Gaza and Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—Residents of the Gaza Strip are anxious about the whereabouts of their young relatives who fled Gaza earlier this month in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. Their disappearance follows the tragic news that a large number of Gazans were among migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after three vessels sank in separate incidents off the coasts of Egypt, Italy and Libya.
No details have emerged about the missing Palestinians, who are likely to have fled the country through tunnels to Egypt, as they are believed to be traveling without documentation.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, Mahmoud Baroud, head of the Youth Department at the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Gaza, said: “Hard living conditions, widespread unemployment, and rising numbers of jobless college graduates in Gaza have encouraged youths to leave the country,” he said. “The situation has further worsened throughout the recent [Israeli] aggression.”
The mother of a young man named Salamah, who was headed for Sweden with his family before their boat sank near Alexandria’s shores on September 13, said her son had been left with no option but to emigrate after losing his tunneling job and subsequently his livelihood. The Egyptian navy managed to rescue him and other migrants, but they were subsequently detained for crossing the border illegally.
She said: “All his options were exhausted and he could not support his children. Had he found a job in Gaza, he would have stayed with me and would not have been imprisoned in Egypt.”
At least 15 other Palestinians drowned when their boat, which was carrying dozens of migrants, capsized.
A day later, on September 14, another ship carrying Palestinians and Africans sank off the coast of Libya, killing most of the 250 passengers aboard.
And in the worst such incident in recent weeks, a ship carrying hundreds of Palestinian families—all of whom are still missing—sank off the coast of Malta on September 10. The International Organization for Migration announced that nearly 500 migrants were feared dead as a result of the tragedy.
The ship—which some eyewitnesses say was sunk deliberately—was carrying Palestinian families from Arish, as well as some Syrians, Sudanese and Egyptians. It had begun its journey from Alexandria and was headed toward Italy before it was reportedly rammed by another vessel.
One Gazan man who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity said: “Fifteen people from the Al-Masry family, including two brothers, a woman and two children, had left the Gaza Strip for Europe through a mediator. They boarded a ship in Alexandria, heading to Italy . . . We have heard no news [of them] and do not know whether they have drowned or if they have been rescued.”
The Palestinian embassy in the Greek capital Athens stated that the ship “was deliberately sunk on Wednesday by people smugglers.”
The embassy added: “An Egyptian ship named Hajj Rizq deliberately collided with the migrant boat, which sank near Malta’s territorial waters [120 nautical miles from the Italian shores] after it had sailed from Alexandria as arranged by criminal people smugglers.”
The embassy stated that some of the boat’s passengers had been rescued by two boats from Italy and Malta on Saturday morning, three days after the incident, and that another Greek commercial ship had rescued three Palestinians who are now in Crete.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with the families of three of the young men who were aboard the boat, and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
The family of Majd, a 25-year-old unemployed nursing graduate who was on the ship that sank near Greece, said the most recent phone call they had received from him was on September 6, when he told them that he and several other families were waiting to board a vessel to Italy.
In spite of the peril, many of Gaza’s youth are still planning to leave by similar means.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, Gaza resident Ahmed Hussein said: “I got my Bachelor’s degree in English literature 10 years ago and have yet to find a job. My only way out of this situation is migration. I’m seriously thinking about this option.”
According to various sources, the Gaza migration journey begins with the payment of 3,000 US dollars. Then, if possible, the migrant travels legally or illegally by boat or tunnel to Egypt. From there, they board a ship to Europe.
“Migrants may have to cross the whole of Egypt from the east to the west. Some migrants get a boat from Alexandria, while others walk to Libya and board a vessel from there,” one source said, adding: “They sail for days to Italy—but only if they are lucky. From there, the brokers ask them for their preferred destination. Of course, each country has a different rate.”
The ability of Gazas to sneak out of the Strip has raised questions about the Palestinian government’s ability to police its borders. Palestinian factions and officials, however, focus on the risk to the migrants themselves, calling upon human rights organizations to investigate “illegal migration and to hold to account the people smugglers who are causing great harm to those migrants.”
Nafez Ghunaim, a member of the Palestinian People’s Party Politburo, questioned why the official authorities in Gaza are turning a blind eye to what is happening. “There are what we can call people-smuggler mafias who are known to everyone. Some speak of specific entities assisting migrants.”
Criticizing Hamas, Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf called on both the Palestinian people and the authorities to adopt a firm stance against groups involved in assisting “the migration of our people in Gaza through tunnels and then throwing them into the unknown.”
Assaf described what the Hamas security apparatus is doing as “high treason,” saying it was playing into Israeli plans to “transfer” the Palestinian population abroad.
Hamas reacted by accusing Fatah of exploiting the recent tragedies in order to defame the movement. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called upon Fatah to stop “harming the Palestinian people in Gaza and to refrain from distorting the image of the resistance through the deliberate campaign it has launched through its spokesmen.”