Take Us Back Home: Thousands of Palestinians stranded by coronavirus appeal for urgent repatriation
The Palestinians possess travel documents from the Palestinian Authority, refugee travel documents from Lebanon, or temporary passports from Jordan but they say that every time they ask governments for help, their requests are denied and they are told that they are “not a priority”.
Some of them are from occupied East Jerusalem, which was illegally annexed by Israel in 1967, and have Israeli residency papers but not citizenship.
The students and other trapped Palestinians say they are now living in very difficult conditions around the world, unable to pay for food, accommodation, or other needs with many being told to leave because their courses have finished.
They have set up a campaign called “Raj’ouna a Byoutna” (Take Us Back Home) to draw the attention of the Palestinian Authority and other Arab governments to their plight.
The New Arab spoke to a representative of the campaign who preferred to remain anonymous, given the precariousness of his situation as he is one of those stranded and unable to return home.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, airports in Jordan had been closed and the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip had been shut. Palestinian residents of the West Bank wanting to return can only do so via Jordan, while those wanting to return to the Gaza Strip have to go through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
"Jordan is allowing its citizens to return to their country, but is refusing to allow Palestinians to enter its territory, even those with temporary Jordanian passports...it’s clear that the Palestinian Authority is not doing its work in this regard, they are not pressuring Jordan enough," he said.
"The Jordanians say that they are too busy to deal with the matter and they have to give priority to their own citizens, but Jordan is the only entry point for Palestinian residents of the West Bank,” the campaign representative added.
The situation is no better for Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who theoretically can return there via Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel. Palestinian Jerusalemites who hold Israeli ID cards are being subjected to bureaucratic procedures and harassment before being allowed to return, they say.
If they originally left Jerusalem via Jordan, they are told that they also have to go back via Jordan. They are now having to raise cases in Israeli courts to try to obtain special exemptions allowing them to go back to Jerusalem via Ben-Gurion Airport.
Palestinian students from Gaza are in a similarly bad situation. Those who were studying in Egypt were able to go back to the besieged Gaza Strip via the Rafah Border Crossing, which was opened for three days recently, but those studying in other countries can’t enter Egypt to travel to the Rafah Crossing, which has been closed again now.
However, it is the Palestinians born in Lebanon who are receiving the worst treatment by authorities, according to the campaign representative.
They and their parents and grandparents have been been in Lebanon ever since they were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 and are systematically discriminated against by the Lebanese authorities even though generations of them have been born and raised and lived all their lives in Lebanon.
“Many Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon – students and non-students - have travelled outside the country and now want to return. Lebanese planes are now evacuating Lebanese citizens from abroad, but Palestinians with residency in Lebanon can’t get on the planes. Someone may have been born and lived in Lebanon all their life and have documents proving this but they are still refused evacuation.”, the campaign representative said.
“There were cases of vile mistreatment and racism. A woman living in Liberia was nine months pregnant and she wanted to return to Lebanon to be with her family when she gave birth. At the entrance of the plane they told her to go away and she had to stay in Liberia.”
Similar cases regarding Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon have happened elsewhere. Earlier this month, 31-year-old Tarek Rafic Abu Taha was kicked off a Lebanese flight evacuating people from the UAE after he had already boarded the plane. A Lebanese security agent shouted humiliating insults at him before he was forced off, and The New Arab obtained a copy of a circular by the Lebanese General Security Directorate specifically barring “people of Palestinian descent” and foreign maids accompanying Lebanese citizens from evacuation flights.
The Palestinian Authority’s responsibility
The campaign representative also said that Palestinian officials needed to take responsibility regarding the issue.
“This is inhumane treatment of Palestinians and it’s all happening while Palestinian embassies, the Palestinian Authority, and the PLO are absent from this issue. It’s as if they are not responsible for these Palestinian people. When you talk to them they say ‘we can’t do anything’”.
The New Arab contacted Dr. Ahmed Al-Deek, a political advisor to the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry, who said that the Palestinian Authority was working on the situation “round the clock”.
“The issue of the stranded students is a top priority for us. The Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry is monitoring the situation of our communities and our students in every country of the world and President Mahmoud Abbas has issued instructions saying that this problem must be solved urgently. We’ve sent formal letters to our brothers in Jordan and Egypt, asking for Palestinian citizens to be evacuated [from other countries] along with Egyptian and Jordanian citizens.”
Al-Deek, however, stressed that the Palestinian Authority had no control over borders and crossings. “We’re now waiting for Egypt and Jordan to approve the opening of their airports so we can evacuate out citizens but we have no control over any airports or crossings. We’re monitoring the situation all the time and we’re always in contact with the students and all the stranded people. We have their names and details and we are fully prepared to evacuate them as soon as we receive approval.”
Al-Deek said that the PA had managed to facilitate the travel of over 2,000 students who already were in Jordan and over 1,000 students who were in Egypt via the Karama and Rafah crossing points respectively.
However, there are still over 4,500 students trapped abroad, according to Al-Deek. They have been in this situation ever since March, when the border crossings and airports in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon were first shut down. The situation on the mental and physical well-being of the Palestinians and putting people in dangerous situations.
“Some people have literally run out of money. Either the community around them is giving them aid, or their families have managed to send them some. But there are people who have been sacked from their work because they’re stranded and people without income,” the representative of the Take Us Back Home Campaign said.
He added that these Palestinians had no health insurance and that this could lead to “catastrophe” in the event of medical emergencies at a time when hospitals around the world were overwhelmed.
The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry announced on 13 May that two Palestinians, both aged 52, had died in the UAE as a result of coronavirus.
The Take Us Back Home Campaign organised a survey of 300 stranded Palestinians and more than half said that they needed financial aid or would need it soon. Palestinian students who were staying in university housing or rented accommodation were now being asked to leave their places of residence.
“In Ireland, one student’s landlord even threatened to kill her. He was a drug addict and she had to leave Ireland in fear of her life. She was lucky enough to have a US passport and managed to make it to America, but imagine the fear she was living through,” the campaign representative told The New Arab.
To help alleviate the situation, the Take Us Back Home Campaign had set up a makeshift psychological support system where stranded Palestinian psychology students and specialists offered free counselling to other students.
Dr. Al-Deek said that Palestinian Authority embassies were also checking on the health of Palestinian students, and providing food aid. He called on any Palestinian student who needed help to get in touch with the local Palestinian embassy.
“Palestinian embassies have emergency numbers and we also have emergency numbers and e-mails at the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. If any embassy doesn’t fulfil its duties, the Foreign Ministry gets involved directly and deals with any problem.”
The coronavirus pandemic has made life extremely difficult for people around the world, especially in poorer countries. However, countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel have managed to evacuate their own citizens from abroad and can end the suffering of thousands of Palestinians if they wanted to. The current situation is the latest chapter in a long history of neglect and abuse of Palestinians across the world.
Amr Salahi is a journalist at the New Arab