Desperate to escape the war, Palestinians pay a private company thousands to leave Gaza

Early last fall, Amin was packing for his move to Ottawa to start studying business during what would be his first term in university. With a Canadian student visa in hand and a brother already in the country, he dreamed about the opportunities he’d have when he started his new life thousands of kilometres away from his hometown in Gaza.

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

With the strip under siege, Amin was trapped. The federal government in Canada was only evacuating Canadians and their immediate family, so his student visa was effectively useless. With no quick options to escape the war raging nearby, he used the last option at his disposal: 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. 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 $5,000 and $10,000 US ($6,770 and $13,500 Cdn) to help them escape into Egypt through Rafah. 

Getting out of Gaza

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.” 

A border crossing is pictured
The Rafah border crossing with Egypt, seen in November 2023, became the only viable exit from the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. (Arafat Barbakh/Reuters)

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.

WATCH | Why it’s ‘profoundly frustrating’ getting people out of Gaza at Rafah crossing:

Getting Canadians out of Gaza via Rafah ‘profoundly frustrating,’ official says

Julie Sunday, Canada’s new senior official for hostage affairs, discusses how challenges at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt are impacting efforts to get Canadians out of the enclave. ‘I do remain hopeful that we will get them out really soon,’ the assistant deputy minister with Global Affairs Canada told CBC’s Tom Parry in Cairo.

“There was … a fast track and that went through private companies that were supposed to expedite the process,” he said in an interview. 

Egyptian travel agencies and brokers have been helping people leave Gaza through Rafah for years, explained Lama Alsafi, a PhD student in International Relations at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

Travel permits … for a fee

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.”  

Families with bags and suitcases wait to board a green passenger bus at a depot.
Families wait to board a bus out of Gaza in Rafah on March 12. (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)

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. 

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.  

Profiteering ‘at its worst’

CBC News spoke with Amin and two family members about his experience with Hala. 

In January, to get Amin out of Gaza, his brother in Ottawa applied for a temporary resident visa as part of the government’s special measures for extended family. He had previously tried to use Amin’s student visa, but Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said they were only evacuating Canadians and their immediate families. 

After waiting for months for the visa application to go through, Amin’s family decided they couldn’t wait any longer, and their only option was to pay Hala’s co-ordination fees. 

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.

A crowd of people wait outside a building
Every day, thousands of people line up outside Hala’s offices in Cairo, hoping to pay fees that will get their loved ones out of Gaza. (Name withheld)

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.”

WATCH | Why there’s no safe place left in Gaza:

Why there’s ‘no safe place’ left in Gaza

As Israel’s military pushes further into Gaza’s south, civilians are being pushed into smaller areas as they search for safety. CBC’s Ellen Mauro breaks down the evacuation orders and what’s happening as people run out of places to go.

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 Amin’s family, the desperation to get him out trumped any other concerns. 

A piece of paper with arabic writing indicates it is a receipt. A blue stamp in the centre says Hala.
Amin’s mother went to Hala’s offices in Nasr City, Egypt, and paid the private travel company $5,000 US (more than $6,700 Cdn) to get her son registered to leave Gaza. In return, she received this travel ticket stamped by Hala. Not long after, Amin was on a Hala bus to Cairo. (Name withheld )

Escape at last

In February, Amin’s mother and brother were living about 50 kilometres away from Nasr City. They made the trip to Hala’s offices there every day for about nine days to try to get Amin registered to travel. 

“My mom got to the office and she stayed there and she said, ‘I swear I’m not going home, I’ll sleep in the garage, in the street, at the door of the office, but you have to register my son,'” Amin said.

After finally paying the fee of $5,000 US (more than $6,700 Cdn) on Feb. 19, the family says they were told Amin’s name would be on the evacuee list and he would have a spot on a bus leaving the strip at the Rafah crossing.

Not long after, Amin heard from a friend that his name was on Egypt’s list of people approved to cross the border that is posted daily to a Facebook group. 

On Feb. 27, he boarded a Hala bus in Rafah that would take him to Cairo. 

A plastic bag with Arabic writing shows the Hala logo says Hala Consulting & Tourism Services, Organi Group.
On Feb. 27, Amin boarded a Hala Consulting and Tourism Services bus in Rafah and was handed a Hala-branded bag with snacks and water. There were multiple security checkpoints on the trip to Cairo, but with his name on the list of those who could cross, Amin says he was allowed through after showing his ID. (Name withheld)

He says the day-long trip took him through multiple checkpoints and security screenings, eventually crossing over into Al Arish, Egypt, the coastal town bordering the Gaza Strip. With his name on the list, Amin was allowed over the border after showing his identification and saying he was travelling with Hala. 

Amin was dropped off at Hala’s offices in Nasr City in the heart of Cairo, where he’s now staying with his mother and brother in a rented apartment. Amin still has his Canadian student visa and his mother and brother are waiting for temporary resident visas to be approved so they can also come to Canada. 

LISTEN | Canada’s visa program ‘failing’ people who want to rescue loved ones from Gaza: 

The Current19:34Visa program ‘failing’ Palestinians with family in Canada

The federal government created a temporary visa program for Palestinians with family in Canada. The program aimed to bring 1,000 people to Canada, but only 14 have been approved so far. We hear from a Palestinian Canadian about the difficulty he’s experienced in getting his family to Canada, and from retired Canadian ambassador Gar Pardy about the challenges facing the government.

Speaking to CBC News from the Egyptian capital on Tuesday, Amin says it’s a bittersweet feeling to have left the strip to find safety.

“I’m safe here, but my mind and heart are still there,” he said, referring to his family members he had to leave behind. “I won’t be excited or happy until the war ends in Gaza.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Back To Top