The war in Gaza cuts short the flight of Palestinian refugees towards the EU

Asylum requests from residents of the enclave and the West Bank tripled last year compared to 2021, but Israel’s attacks since October 7 have slowed the flow of those seeking protection on European soil

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos in March 2020.ELIAS MARCOU (Reuters)

When the Israeli attacks on Gaza began last October, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Dimitris Kairidis, expressed concern that this new conflict would lead to an increase in irregular immigration. “As if the multitude of flashpoints in North Africa and Syria were not already pushing thousands of migrants towards Europe, now this,” he said. By mid-2023, Palestinian asylum requests had already tripled those of 2021 in the EU, but the minister was wrong: the attacks of October 7 have slowed down departures, in light of the evidence collected by several EU agencies and the United Nations, which point to a reduction in flows from Gaza and the West Bank in recent months.

Fatima (an assumed name) is a 35-year-old Palestinian woman. She, her husband and children left the Gaza Strip on September 15, three weeks before Israel locked down the enclave to bomb it in response to the 1,200 deaths and almost 300 kidnappings that resulted from the Hamas attack of October 7.

Since that day, all of her siblings and nephews have been victims of Israeli bombs, adding to the more than 31,000 people who have reportedly died so far in Gaza. Fatima’s husband is the only survivor of a family of 50 members; she herself has lost 39 relatives and still does not know how to tell her seven-year-old son that his grandparents are still under the rubble. Their children, three girls and a boy, are the only ones of their generation who remain alive. “For Palestinians, there is no institution more important than the family,” explains Fatima, who has a degree in psychology. She cries throughout the conversation, but wants her story to be known. Her husband doesn’t want to talk to anyone and has been self-harming for weeks.

In 2023, 11,561 Palestinians requested protection in EU territory, mainly in Greece and Belgium, according to the most recent data from the European Asylum Agency (EUAA); that is higher than the 7,300 requests made in 2022 and triple the 3,800 filed in 2021.

On the Greek islands, Palestinians represent the third-largest community among refugees, accounting for 16% of those registered in 2023, according to data from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Palestinians entered the top three in 2020, coinciding with an increase in the deaths of citizens of Gaza and the West Bank at the hands of Israeli soldiers and civilians: there were 230 until the day before the Hamas attacks, 191 in 2022 and 320 in 2021, according to the Israeli human rights association B’tselem.

Fatima arrived in Greece without papers after crossing the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey long before the events of October 7. She now lives in the Kara Tepe refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, where one of her neighbors is Ghada (not her real name either), who is originally from Beit Lahia, on the outskirts of the largest Gazan refugee camp, Jabalia. Ghada has lost 60 members of her family, but her suffering did not begin on October 7 either: in May, her house was destroyed during an earlier clash between Islamic Jihad and the Israeli army. “There is no life in Gaza, only fear,” she laments during a conversation next to her temporary home.

Like Fatima and Ghada, 41,561 Palestinians arrived in Greece by sea in 2023 and 7,160 more crossed the Turkish border on foot. They make up 16% of irregular arrivals to the islands, the third most frequent nationality, according to the Greek Ministry of Migration.

Since October 7, Gaza’s borders have been closed. If the numbers of Palestinians arriving in Greece continued to rise, it was because of those who left before the attacks, notes another Europol report from January 2024. Seweryn Stopa, head of the European Migrant Smuggling Center of this agency, confirms this point: “We are seeing some individuals [arriving irregularly], but not a significant increase,” he tells EL PAÍS. In Turkey, the country from which the majority reach Greece, more than 18,000 Palestinians without papers were detained, the highest number recorded in the last decade, according to data from the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. Between January 1 and February 22, 2024, 1,740 new arrests have been made.

Europol's assessments coincide with the point of view of the EUAA, which warns that the increase in asylum requests was more pronounced starting in July, but the trend began to reverse in December 2023, and that they cannot directly link the increase of applications with the events of October 7 due to the existing limitations on leaving Gaza. “The registered Palestinians requesting international protection were probably already in the EU,” explains an agency source.

Another indication that fewer Palestinians are arriving is that the number of those housed in Greek refugee camps from October to the end of January is decreasing, says George Skordilis, from the press office of the Ministry headed by Kairidis. “In October there were 2,621, and in January there were 1,630 left,” he details. This decrease is due to two reasons: the speeding up of asylum application processing times and, even more significantly, “the great reduction in the flow of Palestinians to Greece,” according to Skordilis.

Illegal pushbacks

Europol reports describe how smugglers organize trips from Turkey, or did so until October 7. Palestinians traveled from Gaza to Egypt by bus. From Cairo, they flew to Istanbul on tourist visas and once there, they went by road to Izmir, from where local facilitators took them clandestinely by sea to the Greek islands. “The rates point to €550 [$600] per person for the Egypt – Turkey – Greece route, but one criminal network charged up to €15,000 [$16,400] per person,” says Europol.

Fatima and Ghada undertook that journey. Before leaving Gaza they had agreed that each family would pay €5,580 ($6,100) for the zodiac crossing from Turkey to Greece, but they had to renegotiate the price because the relatives who were financing them died while they were on the trip. They deposited the agreed amount of money, €3,720 ($4,070), with an intermediary known as hawala, who unlocks it once the migrants arrive at the destination.

Migrants outside the Kara Tepe camp hoping to leave the island of Lesbos for continental Greece.
Migrants outside the Kara Tepe camp hoping to leave the island of Lesbos for continental Greece. Panagiotis Balaskas (AP)

Both women tried to reach Greece seven times before they succeeded, as they were victims of immediate deportations or “pushbacks,” which are an illegal but common practice since 2020. Migrants are detained in Greek waters by boats manned by coast guards and hooded men who remove or destroy the engine, before setting them adrift. In 2023 there were 25,145 returns of this type in the Aegean Sea and the Palestinians were the second nationality that suffered the most, with 9,697 affected. “I saw death in my children’s eyes every time we went to sea,” says Fatima. On two occasions, these individuals pointed their weapons directly at their heads to make them stop the boat. One of the times, a Turkish coast guard told them: “Why do you come here? “Go back to Gaza so the Israelis will kill you.” Finally, on December 6, 2023, they arrived in Lesbos.

Fatima and Ghada’s eldest daughter, 13, are still healing from severe burns they suffered during the sea crossing. It is a common injury among migrants, which is caused by the reaction between salt water and gasoline from the boat engine. In Kara Tepe life is not easy. The Greek government has managed to shorten processing times for asylum applications and the stay in the camps. Fatima and Ghada have already got their papers in order. For this reason, they no longer have the right to receive food and must leave the camp, but they do not have the money to even buy the ferry ticket to Athens. “We don’t even have enough money for the bus to the port,” says Ghada.

The ultimate goal of both families is Belgium. The government there, says Fatima, has shown greater sensitivity towards the Palestinians than the rest of the EU. Although they don’t know anyone there, they hope to meet compatriots who will help them take the first steps of their new life.

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