Since the imposition of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip in January 2006 and consequent military attacks that have exacerbated crises in the economic sector and all other sectors of the Strip, thousands of Palestinians—particularly young people—have been forced to flee the region in search of safety and stability. As a result of the perilous sea routes taken by these migrants and asylum seekers, dozens of Gazan Palestinians have drowned attempting to migrate, especially following Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza. Each death signals the start of a long period of anguish for their families, who face complex economic, social, emotional, and legal challenges.
In this report, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor tracks the main factors that drive thousands of Gazans to flee the Strip and seek asylum in Europe, with a special emphasis on the economic, social, and psychological consequences facing victims’ families. Testimonies obtained by Euro-Med Monitor’s team document numerous hardships experienced by families, such as a lack of official data on victims’ deaths provided by the governments of countries whose coasts saw these drownings, and by the Palestinian Authority, which is obliged to follow up on the affairs of its nationals abroad. Families’ additional hardships include severe psychological suffering due to uncertainty about their child’s fate, if a body was not recovered, as well as social challenges which complicate their lives and compound their trauma.
This report provides a legal framework for such cases, whether they involve Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, or other countries whose responsibilities include conducting search and rescue operations. The report also makes recommendations to relevant parties to alleviate the suffering of families in the Gaza Strip and migrants on various levels.
Primarily based on research, field documentation, and individual interviews with the families of missing migrants and asylum seekers in the Gaza Strip, this report covers the period from August 2014 to early February 2023.
Euro-Med Monitor’s field research team in Gaza conducted 50 personal interviews with families of migrants and asylum seekers, as well as with several concerned official authorities. The information and data in this report were analysed using the information participants provided, and each participant was informed of the purpose of the interview and how the information would be used.
All interviewees verbally consented to Euro-Med Monitor publishing photos and documents related to their cases, as well as to the organisation’s use, storage, and publication of the interviews. All interviews were conducted in Arabic.
I. Reasons for leaving the Gaza Strip
People in the Gaza Strip live in difficult humanitarian conditions as a result of the Israeli blockade, which started in January 2006 and resulted in a significant deterioration in all sectors, particularly the economic one. Poverty and unemployment rates have hit above 61% and 47%, respectively, as most vital sectors have seen a major collapse due to Israeli restrictions and aggressions (direct or indirect). Israel has launched devastating military attacks on the Strip, killing thousands of civilians and causing widespread destruction to homes and infrastructure. Persistent military confrontations between the Israeli army and armed Palestinian groups in Gaza ensure a perpetual state of unrest, which has had and continues to have long-term psychological effects on the Gazan people, instilling in them a constant sense of fear, instability, and insecurity.
Domestically, the political division between the Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, poses a barrier to organising internal affairs and reduces the likelihood of the Occupied Palestinian Territory achieving political stability. Due to all of these factors, thousands of young Gazans have been forced to risk their lives in search of a new one elsewhere that will provide them with fundamental living stability and the ability to exercise their natural rights, which they are denied while living in the Strip as a result of the conditions they endure there.
The cost of the asylum journey is exorbitant, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 USD. Despite this, asylum seekers choose to embark on the adventure to a European country in the hopes of building a better future, improving their income, and increasing their standard of living. The Gaza Strip’s unstable security situation is a major motivation for most of them, as evidenced by the significant increase in the number of migration and asylum requests following each Israeli military attack on the Strip.
Ahmed Qudeih spoke to the Euro-Med Monitor team about his brother Hamada, who left the Strip following the 2014 Israeli military attack known as Operation Protective Edge. “My brother Hamada was working as an intern for a local telecom company, and he had high ambitions until the Israeli military attack occurred in 2014,” Qudeih said.
“We lived in Khuza’a, a border town in eastern Khan Yunis, and had to flee for 50 days following the attack to save our lives,” Qudeih added. “We returned home after the attack to find terrible destruction everywhere. There was no sign of life in the town. After that, my brother decided to migrate in the hopes of finding a safer and more stable place.”
