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Six months into the war, 'no plans' to offer Ukraine-style visas to Palestinians 

Within weeks of Russia invading Ukraine, a fast-track visa scheme was set up in Britain, allowing 74,000 Ukranians to flee the war zone. Since the war in Gaza began, only 270 Palestinians from Gaza were welcomed in the UK. A new campaign aims to change that before it's too late. 

April 05 2024, 22.03pm
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“This is our last chance to save our families’ lives,” says Dr. Ibrahim Assalia, co-founder of Gaza Families Project, at the launch of the Palestinian Visa Schemes Initiative held recently in the House of Lords.

Assalia, alongside other British-Palestinian representatives from Gaza Families Project, spoke from testimony of his struggle with the British Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office [FCDO] to escape Gaza after the war began in October, and the plight of his family members who couldn’t make it out.

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Home Office swiftly waived standard visa requirements to support Ukrainians seeking refuge and safety in the UK. An estimated 71,400 visas have since been issued under the Ukraine Family Scheme. In the six months since the current war broke out, only 270 British nationals and dependents have left Palestine via a UK visa.

The event, launched by campaign group Project Save Gaza in collaboration with Baroness Bennet, a Green party peer, highlighted the pleas of at least 300 British Palestinian families who are trying to reunite with their family members in the UK. 

More than forty people, including members of Parliament, NGOs, social justice campaigners, and representatives of British Palestinian families came together to discuss the implementation of a Palestinian visa scheme with a right to return to Palestine, designed to follow the success of the Ukrainian visa scheme.

Recently backed by first minister of Scotland, Hamza Yousaf, the campaign seeks to reunite Palestinian families affected by war through a Palestinian visa scheme, using the successful Ukrainian scheme as a blueprint.

The speakers discussed two schemes to help Palestinians. The first is the Palestinian Family Visa Scheme, offering Palestinians impacted by war the chance to seek refuge in the UK, and the Sanctuary for Palestinians scheme, similar to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Both schemes emphasise the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine. 

This call is careful to underscore that Palestinians under this visa should retain their right to return to Palestine, and to affirm the historic Right to Return, especially as the Israeli government has been openly calling for the ‘voluntary migration’ and ‘evacuation’ of Palestinians from Gaza. The UK has no means to ensure this right is observed, or to enforce it, even if UN resolution 194, passed after the mass displacement of Palestinians  in 1948, that all refugees should be permitted to return to their homes. 

Speakers at the event also stressed the historic responsibility Britain has to support Palestinians – as it was under the British Mandate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the decades-long war it is today. “Given that a century of foreign policy has helped to create this situation, we have a real responsibility to take action,” said Baroness Bennett. 

Established in January 2024, Project Save Gaza is a group made of concerned citizens, consisting of media professionals, councillors and activists. In a statement made after the event, the campaign group told The Lead: “We saw the issues that Palestinians face when seeking refuge in the UK, and the apparent double standards in the UK’s humanitarian initiatives.”

Project Save Gaza’s campaign efforts have already helped Assalia and his family to return to the UK. 

War broke out whilst Assalia, a London-based lecturer, was visiting his 72-year-old disabled mother in Gaza. In the near two-month wait for evacuation, the Israeli Defense Forces destroyed his family’s home and belongings. Assalia and his family of eight were forced to seek shelter in Jabalia refugee camp. 

“We walked through blood-stained rubble,” Assalia told the parliamentary session. “There were rotting and burned corpses everywhere,” he said. 

Insufficient support from the FCDO and complicated visa processes meant that Assalia was forced to leave his mother in Gaza. He was assured by the FCDO that she would be evacuated eventually.

Assalia’s mother is still waiting in Jabalia. Assalia told the session that his mother is essentially “waiting to die”. She has little food, water, and electricity. Assalia continues to fight for her safe evacuation to the UK.

In December, the government rejected a parliamentary petition with over 59,000 signatures calling for a scheme similar to the Ukrainian initiative to be put in place for Palestinians affected by war, claiming they had “no plans” to create a visa scheme for Palestinians. 

Palestinians in Gaza are currently still subject to standard UK visa requirements. 

“The treatment of us as British-Palestinians is disgusting and shameful,” said Sameh Habeeb, another representative from Gaza Families Project, comparing the UK government’s lack of action in Palestine to the appropriately streamlined response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Palestinians are required to pay fees of £1,846 for adults and over £1,100 for children seeking to come to the UK, plus an additional £1,560 health surcharge for adults (£1,175 for children). 

Visa salary thresholds also require minimum earnings of at least £18,600, and that applicants meet the English-speaking language requirements.

Four hundred crowdfunders

The UK government also requires biometric data – fingerprints – for visa applications, which is enrolled at Visa Application Centres. The Visa Application Centre in Gaza, where biometric data would normally be collected, has been closed since October 7. 

Speakers pointed out that, in the face of this obstacle, Palestinians in Gaza are forced to pay extortionate prices – between $5,000 and $10,000  – to enrol their biometrics.

The Home Office has made no provisions for biometric data collection from Palestinians affected by war. Last month, Tom Pursglove, the secretary of state for the Home Department, said that Palestinians in Gaza must travel to a different country and enrol their biometrics at an alternative Visa Application Centre.

Appropriate concessions made by the Home Office for Ukrainians enabled them to provide biometric data after their arrival in the UK, in addition to the waiving of all other visa thresholds. 
In the absence of a visa scheme or concessions made to the visa process, many Palestinians living in the UK have set up their own fundraisers to finance their families' evacuation from Gaza. Over 400 crowdfunders have been set up in the UK with this aim since October 7. 

“Everyone who needs refuge should be able to get refuge, whether that includes the Ukrainian, Hong Kong, or a Palestinian visa scheme. That is not an either-or,” said Baroness Bennet in her address to the parliamentary session. 

In March, a Palestinian refugee living in the UK won a legal battle against the Home Office’s decision to deny his family in Gaza entry into the UK without providing fingerprints. The upper tribunal found the Home Office’s decision unlawful, and in breach of the family's human rights. And in an unusual move, the Home Office recently granted asylum to a Palestinian citizen of Israel who claimed that the state is running an “apartheid regime” against Palestinians, and that he would face persecution on the basis of his race and religion. 
Lobbying pressure from groups like Project Save Gaza, and Gaza Families Project, occurs amidst continued large-scale protest from the British public, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza supported by the UK government.

The comparative inaction of the government in their humanitarian response to the crisis in Palestine – when compared to the response to Ukraine – occurs amidst rising numbers of deaths in Gaza. Numbers from the Gaza ministry of health show that over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza since October.

Baroness Bennet’s open letter sent this week to the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, called on the Home Office to "extend a similar framework of compassion and solidarity" to people in Gaza as it has for people from Ukraine. It has been signed by 36 MPs and peers.

“The British government should be pressured to achieve this scheme for us,” said Habeeb. 
 

Take Action

  • Sign the petition for a Palestinian visa scheme here


 

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