Published October 13, 2013
CAIRO – A human rights lawyer from central Syria and an amateur soccer player from Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia found their fates colliding just off Egypt's coastline one afternoon. The two had fled their country's civil war to Egypt, only to flee again — this time on a smuggler's boat bound for Italy's southern shores.
The lawyer Hassan and the athlete Abdul-Rahman paid around $3,000 each to smugglers for the voyage, but the ship was barely underway last month when it was intercepted by coastal patrols. Two people died in gunfire and the rest — about 100 mostly Syrian refugees — were hauled to prison in the seaport of Alexandria, they told The Associated Press.
Desperate migrants seeking work or refuge in Europe have attempted the clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean for decades. But the growing turmoil and bloodshed in the Arab World — including Syria's civil war and political upheavals in Egypt — have brought more boats, packed decks and higher risks in rougher post-summer seas.
In the past week alone, at least 339 people, including many Syrians, died after their vessel capsized trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. A day later, another boat went down, with rescue crews managing to save most aboard but reporting seeing bodies in the water.
On Friday, 12 people drowned in a shipwreck off Alexandria's coast. Another 116 survived, according to Egyptian state media.
Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat warned Saturday: "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a cemetery."
"A year ago, Egypt was like a flower that was opening. It was the start of a new life. Things were fresh and new and I thought to come here and live," said the lawyer Hassan, speaking from prison on his mobile phone.
For 22 year-old Abdel-Rahman, Egypt was his only escape from Syria's compulsory military service. "There was no third option," he said. "They would have sent me somewhere to fire on people. I would have had to kill or be killed."
The two men spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of complicating their legal appeals. They also asked that only their first names be used.
In Egypt, the decision for many Syrians to risk the sea journey is sealed by the chaos since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government in a July coup, and a new military-backed leadership that has been far less tolerant of Syrian refugees.
In their September attempt to reach Italy, Hassan said the boat captain ignored coast guard warning shots to stop. The shots then hit two on board: a man traveling with a child and his pregnant wife, and a woman making the journey with her grown children. The boat was forced back to shore, where Egyptian soldiers offered the shaken passengers biscuits, tea and water before taking them to prison, according to Hassan and Abdel-Rahman.
Egyptian security officials have declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding the deaths, though rights activists and a rights lawyer have corroborated what the survivors told the AP in separate interviews.
Less than a year ago, Egypt offered a glimmer of hope for Syrians escaping the war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and created at least 2 million refugees.
Before coming to Egypt, Hassan ran a small business in the Syrian province of Hama, one of the most hard-hit by Syria's army. With many Arab countries keeping their doors closed to Syrians, Hassan chose to come to Egypt where life was relatively cheap and a decades-old policy allowed Syrian to enter without a prior visa.
According to the U.N.'s refugee agency, Egypt is host to at least 111,000 people from Syria, though the organization says the actual number is likely higher.
The backlash from Egypt's new leaders — as well as worsening economic conditions — has driven many to take to the sea. About 3,300 Syrians, including more than 230 unaccompanied children, arrived off Italy's coast in August and the first half of September, according to the UNHCR. Most were coming from Egypt.
"We had no idea that it would be this dangerous," Hassan said.
Like almost all other Syrians or Palestinians who lived in Syria caught trying to illegally leave Egypt, they face just two options: indefinite imprisonment or a one-way ticket out of Egypt.
That choice is complicated since only a few countries are willing to accept the Syrians, and even fewer would welcome the Palestinians. In Syria, they will likely face arrest upon return and in Lebanon, Syrians are given just a 48-hour visa in most cases. The majority have opted for Turkey, host to more than 460,000 Syrian refugees and sprawling refugee camps. Those with money to spare have gone on to Malaysia, where Syrians can easily obtain visas.
In a statement, Amnesty International's head of refugee and migrants' rights, Sherif Elsayed-Ali, criticized Egyptian authorities for "compelling many refugees from Syria into life-threatening situations, including entrusting their lives to smugglers."
An Egyptian lawyer who works for an international refugee agency told the AP that prosecutors hand these cases over to state security officers. The lawyer, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to media, said the detainees then have their visas revoked and are deemed a "national security" threat.
To deal with the growing problem, youth activists in Alexandria started the Refugee Solidarity Network to provide Syrians with food, medicine and baby diapers.
The founder of the initiative, lawyer Mahinour el-Masri, said several hundred people have been deported in recent months and around 600 remain imprisoned in Alexandria. El-Masri's group is trying to reverse government policies that deem the asylum-seekers as a danger to security, especially since many are children.
"The government has already created an internal enemy, which is the Muslim Brotherhood, and an external enemy, which is the Syrian refugees, to recreate a state of fear," she said, referring to the new regime's fierce security crackdown.
Abdel-Rahman, meanwhile, remains hopeful. He missed an interview with a European embassy in Cairo for a visa request because he boarded the boat just one week before. He realizes he may never get a second chance, but insists he has no regrets.
"What would you do if you had the chance of a lifetime?" Abdel-Rahman asked. "I got that chance and had to take it."