The Secret Exodus

In another few weeks Mohammed Sirtawi will pack his bags and immigrate to Canada. He's 26, single, Nablus-born and lives in Ramallah, where he works for Jewel, a cellular telephone company. He has reached the conclusion that there is no future for him in the West Bank.

Uriya Shavit, Jalal Bana
Uriya Shavit, Jalal Bana

In another few weeks Mohammed Sirtawi will pack his bags and immigrate to Canada. He's 26, single, Nablus-born and lives in Ramallah, where he works for Jewel, a cellular telephone company. He has reached the conclusion that there is no future for him in the West Bank. "I'm concerned at the possibility that the company will make cuts and I will be fired," he explains. "A year ago, that wouldn't have bothered me so much. You could always find pick-up work. Today there is a closure and there is no work. It's worse than the first intifada." He is a graduate of the Department of Psychology at An-Najah University in Nablus.

Sirtawi's first choice was the United States, but the terrorist attacks there and their implications prompted him to change his mind. "I saw the wave of violence against the Arabs and Muslims in the United States and I decided that it wouldn't be a good idea to move there."

In Canada he has a relative who has been there eight years and works in the computer industry. "I was told that you can build a future in Canada. I can't make it through the month with the salary I get in Ramallah. I'm living on overdrafts. I don't have a partner, because the way things are now I don't think I can get married. I don't care what people say about my leaving. If things were good here, I would stay. All I want to do is live. I want to live like other people."

Since the start of the intifada a year ago, there has been a dramatic rise of hundreds of percent in the number of Palestinians who want to leave the territories and move to a Western country. Many of them have a profile like Sirtawi's: young, educated and with no hope. "The emigration phenomenon is being felt more than it was in the first intifada," says Bassem Eid, the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. "There are Palestinians who are afraid for their future and tell themselves that this is the time to leave. There are Palestinians who have no way to keep going in the present situation, so they decide to leave. They tell their neighbors that it's just a trip to take a specialized course, or something like that."

Eid recently said farewell to a couple he knows who moved to France (he requested that their names not be used) with their two children. "The husband worked in a Palestinian government ministry, the woman in a nongovernmental organization. Both of them were born in the territories," he relates. "I asked them how it was that they were leaving. The wife replied: `This country has stopped being a holy land and has turned into a hell. We aren't afraid for our future but for our children's future. We simply can't go on living like this.' The husband added: `What do I have to do with what's going on here? I don't want to be murdered.'"

The emigration phenomenon, Eid says, is a well-kept secret. "No Palestinian journalist has written about the wave of emigration, which is still increasing. The thinking is that from a national point of view, that story shouldn't be given publicity. There are journalists who think that the emigration story could be detrimental to the national interest, to the ethos of the coming victory. The problem is, that because no one is writing about the phenomenon, no one really knows what the situation is.

"The people who are leaving are generally those with an education, people who know the West, who have a culture of human rights. Because they are leaving, I am beginning to doubt that we will have a Palestinian civil society. These are the people our society needs most of all. That's the difference between our emigration and the emigration of Israelis: the people who are leaving the territories are exactly the people we need most. Whereas you won't need the people who are leaving Israel."

No intifada in Australia

A month ago this magazine reported on Israelis who admitted with no compunctions that they had decided to leave the country because of the security situation and the worsening economy. A survey conducted by the Mutagim agency found that nearly a third of all Israelis aged 25 to 34 have contemplated the idea of leaving the country in the past few months. No similar voices and reflections were heard in the Palestinian society. That seemed to reinforce the myth that has taken root since the onset of the intifada that the Palestinians' staying power was far greater than that of the Israeli society.

The data reported here show a very different picture. The impression gleaned in embassies here and in immigration offices around the world is that a visa to a Western country is the most sought-after commodity in the territories. According to the figures of the Australian authorities, 2,004 Palestinians requested a permanent visa for Australia between July 2000 and July 2001, as compared with 130 applications in the previous year - an increase of 1,440 percent. That huge leap in the number of applications can be attributed to Australia's growing popularity as a country of immigration; the overall number of visas that were issued saw an increase of only 15 percent.

The Canadian representation in Ramallah sends Palestinians who are interested in immigrating to its embassy in Tel Aviv. Until the start of the intifada, the embassy there received an average of slightly less than 25 applications a week; since the start of the violence the number has doubled. Officials in the embassy say that about 90 percent of those seeking to immigrate to Canada are engineers and pharmacists - highly desirable professions in Canada, so that the chances of getting a visa are relatively good. Among the remaining 10 percent are a large number of accountants.

