Egyptian Coyotes Can Get Desperate Palestinians Out Of Gaza–For A Fat Fee.

File photo. Palestians can cross a bridge like this one into Egypt to escape the Gaza strip, but only by paying 'travel agents' large sums to fix their paperwork and bus them out.
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Although it has been called an ‘open-air prison’, before the Hamas-Israel war started on last year on October 7th, 2023, people who lived in the Gaza strip, even though it has no airport, could relatively easily get visas and move overseas to study or work, even if the system was not very convenient for them.

Then that all changed when the Hamas rulers of Gaza decided to start a full-on war with Israel.

On Oct. 7, the Hamas-led attack on Israel left 1,200 dead and saw hundreds taken hostage. Israel’s responding offensive in Gaza, which Israel calls self defence,  has killed more than 32,552 people as of Thursday, according to the local health ministry in Gaza.

With the strip under siege, everybody was trapped. The federal government in Canada was only evacuating Canadians and their immediate family, so student visas were effectively useless. With no quick options to escape the war raging nearby, there was one last resort: paying an Egyptian travel company to cross the border at Rafah.

“I left my siblings, my father, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, so it was very difficult — the decision to leave the Gaza Strip was super, super hard,” said Amin, 26, a student who spoke to CBC News. CBC news is not revealing his last name because he and his family fear they will face repercussions for smuggling him out of Gaza.

Experts in international affairs say that in the face of famine, war and homelessness, desperate Gazans are paying private travel companies between US$5,000 and US$10,000 US to help them escape into Egypt through border bridge at Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza strip.

Travel in and out of Gaza has been bottlenecked for decades.

Neighbours Israel and Egypt have controlled the movement of goods and people to and from the strip under a joint blockade that began after Hamas took control of the densely populated strip in 2007. Gazans looking to leave through either border need a permit from that country’s government.

Since Hamas took over in Gaza, Egyptian journalist Mohannad Sabry says people in the strip have not been guaranteed the basic human right to free movement.

“It has always been subject to security permissions and security allowances and the decisions of Egypt and Israel.”

Israel closed its border to Gazans after the Oct. 7 attack, so the Rafah crossing has become the only viable option. Since then, the only people allowed to leave Gaza have been mainly foreign and dual nationals with connections to other countries, or injured people seeking medical treatment in Egypt.

Ahmed Benchemsi, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said Gazans have two choices to leave from Rafah: register for an exit permit and hope for approval from the Egyptian government, or pay what’s known as a travel co-ordination fee to a private company.

For a fee, the travel companies ensure the client’s name is on a list of evacuees approved by various governments including officials in Egypt, Israel and Gaza. The companies then book them seats on buses that drive Gazans from Rafah to their offices in Nasr City, a Cairo suburb.

This way, Alsafi said, “they could get these travel permits to exit Rafah in days, sometimes 48 hours.”

Hala is one such company that’s been getting Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt since at least 2019, when media reports began to surface about what the company called its “VIP travel” service.

This is similar to the kind of service provided in South America by travel agents who are better know as coyotes, who find ways to get travelers into the United States.

Alsafi and Sabry say that at the time, the company had offices in Gaza City and arranged for travel permits for Palestinians. The man behind Hala is Ibrahim Al Organi, a prominent businessman in Cairo and head of Organi Group, Hala’s parent company.

According to Alsafi, Al Organi has close links with Egypt’s military and with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. She says Hala even uses its connections to Egypt as a marketing tool.

“In some of these online advertisements on social media, some of these agencies even boast their strong links to the Egyptian Intelligence Service as a selling point.”

At one time, Sabry says there were multiple brokers who would arrange for Palestinians to travel to Egypt, Now, Hala has become the main company offering this service and appears to be the only one that’s able to produce travel permission from Egyptian security authorities.

“It’s the only entity where Palestinians go and pay whatever amount of money they are forced to pay to be able to travel,” he said.

Before Oct. 7, the cost to leave Gaza varied. Some media outlets reported prices as low at $350 US per person, while others said it could be much higher. Alsafi says fees for passage through Rafah surge by thousands of dollars during times of active violence.

“Palestinians have been paying between $4,000 US and $10,000 US per person since October,” she said.

Since October, people inquiring about travel co-ordination fees have reported that the price has drastically increased, with Hala charging $5,000 US (just over $6,700 Cdn).

Alsafi likens Hala’s system to war profiteering “at its worst.”

Earlier this month, Sky News asked Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry whether the government condoned Hala charging so much for Palestinians to leave Gaza.

“Absolutely not,” Shoukry told the outlet. “We will take whatever measures we need so as to restrict it and eliminate it totally. There should be no advantage taken out of this situation for monetary gain.”

CBC News contacted the Foreign Ministry of Egypt, the Egyptian Ambassador to Canada, the Organi Group and Hala Consulting and Tourism for comment on this story, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, IRCC said it is “aware of instances of people exiting Gaza on their own” and said the government “cannot recommend” the travel companies “or guarantee their legitimacy.” The email went on to warn people to “be cautious of suspicious sources offering to sell a unique reference code or making promises” to help people leave Gaza.

For the family of Amin, the student, the desperation to get him out of Gaza trumped small concerns about the legitimacy of documents or ethics.

Source: CBC.
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