Palestinian-Syrian refugees held a sit-in by the Palestinian embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, where they demanded the Palestinian ambassador step down from his post. The sit-in was verbally attacked and threatened by the embassy staff after the ambassador had called on the protesters to hold talks.
“We agreed to meet the ambassador for talks in the press conference room of the embassy,” the Palestinian Syrian Refugee Committee coordinator Hanine Hassan said. “As soon as we began entering the room the embassy security tried to push the press out, saying that they did not need outsiders in the room.”
As tensions grew the protesters left the room and made their way outside. Hassan said at this point the embassy staff began hurling insults at the protesters while police stood by and watched. “They were telling us to shut up, yelling at us and accusing us of taking money from foreign elements, calling us thieves,” Hassan said.
The women and children were sent away, leaving behind a group of roughly 60 people. “We sent in four people to negotiate with the ambassador,” Hassan said. “The police meanwhile told us we better not spend the night here because thugs from a nearby area would attack us if we did.”
Embassy staff reportedly threatened to reject visas, telling the crowd they would be deported.
United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) Director in Egypt Manale Arnous said the agency only operates as a liaison in Egypt as it does not have the mandate to legally recognise individuals in Egypt as refugees. Arnous said the onus falls on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register refugees.
Meanwhile the UNHCR are under orders by the Egyptian government not to register Palestinian refugees. Ahmed Abu Ghazalah, the UNHCR’s press officer, said they were in negotiations with the government, adding they could not act without their permission. “We are not a state within a state,” he added.
There were roughly 200 people present when they made their announcement to the media covering the protest. The protesters said that the embassy does not provide any assistance to Palestinians, and in turn they are left to fend for themselves after escaping the Syrian civil war.
According to the Palestinian-Syrian Refugees Committee the number of Palestinian refugees who have fled to Egypt from Syria amounts to roughly 10,000 people, living in the cracks of society as they are not recognised as refugees and as such are not legally allowed to work and receive aid entitled to the Syrian refugees. Neither the Egyptian government nor the United Nations provide aid and the Palestinian Authority, which runs the embassy in Cairo, has not facilitated in supporting the livelihood of the refugees in Egypt, protesters say.
One refugee present said he had fled the fighting in Syria as government forces routinely target Palestinian refugee camps in the country. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he explained that living in Egypt has been difficult because there is no work for refugees and no help from anyone.
“When we apply for our visas it is a very long and difficult process,” the man explained. “Visas can take months to process and they tell us that we are not eligible for an extension.”
Another protester, who called himself Ibrahim, said Palestinians face problems across the Arab world. While Syria’s treatment of Palestinians was much better than Egypt’s, he explained, much of the Arab world does not seem to care. “When our visas expire and we cannot renew them we are told we have to go back to Syria,” Ibrahim said. “How are we supposed to go back to Syria? Every day you can read about attacks on Palestinian refugee camps. Twenty die one day, thirty the next. We don’t have a home to go to.”
Mohamed Al-Mowed, another refugee, explained that he is uncertain about his future. “No one represents us here,” he said. “Hamas represent the Gaza Strip and Fatah represent the West Bank but no one represents us in Egypt.”
Al-Mowed said: “the refugees need a protector, like any human being.” He added that the most important issue right now for the refugees was to have their status recognised by Egypt and the UNHCR.
One protester mentioned that he survives on what little money his mother can send from Syria, adding that he would work if he was legally allowed to. “Life in Syria was difficult,” he explained. “We were not Syrian citizens but at least we were treated as humans and had the right to receive aid from UNRWA.”
Another protester blamed Hamas and Fatah for not doing enough for Palestinians abroad. “They have money which they receive from the West,” he said, adding that instead of spending it on their people they spend it on themselves.
The Palestinian Authority refused a conditional offer from Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to move to the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had said it would accept the refugees into Palestinian territory if those refugees renounced the right of return to Israeli territory.
Several protesters echoed a similar desire to leave the Middle East. “We want to go to Europe, Canada and other places where human rights are respected,” one refugee said.