Deteriorating economic conditions are a major factor in the migration of young people from the Gaza Strip. Given the unprecedentedly high rates of poverty and unemployment, young people view migration as a safe haven and a source of limitless opportunities, in contrast to the limited opportunities available to them in the besieged and closed Strip. Many of the missing persons’ families stated in interviews that their children “went out” in the hope of making a living for themselves and their families, and “never returned”.
Hussein Mohammad Mismeh spoke to the Euro-Med Monitor team about his son Ramez Mismeh, 21, who went missing on 16 November 2022 near the Turkish city of Bodrum while attempting to migrate. “Due to a lack of job opportunities in Gaza, my son left with the intention of migrating to Europe. Ramez had a small cigarette stall, but it was not useful at all,” he said. “The entire journey from his departure from the Gaza Strip to his disappearance cost $8,000, and the price would have been twice as much if he had completed that journey.”
Maysa Massoud’s husband Ismail Radi, 33, also disappeared last year in an attempt to migrate. In Radi’s case, the cause was a drowning incident on 31 October 2022. “My husband worked as a street vendor,” Massoud told Euro-Med Monitor, “but his income was barely enough to meet our basic needs; it could not cover our family’s expenses, let alone those of our three children.” Radi was accompanied on his migration journey by his friend Mohammad al-Kahlout, who went missing as well. Al-Kahlout’s father, Maher, said that his son “used to work in cellular device maintenance, but his pay was low and insufficient to fulfil his desire to get married and have a family”.
Difficult economic or security conditions are not the only factors for young people leaving the Strip; the aforementioned internal political situation also plays a role. Gazans, especially young people, have been subjected to a complex political reality since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Due to the failure of reconciliation efforts, such as attempts to unite public institutions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian division (i.e. the Fatah-Hamas conflict) has exacerbated the political situation.
The situation deteriorated further in 2017 as a result of punitive measures implemented by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the most notable of which was deducting up to 50% of the salaries of its employees in the Gaza Strip—forcing many of them into early retirement—and reducing Gaza’s electricity supply, thereby exacerbating its people’s living crisis. “The majority of the missing people in my family were well-off,” said Ibrahim Bakr, a relative of approximately 27 Bakr family members who went missing after being shipwrecked in September 2014. “They chose to migrate not because they were poor, but because of the circumstances and consequences of the internal division, lack of stability, and loss of confidence in establishing a stable life.”
He added, “Unfortunately, they did not achieve their goal and went missing during the journey.” The Euro-Med Monitor team also documented a young man’s attempt to travel abroad for treatment after being injured in the Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2008-2009 (Operation Cast Lead). Ahmed Asfour, 21, was prevented from leaving Gaza via Israel’s Erez border crossing in spite of his multiple injuries; he is now presumed dead following the September 2014 shipwreck. “My son Ahmed was severely injured by Israeli bombing during the military attack in 2008-2009, losing both of his hands and one of his eyes, as well as suffering various injuries to his feet and pancreas,” said Asfour’s father, Sameer.
“We attempted to treat him in an Israeli hospital after the attack,” stated Sameer, “but the army arrested him at the Erez crossing and sentenced him to three years in prison on the grounds that he was in a restricted area during the attack.” After his son’s release from prison and return to Gaza years later, Sameer said that Ahmed revealed he was “suffering greatly from his injury and needed treatment”. “We had already begun the treatment process,” Sameer explained to Euro-Med Monitor.
“During treatment in 2014, the Israeli army launched another military attack on the Gaza Strip, and we were concerned that we would not be able to complete treatment because of it,” Sameer added. “Ahmed decided to migrate immediately after the attack ended and seek asylum in a European country for treatment and stability, but he never arrived there.”
II. Departure from the Gaza Strip
Due to the Israeli blockade, the exit process from the Gaza Strip is often complicated, lengthy, and costly. Migrants leave the Strip for various destinations, according to data obtained by Euro-Med Monitor. In 2013 and 2014, most migrants left Gaza for the northern shores of Egypt, in order to sail from there to Italy. Valued at the time for its low cost, it fell out of favour after the September 2014 shipwreck, in which a large number of Gazans are presumed to have died attempting the route. Egyptian authorities’ subsequent tightening of procedures to thwart illegal migration also caused Gazan migrants to change routes, and instead fly from Egypt to Turkiye to Greece or Hungary.
