CAIRO (Reuters) - Dozens of refugees from Syria detained in an Egyptian police station began a hunger strike on Friday to draw attention to their plight, several of them said.
The United Nations refugee agency confirmed that 52 refugees of Syrian and Palestinian origin had refused to receive food delivered by a UNHCR-funded charity to the police station where they are held in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Among the detainees are 21 children, including 14-month-old twin girls, and eight women.
“We will not eat until we die or until we are allowed to go to any country that will accept us,” a 52-year-old man said by phone from the police station in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Like about half the refugees in the police station, the man, who asked not to be named, is a Syrian-born Palestinian.
The United Nations says the Egyptian government has refused to let it register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them temporary residence.
As a result, hundreds of Palestinians are detained in police stations, with nowhere else to go.
Another refugee sent a text message that read: “We are appealing to the international community in the name of humanity. We are searching for a secure homeland that can provide protection and care for our children and women.”
The Egyptian authorities have apprehended about 1,500 Syrian refugees in the last few months and about 1,200 of them have been “coerced to leave”, Human Rights Watch said last week.
Those with Syrian passports left Egypt for refugee camps in other countries in the region. The Palestinians have been given no option but to camp out in a police station indefinitely, or somehow make their way back to the war zone in Syria.
Most of the 1,500 refugees detained by the authorities were seized while trying to flee by boat to Italy. Although courts have ordered their release, the authorities say they are being held for immigration violations.
Many of those now on hunger strike were captured at sea on September 17 by the Egyptian navy, which fired on their rickety, overloaded craft, killing two refugees.
The group was moved this month to the police station in Alexandria, where families sleep on blankets on cement floors.
“We are being held in inhumane conditions and our women and children are suffering the psychological consequences,” said the Syrian-born Palestinian.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said he was not aware of the hunger strike.
Of the 2 million refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war, some 300,000 went to Egypt, where they were received warmly during Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s year in office. Syrians who could not afford to stay in Lebanon or Turkey said Egypt had become an attractive option.
Days after the army toppled Mursi in July, the new military-backed government tightened the “open door” visa policy for Syrians. Arrests and deportations of refugees, some of whom had not bothered to formalize their stays, followed.
Public sentiment also turned against Syrians and Palestinians, who began to be portrayed in the Egyptian media as “terrorists” who had backed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alistair Lyon