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Jobless Palestinians brave death to migrate

Living in unspeakable conditions, Gaza’s youth are taking incredible risks to escape the strip to find work and dignity in Europe
Scores of Palestinian migrants wait for days at the Rafa crossing with Egypt (AFP)

RAFAH, Gaza City - Ahmed Abu-Ayyad first heard about the devastating shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants on the news when the television began beaming in images of dead bodies, drowned off the coast of Malta. 

The 25-year-old saw that many people were missing, including Palestinians with whom he grew up, and he could feel panic and despair spread through his neighbourhood as families began to mourn their loved ones, fearing but not yet knowing whether they were alive or dead.

But while the memories are still fresh, and people are still reeling from the 13 September disaster, Abu-Ayyad insists that he still wants to travel far away from Gaza. After living through the latest Israeli war - and surviving some seven weeks-worth of bombing and fighting - he says that he has nothing left to lose and dreads staying, more than he dreads the perilous journey to Europe where he says he will at least experience some simple freedoms.

“I just dream of having an ordinary job and the ability to live a dignified life,” said Abu-Ayyad.

“Here, in Gaza, I am not able to have either," he adds, before explaining that the absence of basic human rights drives him to constantly dream of a life that is just not possible under Israel's occupation and blockade.

Escape

Sweden is the first country that comes to mind. Abu-Ayyad’s cousin migrated there in 2008 and has since found himself a job and his own apartment.

Abu-Ayyad hoped that this connection would help him to obtain a Schengen visa but despite trying everything he could think of, and going through all the available channels, no one seemed able to help him. With nowhere left to turn, Abu-Ayyad decided to do the last thing he could think of - "a trip from death to death.” He knows he could die if he goes, “but anything was better than just living like this,” he explains.

“I am aware that the Gaza- Egypt tunnels are dangerous, and so is the road through Sinai toward Libya and Italy,” he says. “I think my chances of success are about 50/50.”

Others, however, regard these odds as wishful thinking.

One young man from Gaza says he thinks that "death is a 100 percent risk," although he too insists that he will soon be attempting the crossing.

He insists that he does not want to die, but explains that even if his odds of perishing en route to Europe are more than 50 percent, that fear is about one percent of what he goes though regularly just living in Gaza.

“Every day I die a hundred times in Gaza,” he says.

Football dreams

Since he was 17-years old, Abu-Ayyad has played football in several Gaza local teams. He quickly developed a reputation, and was widely touted as a possible star on Palestine’s national team.

Many young men can only dream of representing their but country, but Abu-Ayyad decided that this career path would be too much of a risk. If Israel decided to ban the Palestinian team from travelling, Abu-Ayyad would have lost his chance and “it all would have come to nothing.”

Faced with crippling uncertainty, he decided to leave football, and instead began searching for a job to make some money and pay for his mother’s medical treatment.

But with few jobs in Gaza - which suffers from an employment rate of over 40 percent, Abu-Ayyad didn’t have much luck.

His only option, he insists, is migration even though his ailing mother, Umm Eyad, begs him not to take the risk and says she would rather die than see him sink.

She has already lost one son, Eyad, who was arrested by the Israelis eight years ago when he tried to sneak into Israel in hope of finding work. The family hasn’t seen him since.

Eyad’s incursion into his heavily fortified neighbour might sound like a kamikaze mission, but Abu-Ayyad explains that it is simply the consequence of having no job, no future, no prospects, and no real way out.

With 1.8 million Palestinians trapped in the costal enclave, Abu-Ayyad thinks that situation is becoming too much to take.

“Every second year we have a war, which kills those we love and destroys what we build," he explains.

Failure

People smugglers are not hard to find in Gaza and Abu-Ayyad first came across a man in Khan Younes who requested $3,000 to facilitate his trip from Rafah in southern Gaza to Alexandria in Egypt where many migrant vessels attempt the journey to Europe.