There has also been a significant increase in the number of Palestinians applying for an entry visa to the United States. Applications for a study or tourist visa to America have risen by nearly 60 percent since the start of the intifada, and the number of those seeking a Green Card has also increased, though not as much. The figures are considered sensitive. The United States is concerned about possible Palestinian accusations that it is supposedly collaborating with Israel in an effort to encourage Palestinians to leave the territories.

Britain is an exception in terms of the number of Palestinians who have applied for a visa. According to the data of the British consulate in East Jerusalem, there has been a decrease of 25 percent in the number of Palestinians seeking a visa for Britain. The explanation offered by the consulate is the high cost of living in Britain, which makes it impractical for the majority of Palestinians to move there.

Another indication of the steep rise in the number of Palestinians who want to leave the territories is the attempts by ever more of them to be granted political asylum in the West. The status of "political refugee" enables even those who don't have the profile demanded by countries of immigration - the right profession, young, speaker of the language, or family ties - to obtain the coveted visa. Between July 2000 and July 2001, 140 Palestinians asked to be granted refugee status in Australia, up from 19 during the previous year, or an increase of 637 percent.

The Norwegian immigration authorities say that since the start of the intifada there has been an increase of 50 percent in the number of Palestinians asking to be granted political refugee status. Between September 2000 and August 2001, 484 individuals who were classified as "stateless" applied to the Swedish authorities for the status of political refugee, up from 423 in the previous 12 months. The Swedish immigration authorities estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of those classified as "stateless" are Palestinians; there has been, then, an increase of more than 14 percent in the number of Palestinians seeking refugee status in Sweden since the start of the intifada. There has also been an increase in the number of persons applying to Britain for refugee status, but the numbers in this case are too low to attribute them to the impact of the intifada.

The data on the growing number of Palestinians who are trying to emigrate from the territories is only one indicator of the phenomenon. Some of the Palestinians who are thinking of leaving have a foreign passport, which enables them to move to another country without applying for a visa. Some leave the territories for a short time but with the aim of examining the possibility of emigrating. Many have a Jordanian passport and also have family or friends in Jordan, making it possible for them to move there at any time.

Evidence of concern at the scale of emigration from the West Bank to Jordan was seen three months ago. Palestinians who did not have a Jordanian passport and tried to cross the border were told to get a transit document from the Jordanian Interior Ministry. Jordanian officials said that the toughening of policy at the border was intended to prevent a "mass expulsion" of Palestinians from the West Bank. The Jordanian prime minister declared that his country will not agree to any additional immigration from the Palestinian Authority.

The stricter policy introduced by Amman generated resentment in the territories. The Palestinian daily Al-Quds wrote in an editorial, "We understand the Jordanians' concern and fears at the possibility of a forced exodus and a new wave of migration, because of Israeli pressure, but we do not think that those considerations justify the measures [taken by the Jordanian government]."

However, those measures obtained the support of the Palestinian Authority. The senior Palestinian representative in Jordan, Omar Hatib, said that the measures had been introduced in concurrence with the PA. The reason: "To preempt the policy of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, which is intended to expel the Palestinians from their country and settle Jewish immigrants in their place."

Paris or Ramallah

Next month, Yusuf Barakat, 29, a resident of Ramallah, is leaving for Paris. His girlfriend is already waiting for him there and the two intend to get married in the City of Light. He reached the decision to leave with a heavy heart but says he has no choice. "What can I do in Ramallah or anywhere else here? There is no work, unemployment is at 70 percent. I have to live from something and I want to have a family. It's hard for me to leave the place where I was born and grew up. My family is here, my friends are here, but I just can't live here any longer."

Barakat's family is from Hebron. He has five brothers and three sisters. One brother works as a house painter, another is an electrician, two are teachers and the fifth is a student. Until a year ago, Barakat's future looked bright. In 1991 he was among 20 top students who received scholarships from Yasser Arafat to study at the University of Amman. He studied English and French, and when he returned to the territories, in 1996, he started "to look for my future and to build the homeland."

He worked as a teacher of French and English at the French cultural center and was active in "Hebron France," a French-Palestinian friendship organization. He has visited France six times in the past four years but never thought of settling there. Life in Ramallah was good: He shared a rented flat, began to study political science at the branch of a French university in Ramallah and got a job at the casino in Jericho as a dealer. He made up to $2,000 a month. His fluency in English and French and his affable manner got him generous tips and a little over a year ago he got a promotion.

