With the Gaza Strip battered by a summer of war, Palestinians are increasing stealing out of the coastal enclave into Egypt and from there embarking on a risky cross-Mediterranean journey to Europe.
Dozens of Palestinians were among the hundreds of migrants feared drowned in a series of disasters over the past several days, including at least 15 Gazans who died when their boat capsized on Saturday off the Egyptian coast.
Some 10,000 Gazans have fled the Strip in recent months, according to the Palestine News Network, with numbers reportedly surging since the summer conflict.
Ahmed Suhail, a Palestinian diplomat in Greece, told the EUobserver news website that the swell in migrants “began after the Israeli invasion.”
However, the International Organization for Migration said it had not seen proof to back up that claim.
With borders closed, those seeking to leave have turned to traffickers for transport into Egypt through the tunnel network running between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.
Most often, emigrants will make their way to Egypt’s coastal cities in hopes of reaching Italy or other European countries by sea.
Traffickers reportedly charge $4,000 per person for transport into Egypt, and take no responsibility if the migrants are arrested or killed along the way.
Just as dangerous is the journey across the Mediterranean. At least 700 people are feared dead this week, after three boats filled with migrants sank while making the trip from north Africa to Europe.
One boat, carrying some 500 people, sank after being purposefully rammed by smugglers near Malta, two Palestinian survivors told the IOM.
Suhail said most people aboard were Palestinian.
The two survivors, aged 27 and 33, told IOM their boat had been intentionally sunk by the smugglers after the migrants refused to transfer to a smaller, less seaworthy vessel — a story corroborated by other survivors in Crete.
“A violent argument ensued. The 10 smugglers, said to be Palestinian and Egyptian, began yelling,” the IOM said, citing the latest testimony from Greece.
The enraged traffickers “rammed” the boat which “began to sink immediately, while the smugglers stayed in the area until they were certain that the migrants’ vessel had sunk,” it said.
The Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants had set out from Damietta in Egypt on September 6.
Four busloads of migrants were loaded onto the boat, which was 50 to 60 feet long, until there were some 300 people crammed below deck and 200 on top — including up to 100 children, the IOM said, based on the survivors’ reports.
“The 300 people who were in the lower deck were trapped and drowned immediately. The survivors say they watched as those thrown in the water clung to each other trying to stay alive,” it said.
The two Palestinian survivors, who have requested asylum in Italy, said they paid a “travel office” in Gaza $2,000 (1,544 euros) each for the trip, with the money coming from grants they had been given to rebuild their homes.
According to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, over 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting the crossing in 2014, and in several separate incidents survivors have spoken of traffickers overfilling rickety boats or locking people below decks to suffocate.
“These are not accidents but murders. We’ll increase and intensify our efforts to fight human trafficking,” said Michele Cercone, spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
More than 20,000 people have died in the past two decades trying to reach the Italian coast, including 2,300 in 2011 and around 700 in 2013. The migration organization says the steep death toll reflects turmoil in Libya, Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East and Africa. To escape those conflicts, many people are willing to board unsafe smugglers’ boats.
For years now, thousands of African, Asian or Middle Eastern migrants have attempted risky voyages, primarily from Libya, across the Mediterranean to get to Italy’s coastline and islands. Hundreds die en route. Unless they are eligible for asylum or have families or jobs in Europe, they risk expulsion by Italy.
This year, with the surge of conflicts, roughly as many arrived in the first few months of 2014 as in all of 2013. Many are Syrians, Palestinians, Eritreans, Sudanese or from other African countries.
Another 200 migrants are feared dead in the wreck of a second boat that was carrying at least 250 African migrants to Europe when it capsized off the Libyan coast.
Palestinian and United Nations officials have called for a massive rebuilding program in the Gaza Strip, which was left devastated after 50 days of war. Israel launched the military campaign to stymie rocket fire out of the Strip and destroy a network of cross-border tunnels.
Some 2,100 Palestinians were killed and thousands more left homeless by the campaign, Gazans said. Israel says 1,000 of the dead were gunmen.