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Death at sea: The via dolorosa of Palestinian refugees

In the past few days, the dozens of bodies swallowed up by the Mediterranean Sea have drawn the international community’s attention to the tragedy of the refugees risking their lives trying to cross the water, in the hope of finding a better future on the other side. This reality is nothing new, but as we so often see, it is only death that attracts attention. 

The flood of Syrian refugees over the past two years has been highlighted, and rightly so. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which recently announced that the number of Syrian refugees had exceeded 2 million, including one million children, stated that no fewer than 4,600 Syrians arrived on the Italian coast since the beginning of 2013, of whom 3,300 arrived in the month of August alone

The significance of these figures is clear, when compared to the total number of 4,348 refugees of all origins registered by Italy during the whole of 2010.

But behind these numbers, and aside from the tragedy of the Syrian refugees, lies another drama: That of the 500,000 Palestinians who are being forced into a second exile after having been driven from their land more than 60 years ago, many of them seeking refuge in Syria. 

Some have installed themselves here in Egypt, while others are hoping to cross the sea to Europe, especially since they have become victims of the xenophobic nationalist propaganda circulated by the army and other reactionary Egyptian forces. 

Still others have been arrested after attempting to leave, today are being held in police stations in Alexandria and other coastal towns, awaiting deportation.  Accused of trying to immigrate illegally but subsequently acquitted by the courts which systematically order their release, State Security is now holding these refugees in detention, like their Syrian companions, for being “a threat to national security.”

Too often confused with Syrian refugees, the Palestinians’ fate is widely ignored, although their situation — in this country at least — is more dramatic and their distress greater, precisely because they are not Syrian. 

In fact, most Syrian refugees who are arrested possess the refugee “yellow card,” and are thus under the protection of the UNHCR via sub-contractors. This gives them some kind of legal aid at the moment of their arrest, together with basic necessities until their fate is decided. 

The UNHCR protection should in principle safeguard the Syrian refugees from deportation but, needless to say, Egyptian state security could care less about international law.  Thus, the protection supposedly provided by the little piece of yellow paper is far from reliable, and often turns out to be an illusion. 

Nevertheless, the Palestinians would be grateful for such protection — but the UNHCR does not have a mandate to work with Palestinian refugees. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) works with Palestine refugees in the Near East, but does not operate in Egypt.  

Therefore, the only authorities able to intervene are Palestinian embassy officials.  It goes without saying that these officials have less of a presence on the grounds than the UNHCR representatives, a fact that demonstrates the total indifference towards the fate of the dozens and dozens of Palestinians who make up the majority of the refugees held in inhuman conditions in Egyptian police stations.

Consequently, when we went with some young Egyptian activists to visit the 40 Palestinian refugees currently held at the Rahmaneya police station in the town of Behera, they told us that, after two long weeks in detention, they still had not seen a single official from their embassy.  Despite their numerous telephone calls and the promises made by the embassy’s lawyer, Khaled Atteya, that he would visit them, there was still no sign of him. The embassy’s public relations officer, Yasser Salman, hadn’t even bothered to acknowledge their calls.

For more than two weeks, 26 women and children — the oldest child being nine years old, and the three youngest being year-old babies — have been sleeping on the floor of the police station’s mosque.  As for the men, they are being held outside.

One of the women suffers from leukemia, and was accepted by a hospital in Germany following two failed operations in Syria. But how to reach that hospital when Germany is denying her a visa? Her only other hope would be to go by sea, putting her life at risk even while attempting to save it. 

Sitting alone in a corner of the mosque is an 84-year-old woman. She was 19 years old in 1948 when she had to leave her native land, just like 800,000 other Palestinians. Now, 65 years later, she lives a second exile, another naqba (disaster). 

Seventeen countries are willing to admit refugees from Syria, or so we are told. Does that include those who are Palestinian? Nobody knows yet what conditions will be applied, and so, in the bureaucratic maze of government departments, nothing is being done. 