The intifada - which quickly led to the closing of the casino - left him unemployed. He looked for other work but with no success. For a while he worked as a house painter with his brother. "That was a compromise I made," he says. "I was ready to work as a painter, even though that's not my profession, but there was no work even in painting. I knew that if I got a job as a teacher in the Palestinian Ministry of Education the salary would only be enough for food and pocket money. It's impossible live on the salary of a teacher in the Palestinian Authority."

The decision to move came in the wake of a visit to Paris in April. "I'd thought about leaving before that, too, because of the situation, but then I was thinking of the United States or Canada. When I visited my girlfriend in Paris, I understood that I had a better chance of getting a visa for France than for any other country. I have friends in Paris and I speak the language. When I got back home, I still wasn't 100 percent sure that I wanted to leave. I kept looking for work but I couldn't find a job. So my conclusion was that I had no choice but to leave.

"I talked things over with my girlfriend. She is of French origin and works in the archive of the Foreign Ministry there. When she visited here two years ago, she really liked the atmosphere and the way of life. I proposed to her and we thought of settling in Ramallah. But after my visit to Paris it was clear that that was no longer viable - not for me and not for her. We decided that I would immigrate to France."

Barakat's parents did not like his decision. "My parents don't want me to be far away from them. They said they would give me money if I needed money. But my feeling is that I should be giving them money, not the other way around. When I worked in the casino, I would give them a hefty amount every month and I also paid for my younger brother's studies. I couldn't take anything from my parents," he explains. "On the other hand, a couple of my brothers understood me and supported me. They have a young outlook on life and they understand the situation in the same way I do."

What do your friends say about your decision to leave?

"They understand me completely. A few of them actually left, too, or have submitted migration documents."

What will you miss most in Paris?

"I will miss my friends and my family. I will miss the period that existed here before the intifada. The quiet life, the good salary I had when I worked in the casino."

What will you take with you to Paris?

"Not a lot. Just a few books and my clothes."

Isn't it the case that a decision to leave by people like you has political implications?

"People told me that as an educated person, I have a promising future and shouldn't leave the homeland. It's not easy for me to leave Ramallah, but the way things are now I have no choice. I looked for other alternatives and couldn't find any. In France I will continue my graduate studies and build a future for myself. I hope to return to Ramallah in a few years. And if I don't come back, my son will return to the homeland for sure."

A human reaction

The emigration phenomenon is felt most strongly in the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas, where there are many Palestinian families who were well-to-do until the intifada. The scale of the phenomenon became apparent in the past month, after the schools reopened following the summer vacation. Many families who have relatives in the West waited for the end of the school year, and only now has it become clear that they left.

Some 750 students are enrolled in Al-Farir school in Bethlehem this year - 100 fewer than last year. The headmaster, Dr. Michel Sandsur, says that some of those who left did so because of the difficulty in getting by the Israeli army roadblocks every morning. However, he estimates that about 60 of the leavers have migrated with their families. "We feel the wave of migration abroad," he says, adding that "most of the families who have left are Christians."

Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a researcher of Palestinian public opinion, says that the emigrants from the Ramallah area are mainly "Palestinians who arrived here in the past few years, mostly from the United States and Europe. They thought the peace process would give them the opportunity to live here and provide for their family. They wanted to build a home. But they didn't lay down strong roots, and one reason for that was that the Palestinian Authority was very slow in creating institutions and legal authorities that would allow businesses to operate. Those people have been fleeing in the past year. They lost their investments and they want to limit the damage."

Who else is leaving?

"A lot of other Palestinians, especially the young generation, are not happy with the situation. The confrontation with Israel and the closure have made their world very sad. In a survey we conducted two years ago, we found that even then 20 to 25 percent of the Palestinians were considering the possibility of emigrating. The number of young, educated people who said they were thinking of leaving was double the average. People wanted a democratic society, they wanted work, and they didn't get what they wanted.

"The situation became even more complicated because of the events of the past year. I am not surprised in the least to hear the data on the increase in the number of those looking into emigration, even though I myself am not aware of those figures."

What is the meaning of the data?

"That people have additional worries, on top of the national subject, just like anywhere else. People want a better education for their children, they want a higher standard of living. The Palestinian emigrants are not betraying their country. They want a better life and do not rule out the possibility of returning to the territories. It's only natural that in a period of political crisis, part of the population tries to find a better life elsewhere, even if only temporarily. I don't think the Palestinians - or the Israelis - are different from any other community in the world in this regard."

Why isn't the wave of emigration on the media and political agenda in the Palestinian Authority?

"I think the reason is political. Emigration is a political issue. In the confrontation between the Palestinians and the Jews, emigration could be construed by some as a form of Palestinian concession, or as a sign of Palestinian weakness."

Do you have friends who have left?

