UK accused of betraying Palestinians fleeing Gaza

Cross-party calls were made to help relatives of British Palestinians enter the country

Protesters gather in Hyde Park in solidarity with Palestine on April 27 in London, England.  Getty Images
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Helping Palestinians fleeing Gaza could bring much-needed skills and qualifications to Britain, but London has been accused of a callous betrayal by not enabling access to the UK.

Calls for a family visa scheme that mirrors one established for Ukrainians two years ago and a project to ensure those needing medical assistance are brought to the UK have not been acted on by the government

MPs heard that many Gazans, who settled in the UK after being given entry as accompanying adults alongside British citizens last year, were already contributing to their communities.

“All of the Gazans that we resettled into Birmingham Yardley were actually doctors, and are bringing huge amounts of resources,” said Jess Philips, Labour MP.

The proposed scheme would include the automatic deferral of biometric enrolment and a visa fee waiver. It would also give assurances of the right of return to Palestinians to Gaza.

Some said that an immediate right to work in the UK was also essential. “I believe those people should be able to work immediately. Many of those people are doctors, they are academics. The Gazan people are a highly skilled … and well-educated workforce,” said Labour MP Sam Tarry.

The debate came after a petition to introduce the project for Palestinians in December attracted over 100,000 signatures. That petition was debated by MPs supporting such a scheme on Monday, which would allow British Palestinians to bring direct family members to the UK for a limited time.

They pointed to the rates of higher education among Palestinians in Gaza which could help combat the chronic workforce shortages Britain is facing, particularly in healthcare.

MPs told Home Office Minister Tom Pursglove of the “Orwellian” challenges that their constituents had faced bringing their families in Gaza to safety.

Plight of orphans

Biometric enrolment had become a barrier to applying rather than a means of access, and the government had failed to bring injured Palestinian children for treatment to the UK as previously promised.

The only Visa Application Centre in Gaza was closed due to the war, and applicants were unable to submit their biometric information in person as required.

Instead, Palestinians were paying thousands of pounds to an operator in Egypt who could help them leave. MPs were told that once in Cairo, they did not have access to social security and healthcare systems and were left “in limbo”.

MPs pointed to the plight of orphans in Gaza, whose extended families may live in the UK but would not qualify for family reunification. Though the government had pledged to bring injured or sick children from Gaza to Britain for medical treatment, none had yet arrived.

Some MPs said that the government’s refusal to make concessions for Palestinians was encouraging illegal migration with several Palestinians from Gaza already living as asylum seekers in London, having crossed the channel with the help of smugglers.

Permits from Israel and Egypt

Canada had introduced special measures for extended family in Gaza which Britain could follow, MPs said.

Andrew Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, described the government’s initial response to the petition, which listed the available visa application centres in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan as “cynical and callous”.

Mr Pursglove said the Home Office would not be deferring biometric enrolment for Palestinians for security reasons. “Any change to biometric enrolment could expose the British public to heightened levels of harm,” he said.

He rejected the comparison with Ukraine, arguing that Britain had a “security relationship” with the Ukrainian authorities which allowed such provisions to be made. “It is a very different relationship to that which we have with authorities in Gaza, who are a terrorist organisation,” he said.

He also said that permits to leave Gaza were out of Britain’s control, and “in the hands of the Egyptian and Israeli governments”.

He reaffirmed the government’s earlier advice to apply for a visa in person in Egypt, adding that the visa application centres in Cairo and Alexandria still had 43 per cent and 76 per cent capacity remaining for the coming week. MPs supporting the petition said that the availability was a sign that not enough Palestinians were obtaining access to the centres.

Asked by Labour MP John McDonnell why the government had yet to bring injured children to the UK for treatment, Mr Pursglove said they had not received any applications. “Presently we haven't received any specific applications but we understand NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are able to support those requiring urgent medical treatment out of Gaza,” he said.

Mr McDonnell said this “clearly” a sign the system established by the FCDO “wasn’t working”.

A future Labour government would introduce a Palestinian scheme, pledged Steven Kinnock, shadow minister for immigration. Among the top ten constituencies to have supported the petition were Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy’s Tottenham.

The debate showed that the government was “not taking our worries seriously”, said Yousef Alhelou, a representative for the Save Gaza Families Reunion Campaign, which launched the petition. “The routes they gave do not work,” he said, adding that many Palestinians in Gaza had lost their passport and other documentation needed to apply for a visa.

Mr Alhelou’s sister and her children were killed by an air strike in December. His parents and other siblings, as well as his wife’s family, were still in Gaza. “I was shocked by the disinformation, the words (Mr Purslowe) used, and was really upset by his disregard for our suffering,” he said.

“They are shutting the door in our faces. We will continue this campaign and pressure the Home Office, the FCDO and highlight this hypocrisy.”

Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood who secured the debate described Mr Pursglove's response as “disappointing” after a cross-party consensus on the need for the visa scheme.

“We all spoke with one voice supporting this scheme. It’s been incredibly disappointing that the government minister today has not followed suit with the rest of the mood in this room,” she said.

Joanna Cherry, Scottish National Party MP for Edinburgh South West, accused the government of “dodging its responsibilities”. “I am ashamed that the British government has done so very little to help, and is not honouring its historical and moral obligations,” she said.

She told of how one of her constituents, a dentist, had helped her 79-year-old mother flee to Egypt. “Her daughter is in a position to support her mother. But they face huge logistical difficulties in getting her here,” she said.

“They look at the scheme that was afforded to Ukrainian refugees, and they cannot understand why in all conscience the British government cannot replicate that scheme for people like them.”

Updated: May 14, 2024, 3:16 PM