To exit the Gaza Strip without having to wait months or be refused by the Egyptian authorities who control the Rafah border crossing in the southern Strip, a traveller from Gaza resorts to “coordination”, an unofficial exchange of money that usually ranges from $500 to $3,000 USD. To enter Egyptian territory, travellers pay an agreed-upon amount to the Egyptian side via intermediary companies in Gaza. Furthermore, “coordination” may not always allow travellers to enter Egypt, but rather to cross it, and it may not even be possible in some cases for undisclosed reasons.
“My son Nasrallah attempted to travel through the Rafah crossing three times, but despite paying the ‘coordination fees’, the Egyptian side refused him each time,” Badiaa al-Farra said in a statement to Euro-Med Monitor about her son, 46, who died off the coast of Greece while attempting to migrate on 2 November 2021. “He eventually made it to Jordan via the Erez crossing, and when he arrived, he was told that he had 24 hours to leave the country or he would be deported, so he decided to travel to Turkiye right away.”
Other migrants from Gaza travel first to Libya, and then by sea to Europe. This route is known for its high risk; seven Gazan migrants died on 24 October 2022, when their boat capsised off the Tunisian coast. Mohammad al-Shaer, Moqbel Ashour Moqbel, Ahmed Fares, Adam Shaath, Samer al-Shaer, Yunus al-Shaer, and Ahed Abu Zreiq were among those who drowned. The fates of Mahmoud Bakr, Maher al-Shaer, and Mohammad Abu Ataya remain unknown, while two people survived: Asaad Bakr and Mohammad al-Louh, who were scheduled to board the boat but decided to return rather than risk their lives.
“The road was difficult and full of obstacles, contrary to what the smuggler had told us. We were deceived and kidnapped in Libya, and our families were forced to pay a $1,000 ransom for each of us to be released, with negotiations taking place through the same smuggler who deceived us,” Asaad Bakr, who survived the incident, told Euro-Med Monitor after returning to Gaza.
“In the beginning, we were told that we would travel in comfort on a tourist yacht, but I was surprised to find a small boat that broke down a few hours after sailing,” he told the Euro-Med Monitor team. “We were in the water for 12 hours after the boat broke down, until a patrol from the Libyan Coast Guard arrived and took us to the beach, and then to the Triq Al Seka Detention Centre in Tripoli; we were released 13 days later.
“We decided to try again, but this time we divided into multiple groups, and my companions travelled on the first day,” Bakr added. “I asked the smuggler about them when he returned the next day to take us, and he said they had arrived in Italy. But now I was afraid and concerned about their fate, because there was no way they could have made it to Italy in that timeframe, so I decided to flee rather than take the boat ride.”
III. Difficulties experienced by families of missing persons
The moment that communication is disrupted, migrants’ families spiral into fear and uncertainty about the fate of their children. Most of the time, families of those who are shipwrecked do not receive official information about their offspring’s fate, whether from the governments of countries whose coasts saw these drownings or from the Palestinian Authority, which is obliged to follow up on the affairs of its nationals abroad.
The suffering of victims’ families is not solely psychological. Mourning families encounter numerous legal and social challenges which further complicate their lives and compound their trauma. Though many victims’ bodies are never found, some of them are. These victims’ families experience a distinct kind of suffering, as they must verify their dead loved one’s identity and transport the recovered body back to the Gaza Strip for burial.
Possible official negligence
According to testimonies obtained by Euro-Med Monitor from victims’ families, Palestinian embassies, consulates, representative offices, and diplomatic missions in the countries off the coasts of which Palestinian migrants drowned failed to communicate effectively with victims’ families and facilitate the identification of bodies. Families pointed to the failure of these officials to draw sufficient public attention to their cases, which—regrettably—is necessary for ensuring the return of victims’ bodies to their families. Palestinian diplomatic officials also provided inaccurate information to some families, exacerbating their psychological distress as they sought to determine the fate of their offspring.
