Protesters wave the Syrian revolution flag during a rally in Cairo, Egypt, last year (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Abu Shihab recalls when armed police officers in full riot gear barged into his cramped apartment and led him away in handcuffs, along with a dozen other Syrian refugees. “They were dressed like they were ready for a war,” he says. He stands in the sun-washed courtyard of Masaken Othman, a cluster of cracked reddish-brown residential buildings rising from the dust in Cairo’s desert outskirts. Trash and car tires float in fetid green water seeping from a drainpipe onto the sand.
Abu Shihab arrived with his wife and children in May, fleeing his hometown of Hama after his 12-year-old son was killed in an airstrike by the Assad regime. They now live in this isolated apartment complex alongside some 240 other families, among an unprecedented wave of Syrians who have fled the fighting at home only to find themselves trapped in the cross-hairs of Egypt’s political upheaval. Those who have not been turned away at the border have been detained in large numbers by police and vigilante groups. Dozens have been deported. Meanwhile, members of Egypt’s established Syrian community face increasing harassment, their businesses attacked and looted.
The United Nations has registered close to 100,000 Syrians in Egypt, but the Egyptian government estimates that up to 300,000 currently reside in the country. In the past two and a half years, more than 2 million refugees have fled Syria, a displacement the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls “unparalleled in recent history.” The tide of Syrians crossing borders has risen almost tenfold over the past twelve months alone, with neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey seeing the greatest influx. In Egypt, the UNHCR confirms that at least 143 Syrians have been arrested over the past eight weeks, of whom fifty-eight were deported. Yet the Tadamon Council, the largest refugee service provider in Egypt, puts the number of those detained over the same period at more than 600, with some 200 being deported. (The council says that the UN numbers are lower because it tracks only refugees who have registered.)
Short, with a compact build and a thick mustache, Abu Shihab tells his story in animated, rapid-fire sentences. On the night of July 27, security forces raided Masaken Othman and detained him, along with several other Syrian men and boys. He says he was shuttled among a courthouse, a police station, and state and national security offices, and interrogated—and asked repeatedly whether he had participated in the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in, the epicenter of support for deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi before its brutal dispersal in August.
Even though his papers were in order, including his passport and an official UNHCR registration card that should have guaranteed his protection, Abu Shihab spent three days in detention without charge before being released.”Why are we being treated like this?” he asks. “What are we, terrorists?”
Nathaniel Kim, associate director of the Tadamon Council, describes such arrests as clear intimidation. “It’s definitely struck fear in the hearts of a lot of Syrians here,” he says. “And they’re really nervous about their future in Egypt, if it’s even possible to stay.” According to Kim, a number of NGOs have come under pressure from Egyptian authorities just for working with Syrians, and community organizations making donations to Syrian refugees have been shut down.