In Egypt, Syria desperate refugees ready to risk all for Europe

Friday 11/09/2015
UN says around four million Syrians have fled abroad

ALEXANDRIA (Egypt) - Their arrest by Egypt's coastguard and 12 days in detention under the searing heat have not sapped the determination of young Syrian Suad and her brother: They will get to Europe, whatever the risk.
"When the coastguards arrested us they opened fire. An Egyptian man was wounded," says 18-year-old Suad, who fled the war in Syria with her family for the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.
"I was terrified. But afterwards I felt that I had become even stronger."
Suad was arrested with her 17-year-old brother Mohammed and a group of refugees in August on the shores of Rosetta in northern Egypt as they prepared to board a boat to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.
They were held for 12 days, in tents in the courtyard of a police station as a heatwave battered Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city.
Their father, Abu Mohammed, says he paid $4,000 (3,535 euros) for the trip, hoping his children would make their way to Germany before Europe imposes restrictions to curb the flow of refugees.
Making contact with people smugglers was easy, he says.
"All the refugees know them and we share their contacts. You can find them sitting at the cafe," he says.
He worries it will be increasingly difficult for the children to make it.
"It would have been easier now than later" to make the crossing, Abu Mohammed says, sitting in his sparsely furnished apartment in Alexandria, where he and his family have lived since 2012.
Since January, more than 430,000 migrants and refugees have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Nearly 2,800 have died along the way.
Many of those trying to reach Europe are Syrian refugees fleeing a four-year war that has killed 240,000 people and driven nearly half of the country's population from their homes.
The UN says around four million Syrians have fled abroad, mainly to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says it has registered about 130,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, though the Cairo government says there are several hundred thousand living in the country.
The Syrians had been welcomed in Egypt under Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, but rights groups say police have clamped down on the refugees following his ouster by the army in mid-2013.
Many Syrians now bide their time taking on small jobs to earn money to pay for a crossing to Europe, says Mohamed al-Kashef from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a non-governmental group.
"This is the case since 2014. Syrians try to work in Egypt to save money," he says.
One of them is Ahmed, a 37-year-old father of three who says he is running out of money and can no longer afford his rent, the equivalent of $135 a month.
"I'd rather die," says Ahmed, than "see my children live on the streets".
Ahmed, who declined to give his last name, said he plans to travel alone to Sweden to link up with relatives and then send for his family.
But since he cannot afford to pay $2,500 for the crossing, he plans on finding 10 people willing to pay to go on the trip to get a free passage -- a widespread practice among Syrian refugees.
In the meantime Ahmed has sold his wife's jewellery to help make ends meet.
Another Syrian refugee trying to eke out a living by doing odd jobs in Alexandria is Abu Oday, a 35-year-old father of five who was arrested by the coastguard in 2013 and detained for 98 days.
On a recent day he paid a visit to a group of 56 refugees from Syria, Somalia and Sudan held in a police-run detention centre after their failed bid to reach Europe.
Women, some veiled, some pregnant and some with small children, sleep on blankets on the ground of a courtyard adjoining the police station.
To reach nearby toilets, they have to cross a pool of mud.
The men are housed in the top floor of a nearby building still under construction where the heat is suffocating.
"They wanted to go to Italy but they were arrested in Rosetta on a bus," says Abu Oday.
He is carrying bags of grilled chicken and water bottles for the refugees, some of whom are refusing to eat the food provided, saying it is of bad quality.
Dozens of cartons containing food rations brought by international aid groups are stacked in the courtyard, untouched by the refugees.