Mohammad Abu Ataya, 25, went missing after a migrant boat he boarded in Libya capsized off the Tunisian coast of Zarzis on 3 October 2022. “We have been in contact with the Palestinian embassy in Libya since the moment we lost our son Mohammad and his companions,” his father Iyad said in a statement to Euro-Med Monitor. “We called the ambassador and sent people to the embassy headquarters to follow up on the situation, and the ambassador informed us that our children were alive and being held by Libyan authorities.”
Explained Iyad, “The ambassador also claimed to have checked on them and contacted them personally, but he was not truthful about this, as the Tunisian authorities discovered the bodies of seven of them a few days later; my son’s body was not among the discovered bodies.”
“I called [the ambassador] again, seeking assistance in revealing my son’s fate,” Iyad added. “He only responded after several attempts, [and] this time denied contacting the shipwrecked, claiming it was the Libyans who informed him that they were being held.”
Adam Shaath, 21, was on the same shipwrecked boat as Abu Ataya and others, and also went missing on 24 October 2022. In a separate statement describing the same incident, his father Mohammad said, “I personally contacted the ambassador, who informed me that the young men were fine and that he had audio recordings proving that they were in good health and were in Libya. His words, however, proved to be false when the bodies of my son and six others were discovered off the coast of Tunisia.”
Added Mohammad, “After that, I called him, and he denied everything he had told me earlier, claiming that he had not told me anything, had not contacted the missing people or heard their voices, and that the Libyans were the ones who informed him of all the details. I was stunned at the time, and I still can’t explain what happened.”
Complications in returning bodies to the Gaza Strip
As a result of poor communication with victims’ families concerning the return of their loved ones’ bodies to them, some families have been forced to travel to other countries to arrange procedures for returning the bodies to the Gaza Strip and burying them there. Families typically seek to recover their children’s bodies for social and cultural reasons, the most prominent of which are burial in the homeland and the ability to visit the deceased’s grave at any time.
The process of returning the bodies of drowned migrants to the Strip imposes significant psychological and financial burdens on the Gazan people. In addition to the large sums they must spend on tickets, visas, and accommodation, victims’ families have to contend with paying the “coordination” fee at the Egyptian border in order to travel through the Rafah crossing without being delayed or denied entry. Most of the time, families are unable to return their children’s bodies to Gaza unless news of the drowning spreads widely and their case receives significant media and public attention.
“I was in Egypt when I learned of my son’s drowning and the recovery of his body from the sea off the coast of Tunisia,” Mohammad Shaath told the Euro-Med Monitor team. He rushed to the relevant authorities, he said, to “obtain a visa to travel to Tunisia and retrieve my son’s body as well as the bodies of his six companions. I applied for a visa but was told it would take a long time and that I might not get it.”
He stated, “Luckily, I have an Egyptian passport, so I [used it to apply] for a visa, got it, and travelled to Tunisia. However, the other families were unable to obtain a visa and were thus prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip, so I suggested they entrust me with retrieving their children’s bodies, which is exactly what happened.”
Mohammad told the Euro-Med Monitor team that he began working to recover the seven bodies, and the Palestinian embassy in Tunisia assisted him “in completing and organising all of the paperwork until the bodies were flown to Egypt and transported by land to the Gaza Strip”. He added: “The Palestinian embassy covered the costs of shipping the bodies, but aside from that, the victims’ families and I spent about 40,000 Tunisian dinars (approximately 13,000 USD) on paperwork, tickets, the visa, and accommodation.”
According to the testimonies obtained by Euro-Med Monitor, the competent authorities rarely contact families to ease the return of their children’s bodies. Hafez Shurrab’s 27-year-old son Khaled drowned on 12 October 2022, near the Greek island of Kos. Since learning of the drowning, Shurrab said, “I’ve approached officials in Gaza’s Hamas-run government, requesting that they return his body so I can bury him [here]. However, they told me that they are unable to do so because the Turkish and Greek governments do not recognise Hamas as an official body and have no contacts with them.”
