The UK government is limiting evacuations from Gaza to British citizens only, forcing families to separate if any of them are to be safe, leaving others in extremely dangerous circumstances.
It has been one month since the war started, and Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza has intensified during this time. Schools, shelters, hospitals and ambulances are targets. The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has said that the Rafah crossing with Egypt is open for controlled and time-limited periods to allow specific groups of foreign nationals and the seriously wounded to leave Gaza. These evacuations were stopped on Saturday but will hopefully resume shortly.
There is an evacuation list for British nationals
As we have seen with Scotland first minister Humza Yousaf’s family, an evacuation list is being used for British citizens only. The process for evacuations is that the UK section of the Palestinian border authority lists the names of eligible British citizens who can leave Gaza. The Foreign Office then communicates with British citizens to inform them if they are on the evacuation list by sending them a text message.
At the time of writing, the UK government is silent on exit strategies for non-British family members. This has led to some very difficult decisions needing to be made.
Mohamed is a civil servant from the UK who was visiting his family in Gaza. This includes his father, his stepmother, his young stepbrothers and other family members. Mohamed, his father and his stepbrothers are all British citizens and they received a text message confirming they are on the evacuation list. Mohamed’s stepmother is not British. She is not on the list and neither are her other family members.
The family travelled to the Rafah crossing together, hoping that they could encourage border officers to add his stepmother to the list of evacuees. Mohamed contacted the Foreign Office in advance and received a delayed response, stating:
Hi Mohamed, apologies for the delayed response. We have followed up with the relevant authorities … and unfortunately she is not on the list cleared by either side. I have also been told that without clearance I am unable to send you any confirmation that we request [that she can]… pass through the border. I am very sorry we are unable to assist more.
Those, like Mohamed, who are called up for the evacuations must now make the excruciating decision to separate from their family, not knowing if they will ever see each other again. Mohamed’s father reluctantly decided to take his young sons across the border. Mohamed has stayed in Gaza with his stepmother, hoping to protect her and advocate for her evacuation and the evacuation of his other family members.
Those on the ground in Gaza need advance notice in the run up to these evacuations being made, to let them know who in their party will be permitted to leave and who will not. Instead, civilians are scrambling for information and confirmation in extremely difficult circumstances. To make matters worse, the Rafah crossing was closed on Saturday due to a dispute over evacuating injured patients, meaning that those who had risked their lives to get there couldn’t leave that day.
Despite internet blackouts and lack of connectivity, when it is possible to do so, Mohamed is in touch with his local MP, seeking assistance. Others in the same position are encouraged to contact their local MP if they have not already done so.
The UK lacks control over the evacuation list
The UK says they are working with Israel to secure the release of its citizens and their family members. How much sway the UK has in the evacuation process is unclear.
Not being able to add a family member to the evacuation list is extremely difficult to accept, especially when Mohamed reports that the German Aid Agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), are evacuating non-national staff and their parents. Mohamed also reports that the United States successfully facilitated the repatriation of 19 family members even though none of them held an American passport. The UK could be doing more.
The UK has a ‘blueprint’ for an emergency immigration route for non-British family members based on the Ukraine Family Scheme
When Russia invaded Ukraine almost three years ago, the UK responded positively by creating three Ukrainian schemes, each operating as an immigration route that allowed swift and safe permission to enter the UK and a route to remain here.
The Refugee Council agree that by building on approaches to large scale conflicts, the government can quickly introduce emergency measures for Israel and Palestine. In a briefing paper, they propose the introduction of an emergency family reunion scheme. The eligibility requirements mirror the requirements of Ukraine Family Scheme. This allows applications from immediate family members (spouse/partners, parents of children under 18, children), extended family members (adult children, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles, cousins, nieces/nephews) and immediate family members of extended family members (partner, child or parent of an extended family member).
We call on the UK Government to lead the way in offering refuge to those caught up in the crisis by putting in place:
- medical evacuation for people in need of specialist care
- an emergency family reunion scheme modelled on the approach introduced in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- an emergency refugee protection visa
- facilitated travel for UK nationals and those with the right to enter the UK
- prioritise cases of Israelis and Palestinians already in the UK asylum system
We are not asking for perfection and indeed, there were a few bumps with the roll-out of the Ukraine schemes, including the UK’s insistence that an applicant submits a complete immigration application. A complete application for entry clearance requires an applicant to submit an online application form and enrol biometrics (fingerprints and a photo) at a local visa application centre outside of the UK (usually in a place where the applicant has a legal right to reside other than as a visitor).
Biometric enrolment (fingerprints and photo) during conflict was the bigger obstacle. The UK offered three helpful solutions to the biometric enrolment problem for those applying to the Ukrainian schemes:
- The UK allowed those who could, to attend a visa application centre in a safe third country.
- For those who couldn’t do that, they swiftly issued a ‘permission to travel letter’ on the basis that they enrolled biometrics once in the UK.
- They subsequently extended the use of the ‘UK Immigration: ID Check’ app to Ukrainian nationals. This allows an applicant to enrol biometrics digitally, using a mobile phone.
The government has the answers at their fingertips with the Ukraine Family Scheme offering a blueprint for family reunification. They have already worked through some of the practical application issues that allowed people to be evacuated from the Ukraine quickly without visas and without submitting a complete immigration application (by allowing deferred enrolment of biometrics). So why is there no announcement of an emergency family reunion scheme for non-British family members in Gaza?
Is there rational justification for differential treatment of Gazans compared to Ukrainians?
I’m having flashbacks to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. The controversial twenty year long ‘British mission in Afghanistan’, hailed a success by the UK government, left many on the ground seeking refuge in neighbouring states like Pakistan. On 1 November, 1.7 million undocumented foreigners most of whom are Afghans faced mass expulsion from Pakistan. The contrast with how those fleeing Ukraine were treated is stark.
In recent case law, the courts accepted that national security was a rational justification for the differential treatment of Afghans compared to Ukrainians. For Ukraine, the risks centred around immigration control with a few risks associated to proximity to Russia. For Afghanistan, the risks centred around terrorism. The grounds on which Gazans are treated differently has not been explained.
When speaking with Mohamed on how he feels about the rescue efforts, he said that ‘those of us with Palestinian links or heritage are treated like second-class citizens’.
Will the UK take charge of the evacuation list and announce an exit strategy for non-British family members in Gaza? It all remains to be seen.
Even if the UK does not introduce an emergency family reunion scheme for Gazan nationals (which would be extremely disappointing to put it politely), the Home Office has so far taken no steps to ease the procedure for making a standard immigration application from overseas. They could easily apply fee waivers or relax the biometric enrolment requirement. These steps are the bare minimum that could be done.
We sincerely hope the UK will step up on this occasion and urgently announce the implementation of emergency measures for those in Israel and Palestine.