CAIRO — An international human rights group urged Egypt on Thursday to end its policy of unlawfully detaining Syrian refugees, including children, and forcibly returning them to their homeland where civil war is raging.
Amnesty International said that hundreds who have fled the bloodshed in Syria for sanctuary in Egypt — including many children without their parents — face prolonged detention in poor conditions or deportation, which has in some cases separated family members.
The Britain-based group said that its activists found one-year-old Syrian twins among refugees in Egypt's custody. In a report released Thursday, Amnesty said appalling conditions in detention and the threat of being sent back to Syria are prompting scores of refugees to flee again.
Many embark on a treacherous journey by sea to Europe, Amnesty said, to escape the chaos that has prevailed in Egypt since the July 3 military coup in which President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government were ousted.
Egypt's new military-backed leadership has been far less tolerant of Syrian refugees who were given shelter and support during Morsi's reign.
"Instead of offering vital help and support to refugees from Syria, the Egyptian authorities are arresting and deporting them, flouting human rights standards," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty's head of refugee and migrants' rights.
"Most refugees lost their homes and livelihoods when they fled Syria," Elsayed-Ali added in a statement following the release of the report. "Failing to help and protect them is a stain on the reputation of Egypt and could seriously damage its image as a key stakeholder in the region."
According to the U.N. refugee agency, Egypt hosts at least 111,000 people from Syria, though the actual number is likely higher.
The backlash from Egypt's new leaders — as well as worsening economic conditions in this country — has driven many to take to the sea. About 3,300 Syrians, including more than 230 unaccompanied children, arrived off Italy's coast in August and the first half of September, according to the UNHCR. Most were coming from Egypt.
Several refugees told Amnesty they felt compelled to leave Egypt due to the hostile conditions they face in the country.
The Egyptian navy has intercepted at least 13 boats with Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. According to the latest UNHCR figures, 946 people have been arrested by the Egyptian authorities while attempting the crossing and 724 - women, children and men - remain in detention.
During a visit to a police station in Egypt's port city of Alexandria last week, Amnesty found approximately 40 refugees from Syria unlawfully and indefinitely detained. There were 10 children among them, the youngest a pair of one-year-old twins who had been held there since 17 September.
In most cases, Amnesty says that even after the public prosecution orders their release, those arrested are kept in continued detention under orders of Egypt's National Security agency.
In one case, a nine-year-old boy from Aleppo — Syria's largest city, which has been carved up between government and rebel-held areas — was arrested on a boat with a family friend. He was detained and denied access to his mother for four days, the group said.
And last week, 12 people drowned when a boat carrying Syrian refugees sank off the coast of Alexandria. Earlier in October more than 300 people, including several Syrians, died when their vessel capsized trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The Syrian conflict has uprooted 7 million people from their homes as President Bashar Assad's military fights rebels around the country following an uprising against his iron-fist rule that erupted in March 2011.
Since then, more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million Syrians have sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
The exodus has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region, which the international community is struggling to handle as the conflict continues unabated well into its third year.