"I have many friends who have left. They feel that the atmosphere is not conducive to their research, whether it's in the natural sciences or the social sciences. My daughter attends a private school in Ramallah. She comes to me every day and tells me sadly about friends that have gone to Jordan or to America or to Europe."

The Palestinian journalist Elias Zaniri, who works for French radio and teaches communications, thinks that the reason why the emigration phenomenon has not become a subject for lively discussion in the territories is that no one knows how extensive it is.

"Nothing works in the Palestinian Authority the way it's supposed to, the telephone connections are bad, and there are no accurate statistics. If someone in Nablus decides to pick himself up, cross the bridge over the Jordan and then continue, people living in Ramallah don't know about it and his neighbors in Nablus think he's gone to visit family in Jordan. The emigration phenomenon exists, it's disturbing, but it's not massive. What happened in 1948 and in 1967 won't happen again."

Why are the emigrants coming from the middle class?

"The poor don't even have the money to take a taxi to the bridge. The rich can get along for a year or two without working. The university graduates, the people who work for companies, find it hard to cope. For a Palestinian, the decision to emigrate is harder than it is for an Israeli. The Israeli can simply board a plane and leave. The Palestinian has to think about a lot of aspects and angles in his decision - for example, whether he will be able to return to his country in the future."

A torturous road

From the point of view of the Palestinian Authority, the most embarrassing fact about the wave of emigration is the increase in the number of Palestinians who are seeking political asylum in the West. To be granted political asylum, Palestinians have to prove that they are being persecuted by the Palestinian Authority. The result is hundreds of such requests that accuse the PA of violating human rights. The accusations are not made public: The immigration authorities don't publish the documents, fearing for the safety of the applicants and their families.

Attorney Allison Ryan works for Refugee Advice and Casework service, a nongovernmental organization in Sydney, which deals with requests for political asylum in Australia. She handles Palestinian requests every day. "To be granted political asylum, a person has to prove that there is a concrete danger that he will suffer `severe harm' because of race, religion, nationality, political position or affiliation with a social organization," Ryan says. "Naturally, it's difficult to prove this, so the credibility of the applicant becomes very important."

Bassem Eid says that since the start of the intifada a year ago, his organization, which is considered the most prominent human rights group in the territories, has received many e-mail messages from foreign consulates, immigration bureaus and Palestinian citizens asking for information about human rights violations perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority. The information is required in order to support requests for political asylum.

"I have had requests from Christians and Muslims alike," Eid notes. "There have been more requests from Ramallah than from Jenin, and none at all from Gaza. Most of those who ask for information want to immigrate to Canada or Australia. It's relatively easy to immigrate to both of them and they have established Palestinian populations."

A few months ago, Eid relates, he was approached by the widow of a Palestinian from Bethlehem. "He had died in prison after being arrested by the PA. His widow has two brothers who live in Australia and she wanted to move there with her children. I investigated the case of the prison death and published it in one of our reports. My conclusion was that he died of torture. The widow's relatives in Australia helped her with her migration request, but that wasn't enough. They asked me to provide them with a letter describing what actually happened in prison. I faxed them the information and it helped."

However, not everyone who approaches him does so in good faith, Eid says. Some people are simply fed up with life in the territories and want to make use of the political angle to improve their situation. "Not long ago I had a call from the Swedish consulate," he says. "They asked me about a television cameraman from Gaza who was requesting political asylum in their country.

"The man claimed he had been arrested after doing a report on corruption in the Palestinian Authority. They asked me whether the cameraman's name appeared on our lists. I got in touch with Gaza, made some inquiries, and discovered that this person had never been arrested by the PA. Apparently he wanted a vacation in Sweden, he was attracted by the quality of life there, so he claimed that he was being harassed for political reasons."

Is that the only case?

"Two months ago I was approached by a family from the village of Lazariya - a mother and her three daughters. They wanted to immigrate to Canada and tried to make use of what happened to them six years ago in order to be given political asylum. Their house and car were set on fire and the family claimed that the person responsible was connected to the Palestinian security services.

"I met with the family five years ago, when I investigated the case. I couldn't find anything to support their story. Two months ago, they asked me to write a letter to the Canadian immigration authorities and back their request for political asylum. They insisted that I write the letter but I told them I wouldn't do it."

Are letters like that in great demand in the territories?

"The Palestinian society seems to me to be dying a little. It has no idea what's happening around it. Everyone wants what his neighbor has. If someone has succeeded in immigrating to Australia, his neighbor says he wants to go to Australia, too. I think we have a serious problem and things aren't coming out publicly only because of fear." n

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