight broke out between the smugglers on the boat and the organisers were on the ground, we were able to convince them to bring us back; we passed the Coast Guard, but no one saw us. Once on the beach, we ourselves went to the Egyptian authorities, asking for help, but since that day, April 14, we were all arrested, including children.
Have you heard of other refugees detained in Egypt?
Of course, we have detailed information because they are members of our own families. The wife of a man who is here at Al Rashid is held in another place, then we know where the traveling companions arrested with us are. In the police station in Al Montazah there are 22 people, 55 in Chabrakhit and an unknown number – but with so many children – in Miami.
What are you asking for?
We call for the respect of Article 33 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits any member country the repatriation (refoulement ) of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened . We ask UNHCR and the European embassies (we initiated contact with the Austrian one) to be able to apply for asylum. We ask the Europeans: would you like your children to have the Mediterranean as their graves? Open a humanitarian corridor, let us save our lives legally.
thank you to Nawal