For Palestinians Fleeing Gaza, This EU State Was the Promised Land – Until It Shut Its Doors

Over the past decade, thousands fleeing the Strip tried to seek asylum in Belgium until a new immigration policy slowed down this trend. Haaretz spoke to migrants and experts to understand if this is the end of the Belgian emigration wave

Palestinians gather as they await to get permits to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, in Khan Younis, Southern Gaza strip, 18 November 2017.
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

In mid-August, an Israeli official dropped a bombshell that made headlines in Israel and outside of it too – Israeli authorities are willing to let Gazans who want to emigrate fly out via Israel if a country is found to accept them. Israel would even pay for their flight, the official added. 

Not a lot is known about the Israeli diplomatic channels that might be operating to help the emigration of Palestinians attempting to flee the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. But Haaretz has found that one small European country has already been accepting them for the past decade: Belgium. 

>> Read more: For young Palestinians, there's only one way out of GazaHe thought if he just ran fast enough, he could get out of Gaza

However, since December last year, the Belgians appear to have had enough. The country made significant changes in its approach toward Gazan asylum-seekers – and while it may not have closed its gates, it is making the asylum-seeking process a lot more complex.

According to data shared with Haaretz by Dominique Ernould, an Immigration Office spokeswoman, in 2018 alone, nearly 2,500 Gazans applied for political asylum in Belgium – making them the second-largest group seeking asylum there after Syrians. In the first six months of 2019, the numbers climbed further: 1,472 Palestinians filed asylum requests. 

Asylum seekers at an intake center run by the Belgian organization Fedasil in the city of Broechem, Belgium. 2019
VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/Collectif

The figures indicate that out of 3,188 applications by Palestinians currently being examined, around 1,600 are by Palestinians who were born in Gaza, Ernould says.

Nowhere else in Europe were Palestinians among the top five biggest groups claiming asylum in the last few years, according to data from Eurostat, which provides statistical information to EU institutions. In Belgium they were second and third group of origin in 2018 and 2017 respectively, and in 2019 they are projected to be high up the ranking too. 

Adel Atieh, the deputy head of the Palestinian mission to the European Union, points out that eleven years ago, there were only 3,000 Palestinians in Belgium. Today, however, Atieh estimates that that there are around 10,000 Palestinian asylum seekers living there, with as many as 98 percent of them hailing from the Strip. 

“Based on the argument that there are human rights violations under Hamas and that their security is under threat by the Hamas militia, Palestinians from the Strip traditionally had much higher chances to get asylum in Belgium than Palestinians from the West Bank,” says Atieh. “A lot of them came after the 2008-2009 and the 2014 wars,” he adds. 

A Palestinian woman waves to her relatives standing behind a fence upon her return to Gaza through Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip May 27, 2015.
\ REUTERS

But in December 2018, Belgian authorities decided to stop accepting Gazans’ asylum applications by default, and started considering them on a case-by-case basis.  

The harsher conditions posed by the Belgian authorities seem to have had a direct impact, causing a downward trend in the number of Palestinians trying to claim protection there. In January, 426 Gazans had sought asylum in Belgium, according to data provided by the Belgian Immigration Office; in February and March the numbers fell to 257 and 258; in April and May they had plummeted to 185 and 199. 

Ahmed (not his real name), a 35-year-old former shopkeeper from central Gaza, is one of the many hoping to resettle there. Speaking to Haaretz from a reception center for asylum seekers in Belgium, where he is waiting for a response to his asylum request, he says that he decided to take his chance three months ago. Ahmed left behind a wife and three children to set out for an unknown fate. “It took me one year to convince myself that it was a solution, gather the money, and then wait for my name to come up in the [Hamas] list allowing me to leave from Rafah,” he recounts, referring to the crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Asked why he chose Belgium of all places, Ahmed says that his friends “told me Belgium is welcoming and many Gazans are already here, although the trip is difficult.” 

A Harvard academic conducting field research on emigration from Gaza, who requested to remain unnamed in this article, confirms that “Belgium is the new trend, definitely the top European destination at the moment.” Ahmed’s case reflects a common pattern she has observed. “It just became a shared knowledge or 'doxa' among young Palestinians in the Strip that that’s the easiest place to have their asylum claims recognized and where they have the best services on offer for asylum seekers, and then most of it is word of mouth.”

Palestinians ride in a car as they wait at the Rafah crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, August 25, 2014.
\ REUTERS

Out of the 200 cases the academic worked on, around 50 or 60 per cent were going to Belgium, a quarter of them did not know, which normally means going to Turkey and figuring it out from there, and another quarter were going to other states such as Malaysia or Sweden, he said. 

How Palestinians flee the Strip

With Israel controlling the Palestinian territories, including entrance and departure, leaving the Strip is no easy feat. As Haaretz reported in May, Hamas is reluctant to allow emigration. The group makes it especially difficult for professionals such as doctors, who are badly needed in Gaza. 

But despite the difficulty, many are finding a way out. In May 2018, Egypt opened its border with Gaza regularly, and tens of thousands of Gazans are believed to have left for good since. According to data compiled by aid agencies affiliated with the United Nations, 60,907 Palestinians left Gaza via Egypt in 2018 and only 37,075 returned, a net exodus of around 23,800. Israel, however, estimates that around 35,000 Gazans left for good.

