ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 255

'Mohammed,' an asylum seeker from Gaza, stands on the port of Samos in Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)
'Mohammed,' an asylum seeker from Gaza, stands on the port of Samos in Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)
Reporter's notebook

On a Greek isle, Gazans who fled before October 7 seesaw between hardship and hope

Palestinians were among the largest groups fleeing to Europe before the war. Now, more may be clamoring to leave as the EU eases their way, but getting there is harder than ever

'Mohammed,' an asylum seeker from Gaza, stands on the port of Samos in Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

SAMOS, Greece — It was October 4, 2023, when Mohammed, a 20-year-old from Gaza City, finally made it to the Greek island of Samos to seek refuge in the European Union.

His arrival followed two earlier attempts that failed to make it across the Aegean Sea at its narrowest point, a journey of just 1.65 kilometers (1 mile) from the Turkish coast.

When he left Gaza in January 2023, the Strip had not yet been ravaged by war, but life there was far from comfortable or financially feasible.

“There is no work in Gaza,” he told The Times of Israel from a café in Samos, a small harbor city on a Greek island of the same name. “If you find work it will be a low salary like $2 or $3 a day and you can just eat and live.”

It took Mohammed three years of seasonal construction work — three months on, nine months off — to save the $1,000 needed to purchase an “arrangement” from the third-party company that was licensed by the Turkish government to arrange travel visas for Gazans.

Still, the decision to leave Gaza and become a migrant was not an easy one. His mother’s family had arrived in the Strip in 1948 from the village of Karatiyya, only 29 kilometers (18 miles) northeast of the coastal enclave.

“I didn’t tell them when I left and only called my family when I was already in Egypt. I called my Mama and she was crying… it was very bad,” he said.

Like the other Gazans interviewed for this piece who were detained upon arrival to Greece at the Closed Controlled Access Center of Samos, Mohammed spoke candidly on condition that his real name not be used out of fear of political persecution.

The Samos Controlled Access Center in Samos, Greece, on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

Over the three years before October 7, Gazans like Mohammed were one of the largest groups making for the Greek islands via the sea in hopes of winning asylum in Europe.

As the easternmost country in the European Union, Greece has attracted asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Central Asia for years. In 2015, small Greek island communities, including Lesbos and Samos, struggled to deal with a massive influx of over 850,000 migrants fleeing war and extreme poverty.

To stop the flow of migration, a controversial deal was signed in 2016 between Turkey and the EU, in which Ankara agreed to adopt measures to prevent migration to Europe through its territory in exchange mainly for financial compensation.

Since 2016, the number of migrants seeking EU asylum via the Aegean Sea from Turkey has fallen dramatically, but the overall number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe has remained high elsewhere. In 2023, 1.1 million people filed EU asylum applications, the highest number since the 2015 crisis. But only 41,561 migrants did so by landing on the Aegean islands, compared to 334,109 asylum applications filed in Germany, according to the UN.

From 2021 to 2023, a total of 10,199 Palestinians arrived on the Greek Aegean islands via Turkey, the highest number of any group sans Syrians (15,485) and Afghans (10,466).

Since war broke out, it has become much more difficult to leave Gaza, but those who find their way to Europe are finding the bureaucracy eased by the EU, which has expedited the asylum application process for Gazans. Such applications in the past would typically include several interviews over a long period, but those interviewed by The Times of Israel described a “five-minute initial interview” and their claims being approved within a few months, unlike Syrian refugees who can languish in camps for upwards of a year and have their claims denied.

In this Monday, March 29, 2021, file photo, migrants inside the Samos camp watch the visit of EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson. (AP/Michael Svarnias)

A multitude of reasons to leave

In January, the European Union’s Court of Justice dropped restrictions barring Gazan migrants who are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency, which assists Gazan refugees, from applying for refugee status in Europe. Instead, those who are typically excluded can “claim that UNRWA’s protection has ‘ceased’ in the light of the general living conditions prevailing in the Gaza Strip” and are thus eligible to receive asylum.

Those who left Gaza prior to the war described a coercive religious environment with few work opportunities.

