Dozens of desperate Palestinians who embark on illegal and dangerous boat journeys to Europe in search of a better life continue to lose their lives in tragedies at sea, according to officials, causing anguish for grieving loved ones at home.
They leave their homes in the hope of finding better job opportunities and improved living conditions. However, some drown and others are detained by coast guards when they arrive at their destinations. In the end, many who survive are sent back to where they came from.
Ahmad Al-Deek, a political adviser to the Palestinian foreign minister, told Arab News that those who embark on dangerous journeys in attempt to reach the shores of Greece pay smugglers between $7,000 and $10,000 to carry them there in old, overloaded, rickety boats that are unfit to sail. Some of the migrants are from the Gaza Strip, others are Palestinians from Syria and Lebanon
Boats designed to carry about 10 passengers can be loaded up with as many as 40 or 50 people, which is a major factor in the risk of capsizing and sinking, he said. In some cases the boats, most of which depart from Turkey or Libya, are deliberately sunk by smuggling gangs over disputes, he added.
“Organized gangs of human trafficking and human organs (smugglers) are behind this humanitarian tragedy, and we are working to make it a Palestinian public opinion issue so that families prevent their children from taking up these journeys of death,” Al-Deek said.
Losses of boats are often not discovered for days because they are kept secret by the smugglers, who extort money from their desperate passengers and, according to testimonies from their victims, threaten them and sometimes beat and abuse them. They are particularly cruel when they are intercepted by Greek security patrols, Al-Deek added.
He said he has established a special department in the Foreign Ministry that is tasked with gathering information about Palestinians missing at sea, and communicating with their families and Palestinian embassies, authorities and coast guards in the countries where drowning incidents occur.
The department also works with Palestinian intelligence agencies to determine the number of victims and identify the gangs responsible for tragedies. It contacts survivors who have been detained or are in shelters and updates their families about their conditions, and helps relatives of the dead to have the bodies of loved ones repatriated.
Sources from the governing Hamas authority in Gaza say that the number of Palestinians who have drowned in perilous sea journeys in the past five years could be about 40. Other sources say the true number might be as high as 360.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Arab News that economic pressures, resulting from a high unemployment rate and lack of job opportunities for university graduates in the Gaza Strip, drive young people in their twenties to consider the risky sea crossings in search of a better life.
“The unemployment rate among youth in the Gaza Strip has reached 45 percent, and among university graduates 65 percent,” he said. “Most of the government jobs in Gaza have been taken up by members of the Hamas movement.”
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is considered the second-biggest employer after Hamas, has reduced its staffing levels and is now only offering contractor jobs, he added.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority stopped employing university graduates from Gaza in 2007 and the process for obtaining permits to work in Israel are complicated, said Abu Saada.
Two million people live in Gaza Strip, which has been under a comprehensive Israeli blockade since 2006.
Bassim Naiem, head of the Hamas political department in Gaza, told Arab News that his organization is working to educate citizens, through Friday sermons in mosques and radio and television talk shows, not to consider illegal migrant journeys, and is asking many Arab and non-Arab countries to absorb graduates of universities in the Gaza Strip by offering them jobs.
Hardly a week goes by without a boat carrying Palestinian migrants from the shores of Libya, Tunisia or Turkey sinking, claiming several lives, Palestinian sources told Arab News, citing survivors who said that greedy smugglers use unsuitable rubber boats with only one engine and no captain, and carry at least double the permitted number of passengers.
They provide one of the passengers with minimal training in how to navigate and steer the boat, the sources said, but because this person does not know the correct procedures for sailing and how to deal with waves and other dangers, tragedies often occur.