People wanting to quit the Gaza Strip and start life elsewhere are facing a lot of hurdles.
Abu Luay sold his wife's gold to pay for a visa to Germany, but if the Egyptian border does not open soon he will lose his only ticket out of Gaza, where life is an endless struggle against conflict and an Israeli siege.
AdvertisementLike him, untold numbers of Palestinians are scraping together large sums of money to pay travel agents for visas in a desperate bid to leave the densely populated Gaza Strip enclave.
But theirs is a gamble that rarely pays off.
"I sold my wife's gold to pay the travel office 2,000 dollars (1,400 euros) for a student visa to Germany," said Abu Luay, a father of four who, like other aspiring migrants interviewed by AFP, asked that his real name not be used for fear it would jeopardise his plans.
Israel has strictly limited travel to and from Gaza, part of an embargo first imposed in 2006 and tightened after a June 2007 takeover of the territory by the militant Islamic Hamas movement.
Since then, the only way out is through Egypt, which only rarely opens the Rafah crossing that straddles its border with Gaza.
Abu Luay's three-month German visa expires in less than a month, but he has been determined to leave ever since a devastating war with Israel a year ago killed some 1,400 Palestinians and flattened large swathes of the territory.
Thirteen Israelis also died in the 22-day battle, which Israel launched to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, and that ended on January 18, 2009.
Since then, Palestinian rocket attacks have dropped by more than 90 percent.
But Israel's closure of all borders with Gaza has been a virtual siege, preventing reconstruction and foreign aid in an impoverished zone where some 80 percent of the population relied on foreign aid to make ends meet.
"Our whole lives have been made up of obstacles and destruction and the siege," Abu Luay said. "I won't give up hope. I am going to emigrate with my family, and we won't come back."
Sentiments like this, in a place without Western embassies where one could apply for visas, has meant a flourishing trade for travel agents who know the ropes and how to obtain visas through foreign embassies in other Middle Eastern countries.
One way out for many Gazans is to travel on a student visa, then stay on illegally after that expires, or move on to another country.
The Hamas movement ruling Gaza frowns on emigration, viewing it as a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle for independence, and would shut down anyone openly helping people leave for good.
The owner of a travel agency that provides visa services insisted he only helps students who want to study abroad, but admitted that some applicants "exploit" the visas to emigrate.
Half of the 1,400-dollar visa fee goes to the agency and the other half for university and embassy application fees, said the travel agency owner, who asked that his name and the name of his business not be used.
The one organisation in Gaza that legally provides emigration services does so under Canadian and Palestinian permits granted a decade ago, and is able to secure visas for only a small number of applicants each year.
"More than 90 percent of the people who come to us do not meet the requirements of the Canadian government," said Malik al-Shawa, the head of the organisation, adding that the process often takes several years.
Like most Western governments, Canada usually requires would-be immigrants to have language fluency as well as university degrees and experience in a lucrative profession.
In the absence of legal avenues, many Gazans have turned to fly-by-night agents who collect hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars with the promise of securing visas.
But often, all they do is use the money to finance their own emigration.
Zahdi, 23, paid an agent 1,500 dollars (1,000 euros) to get European visas for himself and a friend, but instead of getting a visa he was left in the cold.
"The swindler took off," Zahdi said. "He escaped to Egypt and is still there. We weren't the only ones he cheated."
Now, Zahdi's plan is to obtain a false medical certificate saying he suffers from liver disease and needs treatment in Egypt, where he believes he will be able to get a visa to Europe.
"My friend travelled this way, so I am going to do the same thing," Zahdi said.
Forged documents and lies are often the only way to surmount the numerous hurdles in the emigration process.
Muammar, a taxi driver, paid 1,200 dollars to apply for a student visa to Australia, but he was rejected because his grades were too low.
"The office manager told me after two months of procedures that my request was rejected by the university because my grades on university entrance exams were less than 65 percent," he said. But he said he only got back 500 dollars from the agent.
Muammar's next plan is to have his diploma altered and then send it to universities in Europe.
"I'm not happy about what I am doing, but I'm scared and frustrated," he said. "I might lose one of my children in an air strike or another war.
"I can't take it any more."
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