The way into the Montaza II police station in Alexandria is along a narrow ridge of broken concrete tiles and wet sand. A pool of black and green water with soft grey matter floating in it covers what must once have been a parking lot. There are more than 60 people detained inside, most of them Palestinian Syrians, half of them children under ten, their faces spotted with mosquito bites. On the third floor there’s a pile of sand with parts of a broken toilet sticking out of it. A dirty blanket folded over a string separates the women and children’s quarters from the men’s.
The detainees were all arrested for trying to get to Europe by boat. Some were captured on Nelson’s Island, where they were dumped after a dispute with a smuggler. Some were aboard a boat on which a man and a woman were shot by the Egyptian coastguard on 17 September. The rest were arrested at a coffee shop on the beach, before having even set foot on the water. It’s far from clear they’ve done anything illegal. ‘There’s nothing in the law called “their intention was to immigrate illegally”,’ says Suzan Nada, a lawyer with the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights who has been working with refugees in detention. The courts agree: the public prosecutor acquitted all the detainees of any wrongdoing. But the Interior Ministry insists that they remain in detention, for reasons ‘linked to national security’. The police admit the conditions are inhumane, but say there is nothing they can do.
In the stairwell a woman collapses against the wall, crying. A lawyer goes to steady her. Her name is Anani Amaili. She says that her daughters – one-year-old twins – were taken to the hospital that morning to be treated for severe diarrhoea and fever. She wasn’t allowed to go with them.
Amaili is a Palestinian who used to live in Syria. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides free healthcare and other assistance to Syrians who have fled the civil war. The UNCHR asked the Egyptian government if it could help Palestinians who have come from Syria too; the government said no. The only UN agency authorised to help Palestinians is the UN Relief Works Agency, but UNRWA doesn’t operate in Egypt. So Palestinians here are effectively no one’s responsibility. To make things worse, Palestinians are often accused of having links to Hamas, which Egypt considers a terrorist organisation, and is these days much reviled in the Egyptian media for its links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the Montaza police station, the children can hear suspects being tortured on the floors below. Food is usually provided once a day by Caritas, but sometimes doesn’t come at all. Refugees are often not allowed to use the bathroom. ‘Most of the Palestinians will likely be deported,’ according to Nader Attar, an activist with the Refugees Solidarity Movement. Several people report one of the policemen saying to them: ‘You are trash, so we have to treat you like you’re trash.’