Exclusive testimony: Syrian refugees shot trying to leave Egypt

Syrian and Palestinian refugees on a boat that Egyptian coast guards shot at, killing two on Tuesday. Photo published on Facebook by Refugees Solidarity Movement.
 
The Egyptian coast guard allegedly opened fire on a ship full of Syrian refugees attempting to flee to Italy, killing two. The rest of the refugees, who were caught just off the Egyptian coast, are now languishing in a detention centre in Alexandria. FRANCE 24 spoke to several of the refugees from the ill-fated vessel.
 
According to refugees interviewed by FRANCE 24, as well as Egyptian human rights activists, the coast guard ordered the boat to turn around, but the captain, an Egyptian, refused to do so. They then opened fire, killing two of the refugees, a man and a woman. Witnesses among the refugees said the woman was shot in the back three times. According to a statement from the Egyptian authorities, the coast guard fired in the air, and the bullets accidentally hit the victims.
 
The boat’s passengers included numerous Palestinians who had fled Syria. The Palestinian consulate in Alexandria says it is working to secure the detained refugees’ release. Hamas, meanwhile, has issued a statement demanding that those responsible for killing the two refugees be brought to justice.
 
While these refugees were unsuccessful in reaching Italy, the United Nation estimates that about 4,600 Syrian refugees have reached its shores so far this year, two thirds of this number in August alone. The journey to Italy by boat takes approximately two weeks.
 
One of the refugees who was shot dead. Video filmed by refugees on the boat, as it headed back to shore. Published by the Egyptian activist network "Refugees Solidarity Movement" on its Facebook page. 

“We didn’t understand why they were shooting; none of us were armed, and there were children on board!”

Rihaf Adel Abu Usba, 31, is a refugee who was on the boat that the coast guard intercepted on Tuesday.
 
I’m a Palestinian from Damascus, Syria. I fled Syria just 14 days ago, by plane, with my husband and two children, who are 2 and 4. Most countries wouldn’t let us in; Egypt was pretty much our only option. We had planned to settle there, but quickly realised that Syrians weren’t welcome. [Since former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in early July, Syrian refugees report increasing harassment.]
 
We decided to try to get to Sweden, which is much more welcoming toward refugees. We had to pay smugglers 3,000 dollars (about 2,200 euros) per adult so they would take us by boat to Italy; from there, we would have had to pay an additional 1,000 euros each to get to Sweden. On Monday night, the smugglers locked all 150 of us in a building that was under construction; in the morning, they took us to the beach, where we boarded a small boat that took us to a bigger one. This second boat was supposed to take us to a third that would go all the way to Italy, but we didn’t get that far.
 
Children waiting to disembark, following the death of two refugees. Photo published on Facebook by Refugees Solidarity Movement.
 
When the coast guard approached and started shooting, everyone panicked. We didn’t understand why they were shooting; none of us were armed, and there were children on board! We refused to leave the boat, and tried to call Egyptian media outlets; a few journalists were there when the boat arrived at the port, but the soldiers wouldn’t let them talk to us. We were forced to get off the boat and were promised we wouldn’t be jailed, but then they locked us up in the detention centre. We’ve been here for three days now and don’t know when we’ll be let out. Everyone here is traumatised. We feel like we aren’t safe anywhere.
 
Refugees wait to unboard the boat. Photo published on Facebook by Refugees Solidarity Movement.

“The smugglers beat us, hit us, and refused to give us water”

Waleed (not his real name) is a Syrian refugee who is being detained in the same centre as our first Observer. He attempted to get to Italy on a different boat about three weeks ago.
 
I fled the violence in Syria nine months ago. I had a good job in Syria, but in Cairo, I couldn’t find any work. I was running out of money, and I have a wife and two children to support. Through friends, I heard about an Egyptian smuggler who, for 7,000 US dollars, would take my whole family from Alexandria to Italy. We hoped to go to Sweden from there.
 
We left the beach in a small boat, which took us to a bigger boat, in which there were dozens of other refugees, both Palestinians from Syria and regular Syrians. But there were huge waves, and during the transfer, one of the smugglers got caught between the two boats and was badly injured. They continued on anyway, and 10 hours later, he died of his wounds. The smugglers decided to turn back. Nobody protested, and in fact I was relieved – they were behaving horribly with us, beating us, insulting us, refusing to give us water. They were all high on drugs. They weren’t sailors, really; they were criminals.
 
They dropped us off on a small island just off the coast of Alexandria, called Nelson’s Island. It was deserted; we spent a night there before calling the Egyptian army to come rescue us.
 
"The dentention centre is so dirty that the children are getting skin diseases”
 
Since then, we’ve been living in terrible conditions in this detention centre, which is located in a police station. It’s overcrowded; we have no mattresses, no blankets. Even the children have to sleep on the hard floor. Many of them, including my children, now have skin diseases because it’s so dirty here.
 
Refugees sleeping on the ground at Montaza 2nd Police Station's detention quarters in Alexandria. Photo published on Facebook by Refugees Solidarity Network.
 
A few days after we first arrived, we were given the option of being deported to Lebanon. Most of the 130 people from my boat decided to go; 17 of us stayed. I would have gone, but my infant child, who was born in Egypt, didn’t have the necessary papers. We were joined three days ago by the people from the second boat, who are very rattled by the deaths they witnessed. None of us know when we will be freed. [According to Alexandria human rights lawyer Mahinour El-Masry, they are not the only ones waiting to be set free: he says a total of 512 refugees are currently being detained in the city’s prisons.]
 
And when we are, I don’t know what I will do – I have very little money left, and won’t risk trying to go to Europe again. It’s simply too dangerous. So we’re stuck.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).
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