And even if it were to happen, how are the refugees supposed to reach those countries, mostly situated in Europe, when they are denied visas?  Amidst this widespread hypocrisy, the highly uncertain acceptance by those countries is no more than the dubious promise of a prize to those who manage to endure an odyssey that would make Ulysses blush. 

As for those who didn’t make it and are today detained in Egypt, they are forced to choose a country to which they will be expelled, and at their own expense. 

Yet again, the options available to the Palestinians are even more limited than those available for their Syrian counterparts, and can be summed up as follows: 

Ecuador: The price of a one-way ticket to Ecuador costs around 1,000 euro. The country is unsafe and rife with criminality. In the principal port, an abduction takes place every nine hours, mainly of foreigners.

Lebanon: It is known to be the country where Palestinian refugees experience the most difficult situation. Lebanon issues 48-hour transit visas, which the refugees can always try to renew, until their savings run out due to the high cost of living.

Gaza:  Gaza is one of the most populated strips of land where 1.1 million refugees already make up the total population of 1.5 million, facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis while under siege by the Israeli army.

Deported back to Syria: Sent back to where they came from, back to the war from which they fled.

As we were saying goodbye to the 40 refugees at Rahmaneya, we learned that another boat, heading for Italy and carrying 163 people — including Egyptians, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, had been shipwrecked off the Egyptian coast. In the car taking us back to Alexandria, we heard the grim news:  12 dead and 35 declared missing.

We visited the 112 survivors. The four Egyptians had been released, while 40 Syrians and 72 Palestinians were detained at the police stations of Karmoz and Dekhela in Alexandria. They told us what had happened, how they were in the water from 11 pm until 5 am the next morning before being rescued — not by the Egyptian navy, but by fishing boats. They also narrated how, when the navy finally appeared, it was not there to save them, but to film them.  

It was during those long six hours that Esraa, barely nine years old, desperately clung to her father’s body, believing that he was still alive. It was during those long six hours of struggle and agony that Soha saw three of her four daughters (Sama, eight; Julia, six; and Haya, five) succumb to fatigue and disappearing, one by one, into the dark, cold waters.

In 2006, Soha’s brother was killed by the Israeli army in Lebanon.  One week ago, having seen her home destroyed in yet another war, she left the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus where she had been living.  

Having fled the war in the hope of reaching Europe to seek treatment for her paralyzed daughter, Soha said:  “Because I wanted to take care of one of my girls, I lost three of them.”  

She was not allowed to attend their funeral and say a last goodbye, so now she hangs on to the smell of her daughters, which still lingers on some of their clothes, as if to escape the reality of her nightmare.

Wafaa is hanging on, too. She is hanging on to the hope that her two little boys Hekmat and Shams (aged three and five) are alive and will return to her. Hekmat and Shams are two of the 18 children who are still missing after the shipwreck. 

These are the stories that the numbers don’t reveal. In this large room where I was surrounded by mothers weeping for their children, desperation overwhelmed me. I had no answer to Soha’s question: Why? Why are the Palestinians plagued by such cruel fate? 

Then my gaze goes to the faces of the angels sleeping on the thin mats strewn around the floor. And to other children farther away who are playing with a doctor’s stethoscope. They want to listen to their heartbeat.

And in the darkness, something becomes clear to me, like a ray of light:  Life will always find a way. We will tear down your borders and conquer the ignorance, fear and selfishness that build them. 

– Alexandria, October 13 2013 

It is now two weeks since the shipwreck happened and I wrote these lines. I wish this article was outdated by now, but unfortunately, it is not. Of the 112 refugees rescued and detained in the Karmoz and Dekhela police stations, 14 refugees have finally chosen to fly to Lebanon and Turkey. None of the 35 persons missing have been found. 

In Rahmaneya police station, after some of the refugees tried to escape, the conditions got worse. Some of them have been beaten, men are now kept in jails and all of them have been told that they have until November 6 to book their airplane tickets, otherwise they will all be deported back to Syria.

This article was first published in French on Mediapart and was translated into English by Annie McStravick.

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Céline Lebrun