Gazans dead in shipwreck driven out by poverty, war

Sakher Abu El Oun
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Ahmed al-Jorf, 17, holds a picture of his missing brother Hussein al-Jorf, 19, at his house in the Khan Yunis town in the southern Gaza Strip on September 18, 2014

Ahmed al-Jorf, 17, holds a picture of his missing brother Hussein al-Jorf, 19, at his house in the Khan Yunis town in the southern Gaza Strip on September 18, 2014 (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Unemployed and shattered by 50 days of war in Gaza, Yasser decided to seek a better life elsewhere, boarding a boat to Europe that sank off Malta last week.

In one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks on record, the boat, with 500 people on board, was intentionally capsized by traffickers as it made its way from Egypt to Italy.

Only 10 people are known to have survived, among them four Palestinians from the 100 Gazans believed to have been on board. Yasser, a 23-year-old unemployed graduate, was not one of them.

Yasser's story is far from unusual and explains why some Palestinians in Gaza are ready to risk everything to flee poverty and war in the coastal enclave, which was battered by a devastating seven-week conflict with Israel that ended late last month.

His brother Osama told AFP by telephone from his home in the United Arab Emirates that Yasser had graduated from university in Gaza but struggled to find work.

"He graduated last year and since then, like all young people, he has been unemployed. There is no future for them in Gaza," Osama told AFP, asking that his family's name not be published.

"I tried to bring him to the Emirates but after seeing several of his friends reach Europe by boat, he decided to leave, too," he said.

Yasser crossed from Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula via the Rafah crossing, paying some local Egyptians nearly $3,000 (2,300 euros) to fix his passage to Europe.

"You never know who you're giving the money to," Osama said.

The last time the brothers spoke was on September 5, the day before the boat carrying Yasser set sail from the port of Damietta in Egypt.

"Now I'm waiting to receive the list of survivors to know if he might still be alive," Osama said.


- Escape through tunnels -


Exact numbers of those leaving Gaza and making their way to Europe are hard to come by.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), some 2,890 people who declared themselves to be Palestinians have reached Italy so far this year.

But even that number may not be credible as some migrants falsely identify themselves as Palestinians to avoid being repatriated to home countries that have extradition agreements with the European Union.

"We estimate that thousands of people have left the Gaza Strip clandestinely over the past two months, especially during the war," a local human rights worker told AFP.

"Due to the fact they left through tunnels to Egypt -- an illegal, secret way to leave -- we have no precise figure," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

With Gaza's own access to the Mediterranean tightly restricted by Israel's naval blockade, those wanting to go to Europe would be forced to travel through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Rafah is Gaza's only gateway to the world that is not controlled by Israel, but it has been kept largely closed by Egypt for more than a year, with the only other way across via the handful of precarious cross-border smuggling tunnels.

The tiny coastal strip, which is one of the most densely populated territories on earth, is under the de facto control of the Islamist Hamas movement, which has resolutely avoided discussing the emigration issue.

Even now, with the issue hitting the headlines after the shipwreck, they are trying to play it down.

Hamas official Iyad al-Buzum told AFP there are only "isolated cases (of emigration), which do not reach into the hundreds."

Some say the only reason more Gazans are not leaving the strip is that they have no choice but to stay.

"If Gazans had the right to free movement, tens of thousands of young people would leave the country because all their opportunities are blocked here," said Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.