CAIRO (AP) — 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 separated family members in some cases.
The Britain-based group said that its activists found one-year-old Syrian twins among refugees in Egypt's custody. It 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 that ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Egypt's new military-backed leadership has been far less tolerant of Syrian refugees 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.
"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," Elsayed-Ali added in a statement.
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 U.N. refugee agency. Most were coming from Egypt.
In a statement Thursday, Egyptian Foreign Ministry criticized Amnesty's report, saying in a statement that it does not "reflect the real conditions of Syrians on the ground in Egypt." It said Syrians are treated as "brothers."
"It's a matter of principle for Egypt to support the Syrian people in their plight and to support the Syrian revolution," ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Atti said. He estimated that at least 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt.
Shortly after the July coup, Egypt slapped visa requirement on Syrians. Abdel-Atti said it was "an exceptional measure linked to the security situation in Egypt" and will be later reviewed.
The Egyptian navy has intercepted at least 13 boats with Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. According to the latest U.N. refugee figures, 946 people have been arrested by the Egyptian authorities while attempting the crossing. It says 724 remain in detention.
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 since an uprising there 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.
Associated Press writer Sarah el Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.