Shurrab asserted that he appealed to the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ramallah, alongside the family of another migrant who drowned in the same incident as Khaled, “applying pressure through the press and social media until they responded and ensured that the bodies were sent to Gaza”. He said, “I buried my son on 1 November 2022, which was also my birthday. It was the most agonising experience I had ever felt in my life.”
Khaled Shurrab was accompanied on his migration journey by Mustafa al-Samari, 31, who also drowned, and Sakher al-Astal, 25, whose fate is still unknown. The three young men did not migrate the traditional way, via smugglers and boats, but instead purchased equipment and attempted to swim from Turkiye to Greece. Still, they drowned.
In some cases that did not receive public or media attention, families of deceased migrants were unable to return their children’s bodies to the Gaza Strip, and the bodies were buried abroad. “We realised that returning my son’s body would cost us around $25,000, but if we had that much money, my son would not have migrated in the first place. I wished I could say goodbye and visit his grave, but I couldn’t; he was buried in Turkiye,” Nasrallah al-Farra’s mother Badiaa said.
“When my son drowned, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called to offer condolences,” she added. “Given my grief and confusion, I did not ask him for the government to sponsor the return of my son’s body, and he did not offer it to us, either.”
Challenges of autopsies and body identification
Autopsies of drowned people’s bodies after they are returned to the Gaza Strip are subject to several considerations, the most important of which are technical, either in terms of specialised cadres or devices. Certain societal considerations should be taken into account, as well, such as some families’ refusal to autopsy their children’s bodies. “Because a judicial medical case becomes ambiguous over time, the autopsy should be performed at the site of death, as is the case under the recognised international protocol,” Ahmed Kamel Dheer, Acting Director of the Forensic Medicine Department at Gaza’s Ministry of Health, informed the Euro-Med Monitor team.
“However, biological specimens in the Gaza Strip are deficient due to a lack of devices to examine them and identify the chemical compounds in the blood,” Dheer said. He noted that the Israeli authorities prohibit the entry of such devices, and the devices in Gaza do not provide accurate results for the specimens. “The judicial medical department has only four doctors on the level of specialised cadres, and they only specialise in histopathology,” he stated.
In regards to the examination of drowned people’s bodies, he explained that an autopsy can be performed “only on the order of the Public Prosecution Office”. According to Dheer, “The Gaza government has an approach of inspecting bodies as soon as they arrive, but we are encountering family refusal due to societal considerations, as was the case with the Zarzis boat incident on 24 October 2022. We relied on the reports issued by Tunisian authorities without even conducting preliminary examinations.”
He emphasised that there are no DNA testing facilities in Gaza, adding that this type of testing must generally be conducted in Egypt. With respect to the DNA samples of the seven shipwrecked migrants in the Zarzis incident, Dheer stated that one body recovered by Tunisian authorities belonged to one of two brothers from the al-Shaer family who had been on board. Because of the difficulty in visually identifying the bodies due to post-mortem morphological changes, as well as the inconclusive results of DNA testing conducted using the samples sent from the Strip, the al-Shaer family was directed to indicate whether the body belonged to Mohammad Talal al-Shaer or Maher Talal al-Shaer. The family determined that the body belonged to Mohammad, and Maher is still missing.
Search for the missing
When some families wind up trapped in a vicious cycle of uncertainty because they do not know the fate of their children or the place of their burial, this is due to the difficulty of transporting DNA samples from within Gaza to countries outside it, and communicating with authorities located in the countries where migrants died or are believed to have gone missing.
Iyad Abu Ataya, whose son Mohammad was a migrant on the Zarzis boat and whose fate remains unknown, told Euro-Med Monitor: “Through our own efforts, we sent a DNA sample to Tunisia to be tested for a match with the bodies discovered at sea, but they said the sample was spoiled because it couldn’t [have stayed] intact for two months on the way without proper preservation and a full health protocol.”