“Nothing about the situation in Gaza before the war was normal — there were many difficulties that the war has exacerbated,” said John, a 21-year-old from Gaza City. In addition to receiving recently a three-year European asylum visa, John converted to Christianity and currently lives in an evangelical church in Samos that provides religious services to camp members.

“I accepted Christianity a long time ago in my heart, but it was impossible to convert in Gaza because of the religious authorities,” he said.

For Abdullah, who earned a degree in hospital administration and left for Turkey in 2019, it was mainly economic reasons that led to his departure.

“I was not Hamas-enough or religious enough to get a hospital job in Gaza,” the 33-year-old said. After arranging a marriage with a Gazan bride in Turkey, the couple decided that the sea journey to Greece — costing at least $2,000 per head — was too dangerous and that she would reunite with him in Europe later. She is now sheltering with her family in a school in the border city of Rafah.

According to data from the Aegean Boat Report, which monitors the movement of migrants, more than half of the boats attempting to cross the Aegean Sea in 2023 were stopped by the Turkish and Greek Coast Guards. The authorities are regularly criticized by migrants for using violent tactics to prevent their arrival to the EU.

Mohammed was on one such vessel full of Palestinians in September 2023. “Stop the boat or we will kill you,” he recalled the Turkish Coast Guard demanding.

A boat is seen in the water off Samos, Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

He said that upon boarding the boat, Turkish authorities threw his phone and wallet into the sea and struck him in the head with a baton. “We have strong people on the boat — we are Palestinian, we are used to this,” he recalled.

Mohammed was three days into his eventual 75-day detainment for “Reception and Identification” in a Samos migrant camp when he and approximately 100 other Gazans in the camp kitchen received word of Hamas’s onslaught into southern Israel.

“It was like there was an earthquake because we were so happy that the resistance,” infiltrated Israel, he said. That initial joy quickly turned into fear for what would come next, and many eventually recoiled at Hamas’s atrocities, including rape, torture and the slaughter of whole families, including babies. Some 1,200 people were killed inside Israel during the rampage, mostly civilians, and 250 were abducted into Gaza.

“The Prophet Muhammad told us it is not good to kill women and children and I don’t agree with all of what happened,” he said.

Greek authorities did not respond to multiple requests by The Times of Israel to visit the Samos holding camp, but those who have lived there refer to the complex, which is ringed by barbed wire and under remote surveillance, as a “jail.”

“There is only running water for 3-4 hours a day,” said Mohammed. “We fill bottled water for drinking and cooking and prayers when it comes on.”

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, right, looks at a billboard during his visit at the now closed monitored facility for migrants and refugees in Samos, Greece, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Despite the camp’s predominantly Muslim population, he complained that the food appears to not comply with Muslim dietary law or health safety norms.

“Is the food halal or not? We don’t know,” Mohammed said. “The bread is also moldy and they bring expired food,” he held up a picture of a sandwich with an old expiration date crossed out and given a later date.

Nowhere to flee

Though conditions in the Strip have gone from poor to dire since Israel invaded Gaza with the goal of eliminating Hamas and freeing the hostages, it is harder than ever for civilians inside the Palestinian territory to get out.

Since October 7, Ankara has suspended operations at its passport office in Gaza, essentially cutting off access to the once-popular Turkey-to-Greece migration route.

“Due to the ongoing war, our visa pre-application center in Gaza is not able to function,” the Turkish Consulate General in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel in April.

Debris lays strewn about at the location of a former camp for housing migrants in Samos, Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

The Rafah border crossing to Egypt, the Strip’s only outlet that does not lead to Israel or the sea, was shut on October 10, though it was later re-opened for Gazans capable of paying at least $5,000 for “arrangements.”

“It is impossible to get a visa to Turkey and to get into Egypt is at least $5,000,” said 31-year-old Mustafa from Gaza City, speaking before Israeli forces captured the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing in early May, which led to it being shuttered.

Since the war began, Palestinians who were already in Turkey, numbering some 18,000, have become increasingly harassed and exposed to new visa restrictions as Ankara looks to avoid a surge of Palestinian refugees on top of its existing Syrian refugee crisis, Mustafa said.

