'This is the last chance': Desperate families pay thousands to get relatives out of Gaza

Laila Saliekh (left) and her sister Karina (right). Credit: Laila Saliekh

Words by Sophia Ankel, ITV News

Desperate Palestinians, who left Gaza but still have family members there, are paying tens of thousands of pounds to evacuate their loved ones, as Israeli bombs continue to rain down on the territory. 

Even before October 7 last year, Gaza was largely cut off from the outside world, and getting out proved difficult.  

But amid a food crisis and a growing death toll – more than 31,000 to date have been killed - desperation in the besieged territory is palpable.  

Now, families are contacting a network of independent brokers and travel agencies - linked to Egyptian intelligence services - who are selling permits to exit the territory for extortionate amounts. 

To fund these permits, many of them are turning to online crowdfunding platforms, including GoFundMe and Crowdfunder UK.  

Laila Saliekh, a Ukrainian-Palestinian PhD student who lives in Edinburgh, is among the many asking for help.  

The 26-year-old made a one-way trip to Egypt this week in an attempt to buy a permit for her younger sister, Karina.  

Karina, 24, has been living alone in Gaza for the last three years while completing her medical degree. The rest of her family left the region in 2021; Laila headed to Edinburgh to study physics while their parents and younger siblings moved to Sweden.  

Katrina Saliekh in Gaza City. Credit: Laila Saliekh

But when the war started and the family’s Gaza home was bombed, Karina was forced to move into a temporary tent city in the southern city of Rafah.  

Since then, she has been hungry and scared - and eager to get out, according to her sister. 

Laila told ITV News: “I can't reach her every day on the phone, so I worry.  

“The internet connection is not always stable. You don't take a minute for granted because you don't know what can happen. I had a friend who I spoke to on the phone in Gaza. Five minutes later, she was killed.” 

Laila says her family has tried diplomatic avenues, appealing to the Home Office and the Ukrainian embassy in Egypt, but nothing has worked.  

Speaking about her sister, Laila said: “She has a right to be evacuated – she is a woman; she is a Ukrainian citizen. We don’t understand why this is happening. 

“Where shall she go?” she added. 

Last month, Laila and her family were scammed out of $3,000 (£2,300) after a man who had approached Katrina in Gaza promised he could get her across the border.  

After several attempts to contact him, he disappeared.  

"I don't know what to do anymore,” Laila says. “We tried everything we can so far, and it has not been successful.” 

“[Going to Egypt] is the last chance, I don't know what else to do. I just hope it works and this all ends.” 

How can people evacuate Gaza? 

At the time of writing, the only exit route is via a crossing in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, which has also become the latest target of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against Hamas.  

Hamas and Egypt usually exercise control over who can pass through the border though Israeli officials are now also getting involved and need to grant permission for people to leave. 

Only a few Palestinians have been allowed to evacuate to Egypt, mostly to receive urgent medical treatment. 

But those who aren’t injured have been contacting Hala Consulting and Tourism, an Egyptian travel agency that has been offering to get people across the border and into Cairo since 2019. 

Before the war, the average cost to evacuate a one person was around $1,200. Today, the agency is charging up to $10,000 per person. 

“The last hope that we have - and it's really horrible to say - is to bribe the officers who work on the Egyptian border,” Laila told ITV News.  

“The are profiting off our suffering.” 

The agency - founded by Ibrahim El-Argani, a businessman from the Sinai region with links to Egyptian intelligence service – is shrouded in secrecy, according to a report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published earlier this year. 

It has offices in Cairo and Rafah, according to its website, but is also active on several social media pages, including Facebook and Telegram.  

Every day the agency posts a picture of a list of people who have been granted permission to leave. What happens after exactly is unclear. 

“People who get out of Gaza usually don’t share how they do it,” Laila said. 

Hala did not respond to ITV News’ request for comment.  

Evacuated Palestinians with Canadian passports from Gaza, are photographed at the Rafah Border Crossing, Egypt. Credit: AP

Scams on the rise   

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch told ITV News they have been observing a stark rise of scammers who are “taking advantage of the vulnerability and desperation of those seeking assistance" in Gaza. 

"Individual brokers will manipulate people’s emotions and make false promises in exchange for upfront payments or sensitive information,” the spokesperson said.  

The scams have been so rampant that some people have started to catch on.

Mohammed Baber, who is also hoping to get his parents out of Gaza and has also been fundraising, says he knows many people who have been scammed.

"I want to be careful. We don't have much money and can't afford to be scammed."

He is also thinking of going to Egypt to get the help of the border agency.

For Laila, who has already paid Hala for a permit for her sister, life has now become a waiting game.

Officials told her it could take a minimum of one month to get her sister out.

"What else are we supposed to do? This is our only option.” 

Gaza: Have you been experienced similar scams? If so, please contact yourstory@itv.com

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