Abu Ataya spoke of resorting to “primitive and traditional methods” in the search for his sons, such as contacting staff at what are known as “cemeteries of strangers” in Italy and Libya. “Although we have no official capacity, the [cemetery officials] cooperated with us graciously, [operating] from a humanitarian standpoint,” he added, “and sent us more than 300 photos of the bodies they had, but none matched my son’s appearance, and I have no idea what happened to him to this day.”
Extortion of victims’ families
Families of those missing after migrant boat sinking incidents live in the hope of learning their children’s fate. Although many of them are aware that their children most likely died in one of these incidents, the failure to locate victims’ bodies, personal belongings, or even burial sites leaves some families hopeful that they will reunite again. With this in mind, some people take advantage of families’ eagerness to communicate with their children, claiming to know the fate of the victims, to have personally seen them, or to have information concerning their circumstances, and demanding 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.
The financial extortion of victims’ families is fully evident in the 6 September 2014 shipwreck incident, which occurred after a ship set off from Egypt with about 450 migrants and asylum seekers on board. According to Euro-Med Monitor’s investigation, the ship appears to have been deliberately sunk by smugglers, potentially resulting in the deaths of the majority of migrants on board, including 175 people from Gaza; only six passengers survived.
More than eight years after the September 2014 incident, some of the victims’ families still refuse to accept or announce their children’s deaths. They believe their children are alive based on unverified allegations, and as a result, they pay large sums of money to unknown individuals. “Following the incident, we were subjected to numerous extortions by unknown individuals claiming to know the fate of my son and his family. We paid them about $15,000 in total,” Subhiya al-Astal said in a statement to the Euro-Med Monitor team. Al-Astal’s son, 24-year-old Mohammad Medhat al-Abadla, is presumed to have died in the shipwreck along with his wife, Reem al-Jabour, and their three children, Bashar, Medhat, and Nabil.
“I believe they had information that the family was financially stable, so they attempted to obtain money through our weakness, which was [wanting to know] the fate of our missing children, but we quickly realised that all of these allegations were just part of a scam,” al-Astal added.
“I’m constantly getting calls from people claiming to know what happened to my son,” Asaad al-Jarf, father of 24-year-old Hisham, who went missing in the same 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 is withholding the full name to protect al-Jarf from retribution.)
The man claimed that Hisham was alive and imprisoned in Egypt, and that he would let al-Jarf hear his son’s voice if he agreed to pay $2,000 (USD), al-Jarf explained. “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,” he said. 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”.
Social and psychological effects
One of the most pressing issues facing women who are married to missing persons is their inability to change their marital status from “married” to “widow”, leaving them without a clear path forward, often for years at a time. Due to several social considerations and legal procedures that render women unable or unwilling to officially declare their husbands dead and become widows, many victims’ wives are thereby unable to obtain their rights and progress in their emotional healing or marry someone else.
“My husband became very ill after hearing that our son Nasrallah’s body had been discovered on the Greek coast, and as a result he passed away only 20 days after our son drowned,” Badiaa al-Farra told Euro-Med Monitor. “The loss of our son affected us greatly, as he was our oldest son and the sole provider for us.” In many cases, a wife cannot even express her desire to divorce or proceed officially in announcing her husband’s death, given societal pressure; this is a result of age-old “customs and traditions”, according to some of the women interviewed.
“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 if 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 33-year-old husband Sari Abu Daqqa went missing in the September 2014 shipwreck incident. “This is due to our refusal to sign official documents declaring my husband’s death,” she said in an interview with Euro-Med Monitor, “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.”
Meanwhile, Subhiya al-Astal, Mohammad Medhat al-Abadla’s mother, stated, “We cannot distribute any money unless we have certain information about my son Mohammad and his family, even if the case remains pending for decades.”
