USA Today: ‘I Don’t Want to Die’ – Fleeing Palestinians Reveal Gap in International Refugee Protection

This story was originally published by USA Today.

Nuha Bashir’s life in Deir al-Balah City, Gaza, was a happy one. The mother of twin 9-year-old girls, she had just started a consulting business. It was almost time to harvest the olive trees around her home.

Oct. 7 changed everything. The Hamas attacks and ensuing war with Israel closed in around Nuha and her family. Early on, Nuha opened her home to more than 50 people. But soon their solar power system broke from the nearby bombardment, leaving them with no power and no water. Then their neighbor’s building was bombed in late October. The explosion shattered their own windows and walls. Nuha, her husband and the girls fled – first to an aunt’s and then to her parents’. The violence continued. Cuts to powerwater and food made daily life nearly impossible.

“I could not stay powerless to see my children under danger, awaiting death,” Nuha told Refugees International.

On Nov. 3, Nuha and her family were able to get on a U.S. Embassy list for evacuations out of Gaza to Egypt because of her brother-in-law’s affiliation with NPR. They were notified in the middle of the night that they needed to come to the border to make the crossing. They had no time to say goodbye to their family. By then, the death toll in Gaza was more than 9,000 – over 65% were women and children. They made the journey south toward Rafah underneath drones and bombs.

“It was one of the most dangerous decisions I ever took in my life,” Nuha said.

Now, Nuha and her family are in Egypt. But as Palestinians, they have no obvious legal pathways to stay, no pathways to third countries and no hope of a safe return to Gaza. They are effectively stranded after escaping a war zone. In Cairo, she now volunteers with Global Empowerment Mission, an organization dedicated to delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Safe from the violence in Gaza – but facing legal limbo

While the vast majority of people have been either unable or unwilling to leave Gaza, a sizable but little noted number of families have escaped. Nuha’s story is not an isolated incident; it is emblematic of a much larger crisis affecting Palestinians who have fled to Egypt.

UNRWA is the primary United Nations agency mandated to assist Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian territories and in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. However, for those like Nuha who flee elsewhere, the situation is more complex. Palestinian refugees outside UNRWA’s mandate should fall under the protection of the U.N. Refugee Agency. This is not the case in Egypt, where UNHCR cannot register Palestinians as refugees. Consequently, Palestinians in Egypt find themselves in a legal limbo, devoid of legal refugee status and the accompanying rights and services.

Since Oct. 7, thousands of Palestinians have fled Gaza to Egypt, escaping the intense hostilities. This population includes medical evacuees and their caretakers seeking treatment in Egyptian hospitals, families of dual nationals, and those who have managed to flee Gaza through the payment of substantial sums for informal evacuation.

Families like Nuha’s, who lack the proper visa or credentials to leave Egypt for third countries, find themselves safe from the violence in Gaza – but facing new unknowns. This situation highlights a gap in international refugee protection. The unknown future of Palestinians to obtain legal status or access essential services in Egypt finds these individuals and families in limbo.

How to help Palestinian refugees with nowhere to turn

From Egypt’s perspective, authorities say they do not want to create a situation in which they are harming Palestinians’ ability to return to Gaza. But the international community’s response to this crisis is crucial in determining the fate of thousands of Palestinians who have sought refuge but have nowhere to turn.

“I cannot do anything,” Nuha told Refugees International. “I cannot withdraw money. I cannot go to school. I cannot enroll my children in a school.”

With no clear end in sight to the deadly fighting in Gaza, urgent action must be taken now to ensure that families like Nuha’s do not fall through the cracks.

For a start, Egypt has a few options:

  • U.N. agencies – notably UNRWA or UNHCR – could be equipped to help Palestinians in Egypt.
  • Given the severity of the conflict, Egyptian authorities could collaborate with U.N. agencies and international nonprofits to more formally provide timely support under the exceptional circumstances to Palestinian refugees.
  • To incentivize Egypt’s flexibility, donors need to step up both to fund support for displaced Palestinians in Egypt and develop alternative pathways for the most vulnerable to seek refuge in third countries.

Canada has taken some initial steps and announced temporary visas for 1,000 family members of Palestinian dual citizens who evacuated Gaza. The United States and other nations should implement similar visa systems or legal pathways – especially for families like Nuha’s who escaped under the U.S. evacuee list.

These numbers are manageable, and, in the case for the United States, is the least the U.S. government can do to assist the Palestinian families whom they evacuated but now are stuck in Egypt.

If the conflict keeps apace, prioritizing solutions now will be critical to avert a worse crisis. It is increasingly clear that more people will be forced to flee – and most Palestinians who do might not be able to return.

“Imagine yourself in the same situation,” Nuha said. “If you are going to die or leave through Egypt, you will leave. Though you love your country, you love your land. I want to stay in my land, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”