British Palestinians demand Ukraine-style visa scheme for their families in Gaza

With Israeli plans to invade Gaza's last place of refuge, families are stepping up their campaign to save trapped relatives

Talia, a British Palestinian girl calls for a Palestinian visa scheme at an event in the House of Lords on Wednesday. More than 300 British-Palestinian families are petitioning their MPs and the Home Office to set up a scheme that would allow their relatives in Gaza to stay in the UK while the war continues. Photo: Farrukh Younus / @implausibleblog
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British Palestinians are stepping up their campaign to bring their families in Gaza to safety in the UK.

More than 300 British-Palestinian families are petitioning their MPs and the Home Office to set up a scheme that would allow their relatives in Gaza to stay in the UK while the war continues.

This would mirror the Ukrainian Families Visa established after Russia’s invasion in 2022, in which Ukrainians could join family members in the UK for up to three years, as well as other similar schemes for Afghans and people from Hong Kong.

Campaigner Sam Habeeb during a panel discussion in the House of Lords on Wednesday spoke alongside others who are hoping to get their relatives out of Gaza. “We’re just trying to save their lives,” he told The National.

His siblings, nieces and nephews are in Gaza, where they have been displaced three times since the conflict began. “We thought it would be the normal cycle of violence that lasts a few days or weeks. Now it’s been months,” he said.

Mr Habeeb’s siblings all lived together in a seven-storey building in northern Gaza that belonged to the family. They were evacuated to the south, then to the designated safe area of Al Mawasi.

When that safe zone became too dangerous, they were squeezed into Rafah. There, the family was scattered. “All these people were once living as one family in one building. Now they’re all on the run,” he said.

Mr Habeeb said the number of Palestinians brought to the UK under such a scheme would be small.

“We’re not asking the British government to bring tens of thousands of Palestinians to the UK,” he said at the discussion on Wednesday.

He added that the families would need assurances of their return to Gaza after the war. “The right of return is a red line for us as British Palestinians. The refugees should go back to their homes,” he said.

But the absence of a plan for post-war Gaza, and who would govern the strip, could complicate this. “Once they are evacuated, we don’t know what’s next,” he told The National.

“Some Palestinians may go to Europe, the UK, some people will spend a few months in Egypt before going back to Gaza. But the majority would want to go back to their homes,” he said.

Host Baroness Natalie Bennett, a Green party peer, asked for a moment of silence after hearing harrowing testimonies from British Palestinians about their experience in Gaza during the war, and the stories of their families.

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She plans to write an open letter to lobby MPs about a family resettlement scheme, as well as a sponsorship scheme similar to the Homes for Ukrainians. She lamented the "swingeing fees" currently faced by British Palestinians attempting to get visas for their families.

Councillor Labina Baset, from Hillingdon, said it was unfair that Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong were offered schemes to enter the UK, while British Palestinians were struggling to get their families out of Gaza.

A representative of Love Bristol, a UK charity, spoke of the "positive effects" of the Ukrainian resettlement schemes on the British public, as she urged for a similar scheme to be set up for Palestinians. "It was the first opportunity of its kind for the British public to feel like they can actually do something," she said.

"We're offering something that is in the opposite spirit of war through a visa scheme," she added.

Speaking of her own experience hosting a Ukrainian refugee, she said: "I experienced the richness of the Ukrainian culture, and that cannot be overstated."

About a dozen families attended the event, to speak about their experience and hear from NGOs. MPs including Labour's Kim Johnson and Claudia Webbe attended the event.

“This is our last hope to save our families’ lives, and get them out of this miserable situation,” Dr Ibrahim Assaliya, a UK-based lecturer in media studies, said at the event on Wednesday.

“Palestinians have paid a heavy price for the irresponsible actions and wrongdoings of Hamas on October 7. Israeli strikes, however, do not distinguish between Hamas and civilians," he said.

For months, Dr Assaliya has tried to get his mother out of Gaza. She is 71 and disabled, and has been struggling to find medication where she lives in northern Gaza.

Protest outside UK Parliament calls for Gaza ceasefire - in pictures

He fears a double standard is being applied to British Palestinians and their families.

“It’s the last chance for the British government to do something,” he told The National. “We hear words from David Cameron about recognising the state of Palestine. But we need something practical. A family visa scheme would be a good start,” he said.

Dr Assaliya fled northern Gaza to the Rafah crossing with his wife, children and other British evacuees in November. At the time, Dr Assaliya had been able to register his mother for evacuation as an accompanying adult to the five children with whom he was travelling.

But the treacherous road from north to central Gaza was too much for his mother, who was in a wheelchair. “We saw dead bodies, burnt cars, blood everywhere,” he said.

Fatma Assaliya decided to turn back. “She didn’t want to be a burden, even though I kept telling her she was not. She sacrificed herself for us,” he said.

Dr Assaliya had hoped to organise his mother’s rescue when he returned to the UK. But because she was no longer an accompanying adult, she was not eligible for evacuation. “Despite many promises this has never happened,” he said.

Gaza death toll reaches 30,000

Gaza death toll reaches 30,000

Now he regrets the decision to leave her in November.

Others are doing everything they can to bring their families to safety in the UK with the means available.

Dr Khalil El Gabour, a paediatric consultant in Bedfordshire, has made 24 UK visa applications to get his wife’s immediate family out of Gaza.

His wife Nermine, who is also a British citizen, has flown to Cairo, to try to arrange evacuation and hospital treatment for her brothers and sisters.

When The National spoke to Dr El Gabour earlier this week, he had just received bittersweet news.

Nermine’s brother, his wife, and three-month old baby girl born in Gaza on October 30 had been successfully evacuated, via an Egyptian travel operator.

But she was now urgently organising hospital treatment for the little girl. “Because of dust from the Israeli bombardment, she had bronchiolitis, she was becoming blue,” Dr El Gabour said.

His mother-in-law, who had a valid visa to the UK before the war started, was not eligible for the British evacuation plan.

The family paid an Egyptian operator to get her out and she was treated in Cairo before travelling to the UK.

Dr El Gabour hopes the campaign can help facilitate these processes. “I’m hoping somebody will listen. We are even more eligible for this. In our story everywhere is dangerous,” he said.

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.

Updated: February 29, 2024, 5:50 PM