ALEXANDRIA — It is filthy and squalid here, putrid air and the smell of sewage palpable amid the din and dust from the constant passage of heavy vehicles. Far away, beyond the silhouette of a refinery, the horizon is hardly distinguishable. It is from this shore, in the suburbs of Alexandria, Egypt, that Mohammed tried to reach Italy. He thought the journey would succeed, just as it has for some 3,000 other Syrian refugees who have managed to reach Lampedusa from Egypt since August. 

Born in Damascus, this 27-year-old father tried the crossing Oct. 11 with his four brothers and sisters and their children. After four months in Egypt, he realized there was no future for him here. He left his father, wife and daughter, thinking that the family could reunite once he’d reached his desired destination of Sweden.

Mohammed sold all his property to raise what he needed to pay the smugglers — $3,500 per person. But the amount buys no guarantees. On the evening of Oct. 10, a bus picked them up at their rented apartment in the poor neighborhood of Agami. 

Under the weight of 130 passengers, mostly from Syria, the boat chartered by smugglers sank just a few kilometers from the Alexandrian coast. The shipwrecked victims waited several hours in the dark before the arrival first of fishing boats, and then finally the rescue ones. At least 16 people died, including five children. Mohammed chose to swim and reached the shore four hours later, exhausted.

Arrested and questioned for illegal immigration, his relatives are being held at the Karmuz police station in Alexandria, where they have been ordered to leave the country. They could have gone to Lebanon or Turkey, but they lost their passports in the wreck. The Egyptian authorities have therefore given them no choice but to return to Syria.

A new, less friendly era

Before the July 3 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt was a safe haven for Syrians. There were about 300,000 living there, opening restaurants, attending schools and universities. But since the return of the military hierarchy to power, everything has changed. Accused by some media of being pro-Morsi, the Syrians have become the target of xenophobic attacks.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 150 Syrians were randomly arrested in July and August. Nearly 1,000 others were arrested as they fled by sea. “They are not prisoners. The coastguard has caught them during the act of illegal immigration,” explains an officer from the Dekhela police station in Alexandria, anxious to smooth things over after a recent critical report about Egypt published by Amnesty International. “They remain at the police commissariat while their identity is traced and the removal process takes its course.”

Amnesty International has accused Egypt — a signatory to the 1951 Convention for the Rights of Refugees — of breaking the principle meant to protect people from being sent back to a country where human rights are seriously violated.

According to Mohammed, Egyptian authorities are often bought off. “We shipped from the beach onto five boats before joining a bigger one,” he recalls. “On the left, there is a big restaurant, which was crowded that evening. And right there is a military sentry. It is impossible that no one saw or heard us.” 

Reda Shafik shares this conviction. This Egyptian-Syrian activist coordinates the actions of several NGOs in Alexandria, and since the fall of President Morsi she visits prisons almost daily, bringing food and clothing to refugees. “The smugglers bribe the coastguards,” she says. “Those who do not pay are investigated. This is what explains the different fares: If you pay $3,500, it is almost certain that you can cross.”

Curled up on a sofa, Essam and Madeline listen in silence. The young couple arrived three weeks ago. They were Palestinian refugees in Syria and were able to obtain a six-month tourist visa at the Cairo airport. They fled Yarmouk camp, situated in southern Damascus.

“Before the beginning of the war, everything was fine. I was a pharmacist and Madeline a teacher,” Essam says. “But it became impossible. There is not enough food anymore. There are no more means to treat and take care of people. My wife had two miscarriages, and I am diabetic. I need insulin.”

For now, Reda offers them food and shelter. “In Syria, the situation is inhumane. We cannot go back there,” Essam says. “And what can we do here? There is no future here.