4th Dec 2023

Looming EU-Egypt deal prompts fears for future Gaza refugees

  • A Palestinian refugee in the Gaza Strip on 21 October. Half a million people in Gaza are taking refuge in UNRWA schools, shelters and buildings, amid some limited international calls for a ceasefire (Photo: UNRWA)
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As the cycle of violence in Gaza reaches its 17th day, with a death toll of over 5,000 Palestinian and 1,400 Israeli lives, the European Union appears to be accelerating its efforts to finalise a deal with Egypt.

European concerns on the migratory implications of the Israeli-Hamas war seem to have started when Greek migration minister Dimitris Keridis said "as if the multitude of flashpoints in northern Africa and Syria were not pushing thousands of migrants and refugees to Europe already, now this" — referring to the possibility of displaced Palestinians seeking refuge in Europe.

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Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), tells EUobserver that they are "extremely worried about the fact that around one million people, out of a 2.2 million population, were displaced from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south."

More than half of them, around 514,000, are taking refuge in UNRWA schools, shelters and buildings, she adds.

Instead of a united leadership calling for a ceasefire — something criticised in a letter, seen by EUobserver, by over 800 MEPs and EU staff which describes their response to Gaza as a "European cacophony" — European Council president Charles Michel stressed the "challenge" posed by the potential influx of refugees, who would first enter Egypt, during last week's US-EU summit.

Michel said "Egypt needs support, so let's support Egypt," suggesting what sources told the Financial Times: with a new economic agreement between Egypt and the EU, Europe would be indirectly pushing for Egypt to keep containing migration outside the Union's borders.

Egypt cannot be another Morocco or Libya deal

"The EU has externalised its borders, and this externalisation has been applied in the entire Mediterranean, so there is nothing new in Europe wanting to avoid refugees and migrants from reaching them," Ibrahim Awad, Egyptian professor and director of Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University of Cairo (AUC), told EUobserver.

He points out similar EU deals with third countries in north Africa, like Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, where economic incentives were provided for them to contain migration flows.

However, Awad does not believe that we can see the exact same thing in Egypt due to its coasts' distance from European shores.

"I do not know what the EU seeks with accelerated funds, if they are targeted to address the Palestinian population in Gaza," he says. "They may be targeting other elements, and may want to influence Egyptian positions and attitudes in general towards the entire situation".

As a Bloomberg article explores, multiple economists, bankers and investors who spoke to the outlet during annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank "saw Egypt as likely to receive some economic backing, whatever its refugee stance".

The analysis adds that the current crisis has just "reminded global players of the north African nation's status as a regional linchpin," with Cairo organising a peace summit last Saturday (21 October).

Such efforts seem to have been made by Egypt to counterbalance president Abdel Fatah El-Sisi's absolute dismissal of the possibility of hosting any Palestinian refugees.

"Egypt is in a really dark economic situation at the moment, making it difficult to receive more refugees," says professor Awad. However, he stresses that, most importantly, "Egypt certainly does not want to be a party of the liquidation of the Palestinian question altogether".

Palestinians: 'We will not leave'

Robert Satloff, executive director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, seems to agree with Ibrahim Awad in the same piece. "While Egypt could absorb a certain number of people, the domestic political consequences would be huge", Satloff said.

Presidential elections in Egypt are expected to be held in December, and "the Palestinian cause is the most politicising factor for Egyptians," Hossam El-Hamalawy, Egyptian activist and researcher, told EUobserver.

"More Palestinians leaving what is left of their homeland is the liquidation of the Palestinian question," Awad stresses.

"Palestinians have made it clear in the past two weeks that they do not intend to leave their home in Gaza, that they do not wish to be refugees, because when they leave, they will not be able to ever return."

In 1948, after the UN's plan to divide Palestine into two states, between 750,000 and one million Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army. They, who represented 75 percent of all Palestinians, became refugees either in camps inside the non-occupied parts of Palestine or in neighbouring countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, and have been to this day unable to return.

In fact, 1.7 million people in Gaza — almost 80 percent of the total population — are already refugees: Palestinians whose grandparents were forced out of their original villages, now considered Israeli territory.

EUobserver spoke to a Palestinian woman from Gaza, who is now residing in Cairo, and who prefers to keep her identity anonymous. "I don't think Palestinians will make the mistake of our great grandparents," she said. "We will not leave. People will prefer to stay, despite whatever comes." She, who is stuck in Cairo as a transit for civilians into Gaza has not been allowed yet, says: "If I was in Gaza, I wouldn't leave."

The situation for Palestinians in Egypt is not good either. The woman's mother had just been just visiting her, and had planned to go back to Gaza before the Hamas attacks of 7 October. Now she is stuck in Egypt with no shelter nor help.

"Hopefully I can stay with my daughter in Cairo" she tells EUobserver, "because those Gazans who got stuck near the crossing have been left with nothing."

Aylol Abu Elwan, who has been trapped in El-Arish region close to the Rafah crossing for 17 days, tells EUobserver that the situation is dire.

"Everything is hard for us in Egypt. It is difficult for us to rent a place while we wait, to buy food and water as we are run out of money…". He tells us that some of them have been welcomed by Egyptian families, while others sleep in the street, claiming that Egyptian authorities have not helped them. "The situation is very hard in Egypt, we got tired of waiting here, we want to go back to Gaza".

The majority of Palestinians living in Gaza claim they do not want to leave. However, those who do are not just a responsibility of Egypt, but of the entire world, including Europe.

"There are no obligations towards the welcoming of refugees under international law concerning bordering countries. What we find are obligations in any country where a person seeks protection, whether it is bordering or not," professor Awad warns, referring to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951.

The European Union with its externalisation agreements has avoided this responsibility, and in light of what is being said about the next economic deal with Egypt, it might be planning to avoid any likely responsibility towards Palestinian refugees coming from Gaza in the future.

However, Awad states "the Palestinian question is at the origin of the existence of refugees, current or possible. If you want to address the issue of Palestinian refugees, you need to address the Palestinian question so that the reasons for the eruption of violence are not repeated once and again."

While the past few weeks have seen the EU as an institution seemingly unable to contribute to peace, with its top leaders avoiding mentioning a ceasefire, the possibility of the bloc calling for a humanitarian pause during this week could be a good point to start.

"We are calling for an immediate ceasefire, for humanitarian corridor and for the respect of international humanitarian law: the respect of all civilians and civilian infrastructure, including that of the UN and humanitarian actors," said Tamara Alrifai from UNRWA, a humanitarian organization that has already lost 29 workers because of Israeli airstrikes.

"We truly want people to be able to go back to their homes" she said, hoping to avoid a refugee crisis even being on the table.

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón,, and others.

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