At least three Gazan Palestinians trying to migrate to Europe illegally are believed to have drowned in the Aegean Sea last Friday, on a voyage from Turkey's İzmir to Greece. Eight Gazans, out of eleven who boarded the boat, were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard, but three were announced missing, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported.
Over the past few years, thousands of Palestinians have managed to flee the war-torn, beleaguered Gaza Strip. But, in the hope of arriving in any European country, not all Gazan migrants have survived the 'journey of horror'.
The economic and humanitarian situation in the besieged Gaza Strip could not be worse, pushing many Gazans to take great risks to reach Europe.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)'s annual report for 2020, the unemployment rate reached 43.1 per cent in the coastal enclave. The people of Gaza also do not have regular access to electricity, water fit for human consumption, or economic opportunities. The United Nations declared that Gaza would be an unliveable place by 2020.
Israel has unleashed four major attacks against Gaza in the fifteen-year blockade: in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, thus further worsening the humanitarian situation and deteriorating public infrastructure in the coastal enclave.
Mohammed Ashour, 24, recounted the journey on the 'boats of deaths' to Europe in an interview with MEMO. Mohammed managed to arrive in Belgium, where he sought asylum, after one failed migration attempt.
In hope for a better quality of life
Ashour was a college student at the Faculty of Law at the Al-Azhar University in Gaza in 2015, but he was forced to drop study in 2017. "It was futile, as I lived tough workdays in construction to make enough money to pay off my tuition fees. I attended college only two weeks a month and worked during the other two weeks."
According to Ashour, a construction worker in Gaza works from sunrise to sunset and makes an average of 50 shekels a day ($15 USD). Twelve days of hard work a month in construction barely covered Ashour's tuition fees and pocket money. Yet, despite this challenging lifestyle, the diligent student got a distinction in his first year at university.
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"I was doing good, but there was a turning point in my life. My uncle graduated with a distinction from the same faculty. But he was often hired as a cleaner and, sometimes, unemployed."
Mohammed's uncle's repeated unemployment encouraged him to plan for a promising future outside of Gaza, in Europe.
"I kept working for two years to save enough money for my journey to Europe … life in Gaza had become hopeless," Mohammed said.
"Treated like animals"
Migrants usually make their way to Europe from Turkey, from where they take either two gruelling routes—by land or by sea.
The transit point for the land route is often Edirne, from where they cross the River Evros and then on to Athens. The journey costs each migrant 2000 Euros, paid to a gang of smugglers. Usually, the gang's chief meets up with a potential migrant in Istanbul and introduces the client to the journey.
Smugglers get paid through an 'insurance office' based in Istanbul, where the migrant must deposit the sum of money and receives a code number in return. If the smuggling goes successfully, the migrant provides the code to the smuggler, who withdraws the 2000 Euros from the office.
Agents for smugglers lead migrants, on foot, from the Greek borders through hundreds of kilometres of mountainous, snow-covered forests to Thessaloniki city and then to Athens, where the journey terminates. Migrants sleep inside big plastic bags, normally used for garbage, to protect them from heavy rainfall at night. Sometimes, they get stranded in forests for days, starving and excessively thirsty, when borders guards come nearby.
At that point, migrants realise that they are in an ordeal—the Greek army may arrest them and push them back to the Turkish borders or they may die from hunger, thirst, or the freezing weather at night. But every migrant has a little hope that they will reach their destination.
A group of 40 asylum seekers headed, in the afternoon, towards the Greek borders on a small pickup truck on a five-hour journey. It rained heavily, but they had to continue until they reached a village at the border. Two agents for the smugglers guided them from that point. The gang's chief, named Abu Mohammed, was not present there. Migrants and refugees are threatened not to say a word about the process, in case they get caught by the Greek border guards. They will be chased and killed, otherwise.
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Turkish troops continued to inspect the area. Nour, a pregnant Syrian lady, suffered the most from the rainfall and windy weather. They stayed for three hours at the spot, hiding from the Turkish army. Among the group of migrants were eight women, an infant, and a little child.
They continued on their way until they reached the Turkish branch of the River Evros. The agent transferred every six persons together to the other side on a raft. There was a high possibility that the boat might sink, as the river current was very fast that night.
