20th Mar 2018

Most Malta boat victims were Gaza refugees

  • Gaza residents salvage property after Operation Protective Edge (Photo: un.org)

Palestinian people fleeing Israel’s occupation of Gaza were most of the victims in the Malta boat incident last week, when hundreds were left to drown by human traffickers.

The information comes from survivors interviewed by the Palestinian embassy in Greece, which spoke to two men from Gaza who made it to the Greek island of Crete.

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Two other men from Gaza, who made it to the Italian island of Sicily, also gave details to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a Swiss-based institute.

The original group, which sailed from Damietta in Egypt, is said to have numbered 500 people from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Sudan.

But Ahmed Suhail, a Palestinian diplomat in Greece, told EUobserver on Wednesday (17 September) that “according to the information we got, around 250 or 300 of them were Palestinians from Gaza”.

A Gaza-based NGO, Adamir, corroborated his statement, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz it has collected the names of 400 missing people.

“The whole Gaza Strip is talking about it. It’s such a painful story, as if it’s not enough what happened in the last war and now another blow comes”, the NGO’s director, Halil Abu Shamala, said.

One Gaza resident, Belal, who is planning to make a similar trip, told this website that Israel’s recent attack prompted many people to attempt the crossing.

“We are thinking: It's better to try and to drown in the sea than to stay at home and be killed by Israeli bombs”.

The Israeli offensive - Operation Protective Edge - in July and August killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians, injured over 10,000, and caused 440,000 to abandon their homes.

It also demolished houses and destroyed electrical and water sanitation facilities in a place where living conditions were already miserable due to Israel’s seven-year blockade.

Leonard Doyle, an IOM spokesman, told EUobserver he has no proof there is a surge in Gaza migrants following the Israeli attack.

“This [the survivors’ testimony] is the first evidence we’ve seen”, he noted.

But Palestine’s Suhail said: “It [a surge of migrants] began after the Israeli invasion, so our blame goes first and foremost on the terrible situation caused by the Israeli occupation”.

He thanked Greece for helping survivors, but he said EU countries should put more pressure on Israel to ease living conditions in the Strip.

“People are now arriving in Europe on a daily basis trying to flee Gaza”, he added.

Getting here

The Palestinian men told the IOM they paid a “travel office” in Gaza $2,000 each using money from grants to rebuild their homes.

Haaretz reports, citing an anonymous trafficker, that some pay up to $4,000. They enter Egypt through tunnels under the Rafah crossing point, where buses drive them through the Sinai desert to safe houses.

The sea voyage to Europe can take a week because they are forced to keep changing boats.

The smugglers bribe Egyptian officials. They also have agents in south Europe who help migrants get out of detention facilities. Some tell the Palestinians to claim they are Syrians escaping the civil war.

The survivors told IOM their boat was deliberately rammed by traffickers in waters south of Malta on 11 September when the migrants refused to board a smaller vessel.

“After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing”, one survivor said.

Some people floated in the water for three days before bad weather set in.

One of those who made it to Crete is a two-year old girl. Souhail said her identity is unknown, but she is said to be Syrian, so his mission is co-ordinating her medical care because Syria does not have diplomatic representation in Greece. "She is in a critical condition", he noted.

Enquiry needed

The IOM’s Doyle said that some 3,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, compared to 700 in all of 2013.

He added the increase in deaths comes at a time when irregular crossings in other hotspots - such as the US border with Mexico or Australia’s northern shores - are down by 40 to 100 percent.

IOM has advised EU authorities to work with countries in north Africa and the Middle East to help refugees come to Europe safely.

But Doyle said the scale of the Malta boat killing merits an “international judicial enquiry”.

“In the context of this disaster … there has to be an international reaction. It can’t be the case that 500 people are sent to their doom and there is no international legal response”.

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