Occupied Palestinian Territory – Years after the disappearance of their husbands, the wives of missing Palestinian migrants and asylum seekers who attempted to leave the Gaza Strip still face incredibly complex social, economic, and psychological consequences, said Euro-Med Rights Monitor in a statement.

A new report published by Euro-Med Monitor titled “Can’t even be a widow” documents the long-term ramifications experienced by families of missing Gazan migrants due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding their fate. Based on 50 personal interviews with family members of the missing migrants, the report reveals that there are individuals and gangs taking advantage of families in crisis and their desire for knowledge about their loved ones. These people contact grieving families, claiming to know information such as the whereabouts of the missing, or stating that they have personally seen the victim, and demand large sums of money in exchange for such information.

All of the cases documented by Euro-Med Monitor prove that these individuals engage in organised extortion operations to exploit people’s needs and steal their money. “I’m constantly getting calls from people claiming to know what happened to my son,” Asaad al-Jarf, father of Hisham al-Jarf, 24, who went missing in a September 2014 shipwreck, told Euro-Med Monitor in an interview. “The most recent of these attempts came from a man named H. N.” (Euro-Med Monitor has withheld name to protect al-Jarf from retribution.)

   The blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip for nearly 17 years was the primary reason or motive in the vast majority of documented migration and asylum-seeking cases   

Anas Jerjawi, Euro-Med Monitor’s Chief Operating Officer

“He claimed that my son was alive and imprisoned in Egypt and that he would let me hear his voice, so I agreed to pay him $2,000 for it,” al-Jarf continued. “When I called the person, who was supposed to be my son, I was surprised to hear a voice that was nothing like his. He was speaking in a Bedouin dialect that my son does not speak.” After making his own efforts to locate those responsible for the calls, al-Jarf added, he “discovered that they reside in Egypt and that the sole purpose of their claims was to blackmail us and take our money”.

The report revealed that women usually suffer doubly, as the vast majority of them told the Euro-Med Monitor field team that they are unable to even obtain the status of “widowed” or “divorced” due to a variety of societal, economic, and legal considerations. As a result, they remain trapped and their lives come to a halt—they are unable to overcome the crisis and move forward, nor marry and start anew.

“There is no way I could announce my divorce in court or marry someone else,” Sabreen al-Moghani, wife of Ziad Radi, 46, said in a statement to the Euro-Med Monitor team. Radi has been missing since 27 March 2019, following a capsised boat incident. Even if divorce and remarriage are permissible under Sharia law and statutory law, said al-Moghani, there are other customs and traditions that condemn these acts. “We are ultimately governed by the traditions of our society,” she added. “Furthermore, I believe my husband is still alive.”

Moreover, many families of missing migrants and asylum seekers are reluctant to distribute an inheritance due to societal considerations. If a migrant’s father dies, for example, the migrant’s family cannot benefit from his inheritance unless the migrant is also legally declared deceased. Many families, however, refuse to make this declaration for fear of social stigma, loss of certain financial benefits they receive as a result of the disappearance, or the belief that the migrant is still alive because no body or grave has been found.

“My husband’s father passed away and his estate was withheld by the bank, so we were unable to benefit from it,” explained Asmaa Abu Daqqa, whose husband Sari Abu Daqqa, 33, went missing in the September 2014 shipwreck incident, in an interview with Euro-Med Monitor. “This is due to our refusal to sign official documents declaring my husband’s death, because doing so would deprive us of the monthly salary we receive because my husband is considered a ‘missing employee’. Also, several social factors prevent me from announcing [his] death.”

If a victim’s family receives information about the discovery of their body following a drowning incident, the grief-stricken family faces additional challenges such as a complicated identification procedure which is severely impeded due to a lack of necessary technical capabilities in the Gaza Strip and the fact of having to send DNA samples abroad. Although the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established a protocol for transporting these samples abroad from Gaza, prior approval from Israeli authorities is required, as are special permits and approvals that take time. Victims’ families are therefore forced to send samples themselves, without the guidance of a medical professional, causing most of the samples to spoil.

Returning the bodies of drowned migrants to Gaza and burying them there is extremely important to victims’ families for many reasons, but is both financially and logistically challenging. Members of the Euro-Med Monitor team noted that victims’ families are forced to put various forms of pressure on official authorities to act and ensure that the bodies of their loved ones are returned.

According to Anas Jerjawi, Euro-Med Monitor’s Chief Operating Officer, “What is more difficult than informing families of their children’s deaths on the migration journey is one or both of the following: families not knowing their child’s fate, [i.e.] whether they survived or died, and their suffering being exploited by those giving them false hope or inaccurate information [in exchange for] money.” Jerjawi added that the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip for nearly 17 years was the primary reason or motive in the vast majority of documented migration and asylum-seeking cases, as young people attempt, in various ways, to make decent and safe lives for themselves outside the besieged Strip.

The report concluded that dealing with drowning incidents and reducing the complex suffering of families with missing members—and the pain of those seeking safety in the first place, who are desperate for any chance at a better life—begins with addressing the root cause of the crisis, which is the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel must lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip; allow Palestinians to fully exercise their rights; end all procedures and policies that limit the right of Palestinians to enjoy means of livelihood, security, and economic stability; and allow the entry of all autopsy and DNA analysis devices.

The Palestinian Authority and the Hamas-run government in Gaza must take all possible steps to alleviate the social and economic burdens on families of missing migrants and asylum seekers, as well as facilitate all judicial procedures involving missing persons, victims, and their families. Relevant authorities must take all possible measures to protect victims’ families from all forms of extortion, including assuming their responsibilities with regard to tracking down extortionists and identifying and holding perpetrators accountable. Euro-Med Rights Monitor also recommends launching psychological support programmes for victims’ families in order to address the severe harm that accompanies the loss of one’s spouse, sibling, or child.

Full report in Arabic
Full report in English will be available soon.