Palestinian Hamas security forces chat with a driver at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on April 30, 2011, a day after Egypt said it will permanently open the Rafah border crossing as part of its plans to ease the blockade on Gaza while an Egyptian border guard was killed in an exchange of gunfire with Palestinian tunnel smugglers.
AFP

Hélène Crokart, a Brussels-based immigration attorney who deals with many cases of Palestinian asylum seekers, explains how Belgium became such a popular choice for Palestinians. “They choose Belgium because of its high rates of acceptance of [Palestinian] asylum requests, the housing provided while applications are being examined and the possibility of family reunification once they’re accepted. But most of them just follow the information they receive, and those who arrived through smuggling routes go where they’re told to go,” she said. 

So how do they physically get there? According to the Harvard academic conducting field-research in Gaza, Gazans arrive in Belgium through two main routes: “Some get a visa for Turkey, get smuggled into Greece and then move on to Belgium; others fly to Mauritania and reach Belgium via Spain.”

Upon arrival, Palestinians waiting for a response to their asylum requests are disseminated in reception centers across the country where they receive accommodations like food and medical care, but are not allowed to work. 

Sources in Gaza and Belgium claim that there is another type of Gazans fleeing to Belgium: Political refugees. Some of the leaders of the anti-Hamas protest movement “We Want to Live,” which were repressed by the group in the spring of last year, are arriving there to escape persecution. 

But the typical Palestinian asylum seekers who reach Belgium are “commonly independent youths who have heard from mates who had gone successfully, rather than people traveling to join [their] families,” the Harvard academic researching Gaza notes. 

Belgium shuts the door

Last December, Belgium’s General Commissariat for Refugees and Stateless (CGRA) decided it would stop accepting Gazans’ asylum applications by default and start considering them on a case-by-case basis.

Palestinians gather as they wait to get permits to travel through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in Khan Younis, Southern Gaza strip, 18 November 2017.
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

“The situation in Gaza is still precarious and problematic for many of them [Palestinians], but not for all. Therefore, it is necessary to examine every asylum request in detail on the basis of the elements provided,” Belgium’s CGRA said in a statement. It also added that the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt had changed matters: “During the first part of 2018, the Rafah border crossing was closed. This made it almost impossible for people to go back to Gaza via Egypt. Since multiple months, the border crossing has been reopened,” the statement read. 

Diplomat Atieh tells Haaretz that he personally witnessed how the change in Belgian policy has had a significant effect. “We feel that things are getting more complicated for them. A couple of days ago people came to our office in Brussels, asking how we can help them go back to Gaza because their asylum requests were denied. It’s happening more and more frequently,” he says. 

Soon after the CGRA announced the shift in policy at the end of last year, the Belgian-Palestinian association in Brussels, which also helps Gazans with their asylum requests, slammed the decision in a statement. “Only people endowed with little intelligence would think that the increase in arrivals would go hand in hand with the improvement of the situation on the ground,” the organization stated, adding that “instead of discouraging arrivals, the Belgian government should work on alleviating the causes of the departures.” 

‘Who wants to go back to a jail?’

An internal report by the CGRA seen by Haaretz points to the main reason leading Belgian authorities to turn away Palestinians – the belief that they have means to return to their homeland.

“Many conditions need to be satisfied for Palestinians in Belgium to go back to the Strip… but according to all sources (consulted for the report), such return is viable,” the report reads. 

Asylum seekers at an intake center run by the Belgian organization Fedasil in the city of Broechem, Belgium. 2019
VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/Collectif

It further adds that “if the Rafah crossing is open they can board Egypt Air flights with their Palestinian passports… and the Palestinian embassy in Cairo organizes buses that go straight to Rafah. Since May 2018 the opening of the Rafah crossing is almost permanent.”

Immigration lawyer Crokart notes that her clients from Gaza have been facing more hurdles since the new regulations were issued by Belgian authorities last December. “Gazans need to demonstrate more thoroughly [that] they are actually from the Strip and must be at risk of individual persecution there,” she says.

However, Crokart believes that there is still hope for Gazans attempting to seek asylum in Belgium thanks to the Conseil du Contentieux des Etrangers (CCE), an independent administrative court that hears appeals against decisions by the CGRA. “We appealed some of the denials at the CCE and the last decisions sent the cases back to the CGRA for re-evaluation mainly by challenging the decision on the possibility of return to Gaza,” the attorney explains. 

Flemish daily De Standaard reports that many appeals by Gazans whose requests were refused by the CGRA are actually overturned by the CCE. The cases are being analyzed “one by one given the volatile situation in the Strip,” a spokesperson for the appeals court told De Standaard.

Back in Gaza, the increasing emigration rate is an issue handled carefully. “There is a lot of sensitivity surrounding migration and what it means politically,” the academic researching the issue says. “Palestinians always used to travel for study and work but now there is no intention to come back, which is at odds with the state-building liberation narrative.”

Most Palestinians in Belgium reject the authorities’ claim that the path is clear for them to return to the Strip. Ahmed expresses his own frustration with this notion. “I wish they could be [in our shoes] and try themselves [to go back]. The Egyptians mistreat us, Sinai is dangerous… we did not come for nothing.” 

As he waits for an official response to his asylum request, Ahmed says that he sees “many Gazans who are receiving a refusal and I am anxious. Who wants to go back to a jail?” 

These developments make it evident that Belgium is no longer the promised land for Gazans trying to find a way out, and raise a new question – where will they turn to next?