Non-profit organizations and migrants living in the Samos camp told The Times of Israel that the Palestinians currently seeking European asylum had largely arrived before the war started.

The Turkish government has also restricted visas for Palestinians in Egypt to those who have been there for at least six months. A Palestinian expert on the subject, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of speaking to an Israeli publication, estimated that there were some 200,000 Palestinians in Egypt, though other reports have put the figure between 60,000 and 135,000.

The Turkish coastline seen on the horizon in a picture taken from Samos, Greece on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

Like Turkey, Egypt is reticent to becoming a refugee hub for Gazans; both Cairo and some international organizations view the resettlement of individual Palestinian refugees as damaging toward the Palestinian national cause and for Palestinian hopes of returning to areas inside Israel their families were displaced from during the 1948 War of Independence.

In the early years of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the Egyptian government barred UNRWA from operating within its borders, and quickly destroyed refugee camps built for Palestinians in its territory, preferring to move them back to the then-Egypt-controlled Gaza Strip.

Today, UNRWA still does not operate in Egypt, though the UN High Commissioner for Refugees registers and assists hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers there from Sudan, Syria and other places.

Chris Gunness, a former spokesperson for UNRWA, said outside of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza that “it is the mandate of the UNHCR to assist Palestine refugees the minute they leave the area.”

But the UNHCR does not register Palestinians in Egypt or anywhere else, seeing them as the mandate of UNRWA.

“Egypt has had and continues to have concerns about having UNHCR register Palestinians residing on its territories,” explained the Palestinian expert.

Passengers sit next to their luggage as they wait to cross the border to the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, August 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

In February, UNHCR said it had funneled assistance into Gaza and given cash assistance to Palestinians accompanying Gazans brought to Egypt for medical treatment, but made no mention of aiding or resettling the tens of thousands of Gazans who are estimated to have fled to Egypt since October 7.

“I just want my family to be able to exit Gaza and live in Egypt, but it is very expensive and we do not have the funds,” said Hassan, 23. He noted that over 100 members of his extended Khan Younis clan — numbering some 12,000 people — had been killed and more had been wounded, along with homes destroyed.

“I am against immigration and leaving the homeland, but there are harsh circumstances that force us to do so,” he said as he prepared to leave Samos for Athens before eventually making his way to Belgium.

Seeking a fresh start

Gazans in Samos who also lost loved ones and property during the war estimated that most Gazans, if given the choice, would choose life in Europe over remaining in the war-torn Strip. A poll of Gazans in March by the Palestinian Center for Public Policy and Research found that 70% said they would not leave for Egypt even if the border wall collapsed, though fears of being shot by border guards may have played into the answers.

The Samos Controlled Access Center in Samos, Greece, on April 17, 2024. (Eliyahu Freedman/Times of Israel)

“When I talk with my family and friends they don’t care who will lead Gaza after the war, they want to go out because we lost everything,” said Mohammed, whose brother-in-law was killed by shrapnel after the family fled northern Gaza seeking shelter in the central Gaza area of Nuseirat.

Many of the refugees in Samos see Greece as a temporary stop before, they hope, making their way to countries that offer migrants a pathway toward citizenship.

“Greece is a beautiful country, but it is not good economically for work opportunities. Belgium, Sweden and Germany are better, but I don’t know anybody there,” said John.

“Belgium is beautiful,” messaged Hassan, who recently arrived there after being sent away from Samos to Athens. “I have an interview in two weeks to organize some things,” he said of starting the asylum process again in the new country.

Gazans shelter with blankets against the cold as they queue with others outside an asylum seeker reception center, in Brussels, Belgium Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (AP/Francisco Seco)

Mohammed was also looking to reach Belgium, seeking a fresh start after his past travails.

“I need to get to Belgium to stop the journey and focus on my life, complete my studies and get a good job, because I am the only one that can help,” he said.

With the war dragging on, he said his mother was now happy that he had made it out of Gaza.

“I do not think there will ever be peace in Palestine,” Mohammed added bleakly. “The only way is if Israel goes out, or if the Palestinians leave, which will never happen.”

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