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Escaping Gaza’s war, Palestinians find little solace in Egypt

‘We need official papers, and support to navigate these obstacles and ensure a better future for our children.’

This is a high angle photo of Palestinians with foreign passports as they wait at Rafah Border Gate wait to cross into Egypt as the Israeli airstrikes continue on 26th day in Rafah, Gaza on November 01, 2023. Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu
Palestinians with foreign passports wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border gate amid Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, on 1 November 2023.

After nine months of war and destruction inside the Gaza Strip, the small fraction of Palestinians who managed to flee into Egypt before Israel closed the last remaining escape point say their suffering hasn’t ended; it has just taken on a different shape, as they’re left to fend for themselves with no official recognition and little aid.

Until Israel’s offensive on Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, which began on 6 May, some people were able to get out because they qualified for a limited number of medical evacuations, held passports from countries that acted to get their citizens out, or could pay an Egyptian company that charged large fees to “coordinate” a travel permit.

It isn’t clear exactly how many Palestinians were able to get out of Gaza and remain in Egypt, but in early May the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, Diab al-Louh, put the number as high as 100,000.

The Rafah border crossing has been closed since the Israeli military seized control of the area on 7 May. After nearly two months, some limited medical evacuations resumed on 26 June, when Israel allowed 68 Palestinians to leave through the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel and then on to Egypt to seek urgent healthcare.

Israel’s military campaign has killed nearly 38,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in the enclave. Some 87,000 more have been wounded, and over 10,000 others are missing and presumed dead under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

The World Health Organization has estimated that over 10,000 Palestinians need medical care that isn’t available at Gaza’s war-battered hospitals, and it’s unclear if – or when – Palestinians from Gaza will be able to leave again for other reasons. 

What is clear, however, is that many of those who made it to Egypt are now struggling. Having spent their savings to get out of Gaza, often leaving relatives behind in the horror, they now have no official avenue to work, and there’s no international aid agency with a clear mandate to help them.

Ahmed Fayoumi, a 33-year-old Palestinian father of three who fled Gaza for Egypt in April, said he felt his family “had no choice but to leave everything behind”. Now living in the eastern Cairo neighbourhood of Nasr City, Fayoumi barely has enough to pay for the studio apartment he shares with his wife and three children.

Fayoumi said he paid a total of $17,500 to get out of Gaza to the Egyptian company, Hala, which often had weeks-long waitlists and required a person in Gaza to pay the fees: $5,000 for each adult, and $2,500 per child. It was worth it, Fayoumi told The New Humanitarian: “Egypt was the only place we could escape to.”

He knew getting out of Gaza would be hard. He didn’t realise the hurdles would continue once he was on Egyptian soil.

“Our uncertain legal status makes it difficult to access basic services,” Fayoumi explained. “My children are eager to enrol in school, but paperwork stands in the way. We need official papers, and support to navigate these obstacles and ensure a better future for our children.”

Unclear status

Fayoumi can’t do many of those things, nor does he qualify for immediate aid from the UN because he, like most Palestinians from Gaza, only holds identification documents issued in Gaza. Many do not have passports.

These Palestinian documents mean evacuees can’t work in most jobs, enrol their children in schools, open business or bank accounts, travel, or get health insurance. They can access healthcare at private clinics, but the fees are often prohibitively expensive.

Al-Louh, the Palestinian ambassador, has said publicly that he has requested that the Egyptian government grant these Gazans temporary residency so they can do some of these things. Representatives from Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment from The New Humanitarian.

“The world is mostly turning a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians fleeing the war into Egypt, thinking they have been saved and their struggle is over once they are in Cairo. A new set of challenges makes their lives still exhausting as they look to secure the basics of human life and needs in a new foreign place.”

Amjad Moussa, UN volunteer aiding with logistics in Rafah

Rula Amin, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), told The New Humanitarian by email that the government of Egypt “does not recognise UNHCR’s mandate over Palestinian refugees in Egypt”. That means UNHCR is not able to count them or support them, with the exception of some people and their families who were evacuated for medical reasons and are now under the care of the Egyptian Ministry of Health and the Egyptian Red Crescent.

UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, does not have an operational presence in Egypt. Its mandate only allows it to work in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Amjad Moussa, a UN volunteer who until recently was helping with logistics in Rafah, told The New Humanitarian that the situation for Gazan evacuees in Egypt highlights the critical need for international recognition and support. Without it, he feels that rights are at risk, and their chances for a dignified life in Egypt are greatly limited.

“Palestinian evacuees who have recently arrived in Egypt face uncertainty about their legal status, which affects their access to aid and services,” he said. Our efforts to assist them are hindered by these legal barriers, making it harder to provide the support they desperately need.”

