Cairo, AFP - Dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees detained in the Egyptian city of Alexandria for trying to illegally migrate to Europe went on a hunger strike Friday, a UN official said.
The group of more than 50 refugees, who have been held at the Mediterranean city's Muntaza police station for weeks, launched the protest over their poor living conditions, said the official who declined to be identified.
"Since today, they have been refusing to eat food supplied by the UNHCR through our partner there," the official who works for the UN refugee agency told AFP.
"They want to send a message that their conditions be improved."
The group was detained when hundreds of refugees, including Palestinians, who had fled the war in Syria for Egypt tried to leave the North African country illegally, the official said.
The UNHCR's regional representative, Mohamed Dayri, has told AFP that Egypt gave the refugees a choice of paying for a return ticket to Syria and neighbouring countries or staying in Egyptian prisons for an indefinite period.
Human Rights Watch said this month that Egypt detained more than 1,500 refugees from Syria including Palestinians, before forcing most to leave the country.
It said that most of the refugees who were arrested had been trying to "migrate to Europe on smugglers' boats".
It accused Egyptian authorities of targeting Palestinians fleeing from the Syrian war by preventing them "from seeking protection" from the UNHCR and telling them to leave or face "indefinite detention".
HRW says some 300 refugees from Syria, almost two thirds of them Palestinians, are still behind bars and demanded that Egypt hold accountable the security officials who ordered their detention.
Dismissing HRW's claims, Egyptian authorities said "dictating the coerced departure of Syrians from Egypt" was not an official state policy.
"No Syrian refugee is made to depart from Egypt unless they have been proven to have entered the country through illegal immigration, an action contrary to Egyptian law," the government said on November 13.
It said more than 320,000 Syrian refugees had arrived in Egypt since 2011, bringing the total number of Syrians residing in the country to 750,000.
More than two million Syrian refugees have fled the war in the country which erupted in March 2011.