Why are thousands of Palestinians fleeing Gaza and heading to Turkey?

Why are thousands of Palestinians fleeing Gaza and heading to Turkey?
Feature: An increasing amount of Gazans are leaving the impoverished Strip and heading to Turkey to be illegally smuggled into Europe, with hopes of a better life there.
6 min read
19 July, 2019
Around 80% of Palestinians are reliant on international aid [Getty]
Forty-year-old Shadi Abu Jbara lives in a small two bedroom house in the Alburaij refugee camp in central Gaza Strip with his wife and seven children. Months earlier, he was in Turkey with hopes to migrate to Belgium. 

Shadi's dream to leave the Israel-besieged Gaza Strip is shared by thousands of other Palestinians who live in the tiny coastal enclave and embarking on the dangerous and illegal migration sea and land route to Europe has become the only option for them to seek a better life elsewhere. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Europe by sea over the past few years, but much of the focus has been on Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war.

The impoverished Strip, which has a population of around two million, has been under a crippling Israeli blockade for more than a decade – around 80 percent of Palestinians are reliant on international aid, according to the United Nations. 

Residents receive only four hours of electricity a day on average, while the unemployment rate is one of the world's highest at 54 percent, reaching 70 percent among university graduates.

Shadi says he has no other choice but to leave the Gaza Strip, as his children – the eldest of whom is a 16-year-old girl and the youngest is only 10-months-old – will "grow up with no horizon for a better future." 

"In fact, the main reason that has driven me to think about migrating is the overall situation in the Gaza Strip. I constantly feel insecure both physically and economically," he tells The New Arab.

"So far, three major Israeli attacks have occurred and almost frequently the region is hit by violence and counter violence. Amid this unending situation, the fear inside me grows, especially for my children, who like many other children here, are forced into hardship."

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In January this year, taxi driver Shadi decided to take the huge step and apply for travel to Turkey, from where he would be smuggled into Europe in hopes of finding a job and providing for his family so that they could live better life.

"I had to sell my taxi in order to cover the travel costs from Gaza to Turkey," he says. At the family's home, Shadi shows The New Arab a small magnetic card. It's his recently-issued residency permit in Turkey, which is valid until March 2020.

"I booked my travel after I obtained a one-month visa to Turkey. I paid $1,600 for the travel coordination," Shadi reveals.

He would leave Gaza via the recently reopened Rafah crossing terminal, on the Egyptian side of the border, from where he would fly to Turkey. 

To co-ordinate the different parts of his travels, Shadi paid a number of people including Palestinians and Egyptians for the first part, and then smugglers on the Turkish side.  

After making it to Istanbul via Cairo International Airport, the steps towards migration began for Shadi and the others travelling with him.

Shadi tells The New Arab that as he landed in Turkey, he was welcomed by a number of groups who help smuggle migrants to the nearby Greek borders, en-route to Europe.

"Such groups only help in return for large amounts of money, about 1,800 Euros per single migrant. They would offer two ways of being smuggled, either via sea or via land."

The latter would mainly be through large forests that could take up to four or five days worth of walking. As Shadi cannot swim, he opted for land smuggling.

A rough indication of the journey Shadi would have made 

"The smugglers do not do like to make regular phone calls when coordinating an individual's smuggling, they would rather use WhatsApp. I contacted one of them who informed me that I must deposit a sum of 1,800 Euros with an office in the suburb of Istanbul, where I stayed.

"After I deposited that sum, I was informed by the smuggler that I will be leaving that very night." 

Shadi says he waited all night but the smuggler did not show up.

"After getting back in touch with them, I was told I will be able to leave the next night instead. At this point, the stress and anxiety was beginning to build up," he says.

"Back in Gaza, my father's health condition was getting worse and the family wanted me to return immediately. So, I chose not to wait for the smuggler and decided to head back home instead," Shadi said. 

The Gazan father also revealed that many of those who had been smuggled through large forests had returned back at least once during his stay in Istanbul.

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This increased his fears about what fate was waiting for him, especially since many of the Gaza migrants were reported to have either been caught by Turkish border authorities or lost track of their journey and forced to trek back to Istanbul.

"While I was in Istanbul I met another family from Gaza, a mother, her 20-year-old son and her four daughters, two of whom were married. I became close to this family. 

"I knew that they had also opted for the land smuggling option and I said my goodbyes as they left. Sadly, a few days later they returned to Istanbul with the elderly mother now extremely sick due to the attempted long walk to the Greek port city of Thessaloniki. By then, I had realised how risky and unsafe, the migration journey really is," Shadi told The New Arab.

Shadi still dreams of migrating to Europe from Gaza. He tells The New Arab that his valid Turkish visa could help him go back to Turkey from where he could book a flight to China and then to a European country.

"My friend was able to fly from Turkey to China and then to England. He has recently contacted me and said that the travel was easy and that he is waiting for me to follow him."

According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by Gaza-based Al-Aqsa University with a random sample of 2,800 youngsters in the Gaza Strip, around 51 percent had expressed their wish to migrate, citing economic hardships and a lack of prospects for a better future.

Unconfirmed reports also suggest that around 35,000 Palestinians from Gaza have migrated from Gaza over the past year and a half, however around 17,000 of them returned after failing to make it to Europe.

In January this year, a 22-year-old man from Gaza was pronounced dead after drowning off the shores in Greece, while trying to make it to Europe through Turkey, highlighting the dangers of such a route. 

"Currently, I am weighing up whether to go back to Turkey and attempt another migration route or to stay in Gaza and deal with the ill fate of the increasingly worsening conditions in our territory," Shadi laments.  

He is surrounded by his children who play by the front door of their small home in the Alburaij refugee camp.

He pauses for a while, before asking, "Do you think the situation here will get better any time soon?" 

Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. 

Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari