Until recently, people who emigrated from Gaza had no great reason to return. The levels of unemployment and poverty are extremely high, the territory remains under siege and the threat of a major Israeli attack is ever present.
Then came COVID-19. Improbable as it may seem, the outbreak of this disease has prompted many of Gaza’s emigrants to come back.
Ahmad al-Masri, 25, is among them.
In March 2018, he was shot by an Israeli sniper as he took part in the Great March of Return protests to demand that Palestinian refugees have their rights upheld. Al-Masri’s right leg was badly injured by an exploding bullet.
After undergoing surgery in Gaza, he went to Cairo for further treatment toward the end of 2018. Once he had recovered sufficiently, al-Masri planned to leave for western Europe via Turkey.
Yet in August this year, al-Masri moved back to Gaza. Restrictions introduced by Egypt in response to the coronavirus meant that his options had narrowed.
“I was stuck in Egypt and ran out of money,” he said. “I actually had to borrow money so that I could return to Gaza. The pandemic has been very tough for people from Gaza who are looking for a new home.”
Return or starve
Large numbers of passengers have nonetheless traveled through Rafah whenever the crossing has been opened. During the first week in November, the United Nations monitoring group OCHA published data stating that approximately 21,000 people have entered Gaza this year.
A significant proportion of that number were emigrants coming back.
The phenomenon of emigrants returning is somewhat at odds with previous trends.
As part of efforts to make Gaza unlivable, Israel has reportedly been encouraging emigration from the territory for at least a few years. In 2018 alone, some 35,000 Palestinians left the territory.
Turkey has been a key destination for people emigrating from Gaza. The Turkish authorities are willing to issue 12-month residence permits to Palestinians.
Having arrived in Turkey, many Palestinians then try to enter western Europe. Doing so often requires paying a people smuggler and undertaking perilous journeys.
Refugees have few other choices. The European Union behaves in a highly repressive manner toward people fleeing hardship and war.