Egyptian welcome mat pulled out from under Syrian refugees

CAIRO Thu Sep 12, 2013 10:49am EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Syrian Ghassan el-Shahada enjoyed tolerance and an affordable life when he first fled to Egypt as a refugee. But everything changed after the army took over in July.

Where once they were welcomed as brothers, Syrian refugees are now taunted in Cairo's streets - an open hostility fueled by a media campaign that casts them as "terrorists" allied with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and former president Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the army on July 3.

Ghassan gives an example of the remarks directed at him when he is out selling Syrian bread.

"Bashar (Assad) is too good for you, he should hit you harder," he whispers, when his son, 5, and daughter, 3, are out of earshot.

The family now plans to leave illegally aboard a boat from Alexandria to Italy, less than a year after fleeing the civil war in Damascus.

"There are no good options," Ghassan's wife Nahad says quietly.

It's an unexpected turn of events for the Syrians who found refuge in Egypt in the year Mursi was president.

Then, many Egyptians called Syrians "brothers" in a sign of the special ties between the nations, which joined in political union in 1958-61 under Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Mursi government provided the refugees - as many as 300,000 of them according to government estimates - with free health care and education that put them on a par with Egyptians and gave them far more privileges than long-term refugees from war zones in Somalia and Sudan, among other African countries.

Some were given free apartments by Islamic charities.

But within days of Mursi's overthrow, the country's new army-backed rulers tightened the "open door" visa policy for Syrians and began carrying out random document checks of refugees, many of whom had not bothered to formalize their stays. Arrests and deportations followed.

The government says the changed policy and any backlash against Syrians is the result of "exceptional" circumstances.

"The vast majority of Syrians are living like Egyptians ... if there are a few exceptional cases here and there, that is related to the exceptional security situation," foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty told Reuters.

"As soon as we manage to restore public security, everything will be back to normal," he said.

But the public view had already started to shift among Egyptians unhappy with Mursi's rule and suspicious the Islamist Brotherhood is actually a multinational militant network.

State and private media said some Syrians took part in the pro-Mursi sit-ins that followed his overthrow, convincing many Egyptians that they were in league with the Brotherhood. The army crushed the sit-ins, killing about 900 protesters.

Tawfiq Okasha, a well-known television talk show host and vocal critic of the Brotherhood, told viewers: "On behalf of the Egyptians, to all the Syrians that are staying in Egypt, a message of warning, the Egyptian people took the addresses of where you are staying ... if you stay with the Brotherhood, after 48 hours, the people will go to destroy your houses..."

Osama Abdel Hafiz, 55, a furniture salesman with a shop near central Cairo, said he believed some of the refugees may have been brought to Egypt by the Brotherhood as mercenaries.

"They work at protests and kill (Egyptians). Iranians and Syrians and Iraqis - they are paid terrorists," he said.

DOOR CLOSED

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it has reports of about 280 Syrians arrested since Egypt's visa policy was changed so quietly that planes full of Syrians arriving from Damascus and other cities like Beirut had to be sent back for several days afterwards.

Fifty-eight were deported to countries including Syria, and 140 remain in detention, according to a public document released by the agency late last month.

The UNHCR said the Egyptian lawyers it assigned to follow the cases of those still detained have had a "decreased level of access" to their clients since a state of emergency was imposed last month.

More than 2,000 Islamist activists have been arrested and most of the Brotherhood's leaders, including Mursi, have been jailed on charges of inciting or taking part in violence since then.

The refugees are afraid.

"I sometimes don't leave home for 10 days or two weeks at a time," said 35-year-old Ahmed, a former cameraman for Syrian state TV who lives in a cinder-block apartment complex where water cuts and drug-related violence among poor Egyptian residents are frequent.

He tried to open a kiosk selling batteries and small electronics earlier this summer, he said.

"It failed. The economy is messed up because of the political crisis here," he said, smoking one cigarette after another during an interview on the floor of his apartment, one eye on his neighbor's toddler as she played.

Those who can afford to leave Egypt legally are already leaving - at least 100 Syrians per day have left the country via Cairo airport since early July, airport officials said.

Nearly 1,000 refugees who registered with UNHCR as asylum seekers have closed their files in the past two months, said Mohamed al-Dayri, head of the UNHCR in Egypt.

Giving up asylum-seeker status is a prerequisite for getting an exit stamp from Egyptian authorities.

Poorer Syrians talk hopefully of the boat journey to Italy, which landed 41 Syrians and Palestinians who had first been refugees in Syria in jail last month, according to Amnesty International.

Others say they will try to cross into Libya, unstable since its own 2011 uprising and now at risk of returning to civil war.

Anis Abu Mohamed, 32, said proudly that he had purchased tickets for his wife and one-year-old on a Turkish Airlines flight to Antakiya, a city in southern Turkey. They planned to go live in a nearby refugee camp already overcrowded with Syrians streaming into Turkey from northern Syria.

"We can't live here anymore," he explained. He avoids leaving his rented apartment after repeatedly getting into fights while out buying groceries or looking for work.

"Any (refugee) camp will be better than here. Even Syria would be much better," he said, a bandage around his waist that covers a gnarled scar from a sniper's bullet to his left hip.

Nancy Baron, a psychologist who runs a U.N.-funded organization providing psycho-social and mental health services to refugees in Egypt, said that many Syrians are having a "normal stress reaction to being in a very stressful situation."

"People are desperate...(There is) this horrible misunderstanding between Egyptians and Syrians and the Syrians don't have a voice."

"They say we destroyed Egypt?" scoffed 26-year-old Rawab as she waited with her husband to file asylum seeker documents at the UNHCR office. "We did not come here to make trouble. We fled our own problems."

"Shame on them," her husband Hossam said bitterly.

Ghassan el-Shahada said he was aware that his illegal boat trip plan could land him and his family in an Egyptian jail or an Italian detention center.

"We still have to try to get out of here for the children's sake," he said.

"How can I raise them here? This society is horrible for them. They have no future here," he said, bursting into tears.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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