The difficulties that victims’ families face are not limited to the economic, social, or legal realms; the psychological trauma of the loss is difficult to treat, not to mention overcome. The profound psychological effects on victims’ families are diverse. “We were on the same ship, which was sunk four days after leaving Alexandria,” Shukri Zakaria al-Asouli, one of the few survivors of the September 2014 shipwreck who lost his family in the same incident, told Euro-Med Monitor. “After the boat capsised, I remember first calling out my wife Hiyam al-Akkad and my children Yamen and Retaj, but I couldn’t find any of them. I only saw a vast pool of blood, and the scene looked like doomsday.”
“Two months after my rescue, our personal belongings were discovered, along with a body believed to be [that of] my wife,” Zakaria al-Asouli continued. He sent DNA samples to help identify her, he explained, but because they spoiled on the way there, the body was ultimately buried in Libya. “Even though it’s been eight years since the event, I still can’t get over it,” he said. “I’ve had psychiatric treatment in Greece and Sweden, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.”
“My life came to a halt following my husband’s disappearance, which had a significant impact on my mental health,” Maysa Massoud, the wife of the missing person Ismail Radi, said in her statement. “I am now overly irritable and quick to anger. I can no longer bear this enigmatic circumstance, and I’d rather be certain of my husband’s death than remain in this state.”
Legal and economic difficulties
Families of victimised migrants and asylum seekers face complex economic and social challenges, as some of the victims were the sole providers for their families. When they die, their families are left without a provider. Aside from some families’ refusal to officially declare their children deceased for legal and societal reasons, there is also the issue of the lengthy and complex procedures required by authorities, and the resulting change in legal positions within Gaza’s large, extended Palestinian families.
In a statement to the Euro-Med Monitor team, Ibrahim Bakr, the relative of 27 missing persons, said, “Some members of our family who had lost children went to Sharia courts to have [them] declared legally deceased, but we discovered that the process is not easy at all. In the Gaza Strip, there are 10 Sharia courts, and we must go to each one and file 10 cases to declare the death.”
Bakr added that the legal declaration can only be made following “investigations and other routine procedures that place an additional financial and psychological burden” on victims’ families. “These procedures require a lengthy litigation period of more than a year, so many victims’ families are reluctant to complete them,” he added.
“In other cases, some families find it difficult to announce the legal death of their children for familial and customary reasons,” he said, “as news of missing persons being discovered alive, or information that may lead to their [discovery], emerges from time to time; this is reason enough for families not to declare their children’s death.”
Khalil Abu Shammala, the father of one of the missing migrants, spoke of the economic consequences for the victims’ families. “My son worked for the Palestinian Authority from 2003 until the drowning incident in 2014; his family received his salary for about three years after the incident, as it was the source of income for his wife and children at the time,” he said.
“In 2017, however, the Palestinian Authority cut off his salary, so we requested his financial dues for his years of service, but they did not respond,” he added. “My grandchildren were transferred to my custody after their mother remarried, so I became their sole provider, increasing my financial burden.” Abu Shammala also noted that children require their father in a variety of situations, such as during their school years. “The fact that the father is missing is not taken into account until his death is officially declared,” he said.
The consequences of these incidents affect not only former Palestinian Authority employees, but also any shipwrecked migrants who were responsible for providing for their families, regardless of the nature of their work. Victim Sari Abu Daqqa’s wife Asmaa said, “My husband Sari and his brother Abdul Nasser worked for the Ministry of Interior in the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-run government.”
After many difficulties and complicated procedures following the September 2014 shipwreck, she explained, they were finally able to be classified as “missing employees.” According to Asmaa Abu Daqqa, “Their files were transferred to the Ministry of Social Affairs to have 650 shekels (about $190 USD) per month disbursed to each of their families. This amount, however, is insufficient to support my family and meet my children’s various needs.”
IV. Legal overview
According to international law, the Gaza Strip is an occupied territory, despite Israel’s disengagement from it in 2005. The fact that Israel retains de facto control over the Strip, including control over its airfield, land crossings, and sea ports. As Israel is able to exercise control in the Strip whenever it wants, it effectively maintains a state of occupation as per the provisions of the 1907 Hague Convention.