Abu-Ayyad, however, refused the offer. Not only did he not have the large sum of money – about half of Gaza’s average annual personal income – he was worried that the smugglers would provide a fake Rafah border control Egyptian stamp and could cause even more trouble.  

Instead, a few days ago he tried to travel the legal way through the Rafah Crossing, from where he hoped to travell to Alexandria and find a boat himself.  

He stood at the gate of Rafah, with two of his friends, for three whole days, under the grilling and most unbearable September sun but the plan went nowhere.

“They told us, we were under age,” says 25-year old Abu-Ayyad, who was forced to return home and begin looking at other alternatives yet again.

While he did not borrow the whole $3,000, he still had to borrow some to facilitate his trip and now has to find work to repay his debts. With so few jobs available, this will be hard at it will be quite some time before he can think about trying again.

“Every penny takes time to borrow and collect from friends and people I know,” he says.

Business for some

The smuggling and migration network goes from one person to the next. It starts by obtaining a fraudulent Schengen visa and European passports for around $2,500. Ironically, this is done by a desperate and bored young man who has never been outside of Gaza. He merely relies on his scanner and some basic Photoshop tools to fake the documents.

The man acknowledges that there are original Schengen visa stickers sold by Europeans, but those cost even more and are hard to find. Even if you can get one, they don't guarantee entry. A European consul source told MEE that such forms of fraudulent visas can be identified, as they require biometrics finger printing - a new policy now demanded by European states.

Fortunately for those handling the smuggling of desperate youth, not all European airports are equipped for these types of visas, although the journey is definitely getting harder.

Following the death of hundreds of people in the latest shipwreck the Egyptian and Gazan authorities have seized control of the border areas in an attempt to stop human trafficking.

Iyad Al-Bizm, a spokesman of the Interior Ministry in Gaza told MEE that security has been beefed up in an attempt to root out and arrest the smugglers who are helping Gaza’s youth to emigrate.

The few that manage to get through are also facing an increasingly dangerous journey that starts long before they reach their ships in Egypt.

The Palestinian Interior Ministry says that several Palestinians have been attacked by Egyptian thugs on the road.  They are often beaten, robbed and stripped of their money and documents, and are left with very little consular support as they have entered illegally.

The story is all too familiar to Abu-Ayyad whose friend was beaten badly by a group of bullies while crossing through the Sinai Desert, but Abu-Ayyad still insists that no matter what obstacles rise up in his way - he will never give up trying to leave.

“Life is impossible here, I will try once, twice and 10 times more, until I leave.” he says.

While Abu-Ayyad’s mission may be shared by many other young Palestinians, it also arouses resentment from many others.

Mohammed Abu-Hamra, 21, believes that the government is right to get tough on aspiring migrants and that more must be done to ensure Gaza’s youth doesn’t leave.

He explains that despite poverty and danger, Israel must not be allowed to win simply by draining Gaza of its young minds and talent.

“If we stay strong and united, Palestinians will one day be allowed to work in their own land again,” says Abu-Hamra.

But Abu-Hamra Gaza still admits that the thought of leaving has crossed his mind and recalls that his luck has been no better than Abu-Ayyad.

Abu-Hamra worked inside the tunnels when the Egyptian troops began their crackdown a few years ago.

When that got harder, he decided to get his driver’s license so that he could have another source of income. However, fuel prices soon doubled because of the crackdown on the tunnels and driving became very expensive for most people in Gaza.

Abu-Hamra then decided to fall back on his previous training as a flagstone builder, although shortly after cement was banned by Israel and this avenue was also shut.

Finally he decided to get his Palestinian passport but then the border with Egypt – Gaza’s last doorway into the world - too was closed.

Out of despair, Abu-Hamra then borrowed 1,000 NIS ($270) to breed rabbits, but they died of dehydration during the 50-day war with Israel when Israeli bombs destroyed Gaza’s only power plant that helps the strip access and purify its water, water power plant. 

The second hand tuck-tuck he took out another loan for was also lost, crushed under the rubble, burrying Abu-Hamra last way of cobbling together a living in the Strip.