No sooner did they step onto paddy fields on the Greek branch of the river, then Greek soldiers discovered them. Some of them surrendered. Others ran away, in a daze. The Greek border guards kept hunting for and beating violently, those who escaped. Nour had a miscarriage during her early pregnancy while on the go. Other ladies did the nursing for the bleeding girl in the middle of the fields.
"I was unable to breathe after a long time of running. Then, I hid inside a stream of water used for irrigation. A huge Greek soldier grabbed me by the neck and brutally kicked me in my stomach. I vomited. The soldier was yelling at me in a language that I did not understand."
The Greek troops confiscated all their belongings—cell phones, money, and food, and returned them to Turkey on a small boat. Then, they pointed their guns at the asylum seekers. One of them translated: "They will shoot and throw those who try to escape in the river."
But immigrating Gazans are brilliant at one thing: escaping. They escape the conflict, blockade, poverty and borders guards.
The group suffered distressing conditions for three days until Turkish border guards found them. Hunger and the cold had torn their fragile bodies apart, by then.
"The Turkish army threw us in a 40-meter-long container house with drug dealers and criminals. Males, females, and children didn't have a space to lay their bodies down at night. We were treated like animals."
They were like dozens of chicken carried in a big cage to slaughterhouses in Gaza's markets, Mohammed analogised.
The Turkish army moved the asylum seekers back to Istanbul, a week later.
The first migration attempt is over now. It failed.
Amnesty International revealed, last June, that Greek border guards torture and ill-treat refugees and migrants before conducting illegal push backs on land and sea.
"It is clear that multiple arms of the Greek authorities are closely coordinating to brutally apprehend and detain people who are seeking safety in Greece, subjecting many to violence, then transferring them to the banks of the River Evros, before summarily returning them to Turkey," Adriana Tidona, Migration researcher for Europe at Amnesty International, wrote.
The voyage of horror
Although faster, the sea route through the Aegean Sea in the Mediterranean is more perilous. Smugglers tell migrants that it is thirty to forty-five minutes long, but the 60-kilometre voyage takes four hours, at least, if the asylum seekers are lucky on that day. Maybe because migrants have to seriously endanger their lives on this voyage, the price for this journey is way less than half of the land route. It is $600 USD only.
At the Aegean Sea, a 7-meter-long raft sinks if the wave height reaches 30 centimetres. The raft carried 33 persons from Turkey towards Greece. They knew that the height of the dark sea waves reached 25 centimetres on that day. Some immigrants hesitated. "Get onto the boat, or I will kill you in your place," the smuggler responded.
"By, or against our will, we had to get on to the boat. The smuggler quickly taught one of the migrants how to ride it and exempted him from the fees. The 33-person-group weighed too much for the boat, so we agreed to continue pumping air into it via a portable hand pump all the way."
Things escalated. The boat was about to sink. The entire group gathered in the middle for no reason. The boat went down from the centre, but the front and back edges went up. Freezing water stung them, reminding them that they would all die if they surrendered to the sea. They continued pumping the refurbished raft.
"Uncertainty mounted after every minute we moved forward. We were unsure about anything … and did not know if it is better to continue or go back to Turkey."
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Four hours later, they did not die. They were on Greek shores.
Mohammed bought a passport from someone who looked like him. Some dealers come to refugee camps and sell stolen passports. Then, he headed to his final destination, Belgium.
Mohammed also emphasised that the conditions at the Belgium refugee camp were no less dire.
The International Organization for Migration reported that the number of immigrants who reached Europe in 2021 hit 121,932, and 1,559 are missing, as of 8 November, 2021, compared with 99,475 in 2020 and 128,472 in 2019.
With the flow of migrants to Europe showing no signs of slowing down and procedures by European countries to curb the number of asylum seekers, it is widely accepted that the continent has become inhospitable towards newcomers. Seeking asylum takes roughly three years of torture, ill-treatment and life-threatening dangers, until the final case is either accepted or rejected. There is no guarantee that a migrant will be granted asylum in any of the European countries, no matter how many great risks one has taken.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.