In the case of the Gaza Strip, Israel not only controls the vital crossings, but has also imposed a strict blockade since 2006, causing a total collapse in all sectors, particularly the economic one. Further, it has launched devastating military attacks that have sowed despair and fear among the people in Gaza. All of these factors have contributed significantly to thousands of young people leaving the Strip in search of asylum in safer, more stable countries. Between January 2022 and early February 2023, Palestinian asylum seekers made up the largest proportion of arrivals by sea to Greece via Turkiye, accounting for 18.2% of total arrivals in that period.
Israel’s arbitrary practices against Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip—which are a direct cause of thousands of people leaving the territory—violate a plethora of relevant international treaties and agreements, foremost of which are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Hague Conventions, and the Geneva Conventions. All of these treaties affirm several fundamental rights that Israel must uphold, such as the right to life, physical safety, movement, health, and an adequate standard of living, among other rights.
Additionally, international law requires states to protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers under several international treaties, most notably the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, as well as other specialised agreements designed to preserve the safety of lives at sea and aid in the conducting of search and rescue operations, foremost of which are the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR).
These agreements derive from individuals’ basic rights, such as the right to life, movement, and human dignity, and are the fundamental legal instruments that ensure the exercise of the rights and freedoms stipulated in them. Moreover, the core international human rights instruments guarantee the rights of individuals wherever they are, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Article 2 that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant.” This also applies to irregular migrants.
Along the same lines, European countries’ failure to activate search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea is a serious violation of migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights to life and human dignity. The negative European response in these cases was exemplified by the suspension of Operation Sophia and patrol vessels used to rescue tens of thousands of migrants each year, as well as the European Commission’s assertion that search and rescue operations are not within the European Union’s competence, despite the humanitarian crisis on its maritime borders and the increasing number of arrivals by sea.
These practices clearly contradict a group of relevant European and international agreements, including the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, which states in Chapter 2 that “Parties shall ensure that assistance be provided to any person in distress at sea” and the European Convention on Human Rights, which states in Article 3 that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The European Council Directive 2003/9/EC, as well, lays down the minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, including a dignified standard of living, freedom of movement, and proper residence.
Based on the interviews conducted by the Euro-Med Monitor team with families of missing migrants and asylum seekers from the Gaza Strip, it is evident that:
- The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the devastating military attacks, as well as the resulting extensive collapse in various sectors, were major reasons for thousands of Palestinians in Gaza to migrate to Europe in search of a more secure and stable life.
- Some families of missing migrants have fallen victim to organised extortion operations in which unknown individuals exploit these families’ desire to learn the fate of their children.
- Most victims’ families refrain from officially declaring their missing children as deceased for several reasons, including prolonged judicial procedures, the hope that they may still be alive, and societal constraints.
- Due to a lack of international media attention and necessary technical capabilities in the Gaza Strip, as well as the significant complications that accompany the process of sending DNA samples abroad from Gaza, victims’ families face significant difficulties in verifying the identity of spouses or children, even when their bodies are among those discovered after a drowning incident.
- 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. 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.
- In some cases, Palestinian embassies abroad failed to contact hospitals directly when bodies of drowned migrants were discovered. Therefore, victims’ families were forced to pursue the matter directly with doctors–a behaviour often rejected by judicial medical authorities–resulting in the issuance of medical reports that contradict the true circumstances of death.
- The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established a protocol for transporting DNA samples from the Gaza Strip abroad, but it requires prior approval from Israeli authorities, as well as additional 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.
Given the foregoing, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor recommends the following:
- 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.
- The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs should make greater and more effective efforts to reveal the fate of missing migrants, whether in hospitals or detention centres, and to follow up on medical reports related to the circumstances of migrants’ deaths and ensure their credibility, as well as to act to return the bodies of drowned migrants to their homeland without waiting for their families’ appeals.
- Psychological support programmes for victims’ families must be launched to address the severe trauma that accompanies the loss of one’s spouse, sibling, or child.
- Relevant authorities must assume their responsibilities in taking all possible measures to protect victims’ families from all forms of extortion, including tracking down extortionists and identifying and holding perpetrators accountable.