A few clothes, important documents, money and cellphones ― that’s all Waseem, Wajdi and Momen packed for their start into a new life. Their plan: Cross from Gaza into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing. Then travel to Turkey. And then make it to the EU from there. But none of the three young men have a visa to enter the European Union. They plan to join the scores of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.
"Of course, it is risky. It’s difficult, but this is the only way to seek a better future," says 26-year-old Wajdi, who has never left Gaza. He is still traumatized from the war in 2014, when his family home was severely damaged.
His friend Waseem also doesn’t see his future in Gaza.
"Nobody should ask us why we want to leave Gaza. It’s impossible to make a living here," the 26-year-old says. He, like his two friends, wants to be referred to by first name only to protect their identity. "I studied hard, worked hard, stayed up late, got up early, tried everything to get a proper job and what did we achieve, besides living through wars and conflict?"
Gaza: Years of isolation and conflict
They are part of a generation that has grown up amid recurring wars. Over the last 15 years, Gaza has seen at least four wars, and many shorter military escalations between Israel, Hamas and other militant organizations.
In 2007, Israel largely closed Gaza’s borders and imposed restrictions on air, land and sea access after militant Islamist group Hamas seized power militarily from the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. At times, Egypt also imposes restrictions on its border with the territory. Hamas is classified by Germany, the European Union, the United States and some Arab states as a terrorist organization.
Israel cites security reasons for severely restricting the movement for people and goods in and out of the small territory. This policy has isolated Gaza and its 2.3 million people from the rest of the world for more than 16 years.
The third young man in the group, Momen, who is in his late twenties, is married and has two small children. The other two refer to him as the expert, but none of them know where they will be a few weeks from now. Momen made it to a Greek island via Turkey last year, only to be caught and sent back. Now he has secured enough money to try again. Momen hopes to bring his family along once he makes it. "My kids are afraid [of what will happen] if there is a war. Why would we have to continue living in such a situation?"
Waseem graduated with a degree in accounting six years ago but has not been able to find a job in his field. In Gaza, 59.3% of 15- to 29-year-olds are currently unemployed, according to recently published figures from the World Bank.
"I was one of the top five graduates, but none of us found a job in our field or, generally speaking, any job," says Waseem. To get a job these days, he says you need the right affiliation and connections. "They [the de facto government] take lots of taxes, but we get nothing in return. It feels like it [Gaza] is theirs, but not my home anymore."
Bleak prospects for young people in Gaza
Young Gazans cannot look to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian Territories, for work possibilities either. It is nearly impossible to get a permit from Israel to visit or to live there and work. So instead, some of those wanting to leave the claustrophobia of locked-down Gaza behind, look abroad.
Getting a visa to enter an EU country is extremely difficult. That’s why Momen, Waseem and Wajdi procured visas to Turkey, which is currently known among migrants as a much more manageable endeavor. And Turkey will at least be closer to where they want to go.
Momen estimates the overall cost of the one-way journey to Europe to be between 5,000 and 12,000 euros, depending on the route. This includes visa and flight costs to Turkey, in addition to fees and transportation costs paid to smugglers at various stages.
It is a dangerous journey with many hurdles. The trouble starts with the first step: Leaving Gaza via the Rafah border crossing in the territory’s south. Getting past the crossing is a complicated process that requires prior coordination with Egyptian authorities and can take hours. In the past, the crossing was often closed entirely.
After their flight from Cairo, Egypt, to Istanbul, Turkey, the trio will travel to different coastal cities. From there on, they will depend on smugglers, who sell space on small motorboats to cross the Mediterranean to the Greek islands such as Rhodes or Lesbos. Yet more smugglers would be needed to reach the Greek mainland.
Once in Greece, the young men’s main worry would be to escape registration and to avoid being picked up by police. Ultimately, they plan to claim asylum in Belgium or in Germany, where they have friends.
Putting your life in the hands of smugglers
The friends will part ways in Istanbul. Waseem has a certain degree of trust in the smugglers.
"The more you can pay, the safer the route is," he says.
Waseem’s father will pay for the journey from his savings. Wajdi and Momen borrowed money from family, took out loans or sold some possessions. It could all be for naught.
"Some of those who migrate eventually return to Gaza because they could not get a residency permit, could not find a job or they realize their perception of Europe as heaven compared to Gaza was mistaken," says Maha Hussaini, strategy director at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, an NGO that works to protect human rights across the MENA-region.
From her office in a high rise building in Gaza City, Hussaini looks out over the Mediterranean Sea, which separates the Gaza Strip from the European continent. The beach and the sea are considered the only place where residents often say that they "feel something like freedom". But even here, the horizon is finite: Israel controls the maritime border and Palestinian fishermen can only go out to sea up to 15 nautical miles.
A journey with a tragic ending
It is difficult to quantify how many migrants leave Gaza with the intention of reaching Europe without a Schengen visa, since they usually travel with a visa for Turkey.
In recent years, it has been "mainly young men who graduated recently or a decade ago," says Hussaini, adding that these young people don’t believe a political solution for Gaza’s problems is in sight. "They see the state of uncertainty, they don’t find jobs and can’t start a family."
But the journey to Europe can end tragically, too.
Baker Abu Tayer welcomes guests in a sparsely furnished living room in the city of Khan Yunis in the South of the Gaza-Strip. His son Mahmoud drowned in the Mediterranean in March 2023. A large poster, draped with a black and white keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian head garb for men, shows a smiling young man. The boat Mahmoud was on sank in the Aegean Sea.
"After Mahmoud, hundreds of people traveled and made it to their destination. He met his Lord. We cannot change anything about fate," says Abu Tayer, his voice breaking.
Mahmoud’s body was recovered and brought back to Gaza.
"I go to the cemetery to visit him and read the messages he sent to me on WhatsApp," says Abu Tayer, who didn’t want him to leave in the first place. Mahmoud’s brother was planning to take the same route, but those plans have been canceled. The family can barely cope with the loss of one son.
Many families have not had any closure when their relatives disappear along migration routes. Since 2014, at least 375 people from Gaza were reported missing or died, according to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, with the number of unreported cases likely much higher. The organization says that several of the missing migrants’ families fell prey to extortionists from abroad who swindled them for money in return for supposed information about their loved ones.
Waseem knew late Mahmoud Abu Tayer. But despite all the risks, he and his friends have set off and left their home for an uncertain future. Last DW heard, Waseem has arrived in Belgium. It is unclear what happened to Wajdi after his arrival in Turkey. And Momen is still waiting for an opportunity to cross the Mediterranean to make it to Europe.
Hazem Balousha contributed reporting in Gaza.
Edited by: Carla Bleiker