“The world is mostly turning a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians fleeing the war into Egypt, thinking they have been saved and their struggle is over once they are in Cairo,” Moussa added. “A new set of challenges makes their lives still exhausting as they look to secure the basics of human life and needs in a new foreign place.”

Hand-to-mouth existence

All of this means that many Gazans are living hand to mouth, or they will be as soon as any remaining savings run out.

Fayoumi isn’t sure what will happen to his family, even in the near future. “I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for me and my family if, in two months, I can’t get a good job. We would have no choice but to either borrow a lot of money to continue to live here or try to seek asylum and refuge in Europe.”

Ahmed al-Maamony, a 26-year-old accountant from Gaza, made it to Egypt in April after paying what he described as exorbitant fees to get out of the enclave. He now lives in downtown Cairo with his wife, three children, his mother, and his sister.

“I fled Gaza with my family, leaving behind my father and brother because we couldn't afford to bring them all,” al-Maamony said. “Now I'm desperately seeking work to support my wife and three kids, but I am struggling to find a job due to my uncertain legal status. Every job opportunity is a lifeline for us, a chance to feed our children and reunite our family.”

Like all Gazans who have recently arrived in Egypt, the lack of a residency permit has posed a major challenge to al-Maamony, who has been forced to rely on financial aid from friends abroad to survive and keep his family afloat.

“We were surprised to discover how high rent costs are in Cairo, where we wanted to live near public places and services,” al-Maamony said, declining to share how much rent he pays, or how much he’s now living off. If he failed to sustain a decent income in Egypt, he planned to go to Canada or Ireland, saying they are welcoming of refugees.

UNHCR's Amin said the Egyptian government doesn’t currently consider Gazans to be refugees or asylum seekers.

“UNHCR is in constant discussions with the government to advocate and explore different avenues to support Palestinian refugees in Egypt who are in dire need of support,” she said, adding that “UNHCR has indicated its readiness to support the government, upon request, in assisting Palestinians in Egypt and is part of interagency efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza.”

Even if Gazans are able to work, it’s not clear if there’s much work to be had. Egypt’s economy was hit hard by the global impacts of COVID-19 and then by Russia’s war in Ukraine, intersecting with long-standing domestic economic challenges, including high annual inflation rates that reached a record 36% in February.

The slumping economic situation, which Gaza’s evacuees are struggling to navigate, is weighing down on the majority of Egypt’s nearly 111 million people, including nine million refugees and migrants from approximately 133 countries, according to figures from the IOM, the UN’s migration agency.

The job market is already struggling to absorb new Egyptian university graduates, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a forecast in May that predicted unemployment is likely to increase due to the fallout of the Gaza war.

Community aid

While Palestinians like al-Maamony seem to have fallen between the cracks of the international system, Egyptians and others are doing their best to help.

In Egypt, where sentiments of sympathy towards Palestinians run high, people have been mobilising on social media in an attempt to collect donations to support evacuees since the beginning of the war.

“We are a group of friends and social network – around a few dozen – based in Cairo trying to help in every way we can Palestinians arriving from Gaza.”

Ordinary citizens have collected money to help Gazans pay rent, buy clothing, and slowly start settling in Egypt as best they can. On Facebook, several pages help Gazans who have recently fled the war connect with each other. There they assist each other with finding affordable rentals, and share advice on how to best navigate their new lives in Egypt. There are posts about schools that will take Gazans, and others from women promoting the bakeries and informal food businesses they have set up to make some money.

Layla Al-Zahraa Suleiman, an Egyptian who lives in Cairo, has formed a group with friends and other contacts that connects new evacuees with each other, and with other activists who are looking to provide support. She feels it is her duty to stand with the new arrivals. “We are a group of friends and social network – around a few dozen – based in Cairo trying to help in every way we can Palestinians arriving from Gaza,” she explained.

“First and foremost, we aim to help provide financial support to cover mainly housing and medical needs for those in need, which are the most difficult burdens for them upon arrival. We seek to spread the word through social media channels where people of care and goodwill are willing to assist,” Suleiman said.

The network has helped hundreds of Palestinians. Over 10 days before Israel’s closure of Rafah, Suleiman said the group managed to provide rent to four families, including many wounded people who are currently undergoing treatment in Egypt.

Some other local groups, including the Mersal Foundation, one of the largest charity organisations in Egypt, have been collecting donations to support Gazans, filling the gap in assistance from the government and international organisations. 

This piece was published in collaboration with Egab. Edited by Annie Slemrod and Toqa Ezzidin.

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