THE BLOG

Student Activists Lobby UK Visa Office for Gaza to Re-Open

19/09/2014 13:06 BST | Updated 17/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The latest war in Gaza was brutal and harrowing, not only for the Palestinians in Gaza but for every human being watching from outside. The situation was so difficult that all shops, institutions, and both local and international organisations were closed. Students were, and are, affected the most as they are still waiting to get back to their normal lives.

With the end of war, the same tight siege remains in place. Nothing has changed. The war destroyed everything, and the siege increases the misery. The same restrictions on movement are in place.

Perhaps the most critical case among students concerns those who are granted scholarships to study abroad. At least ten Gazan students have been awarded MA scholarships to study in the UK universities but have not yet been able to travel. This is mainly because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK has ordered the UK office in Gaza to remain closed, even though the war is over. This means that students cannot apply for their UK visas or even travel because only visa holders can travel from Gaza. Thus the students are at danger of losing their scholarships.

Omarali Falyouna

After the ceasefire was signed to end the 52 day aggression on Gaza, Omarali Falyouna, a Gazan student awarded a MA scholarship to study Civil Engineering in Sheffield, emailed the British Information Services Office (BISO) to ask whether the office would be open. The BISO replied on 30/08/2014:

"Whilst we accept that a ceasefire has been agreed, we are still waiting a full security assessment before we can re-open the British Information Services Office (BISO) in Gaza. Until the assessment is completed, we will not be opening the BISO. We note that you have an appointment at the BISO. Please be informed that this will be cancelled and you will have to reschedule it once the office has been re-opened. We apologies for any inconvenience this may cause."

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(Omar Falyouna during his graduation ceremony/ 2013. Photo by Osama Abu Eltayf)

Falyouna, however, could not apply for the UK visa because the BISO in Gaza remains closed, even though the war has ended.

He has tried twice to travel through the Egyptian Rafah border, as well as the Israeli border Erez, before so that he could apply for his visa in Egypt or Jerusalem but didn't succeed. The authorities at both borders prevented him from crossing as he is not a UK visa holder.

I asked Falyouna how this problem could be solved; he responded, "by opening the BISO in Gaza very soon so I am able to apply for a visa."

He told me that at least ten students have been awarded scholarships to study in the UK but none of them can leave. As his University year starts on the 22nd of September, he is very worried that he might lose his scholarship. The University of Sheffield knows about Falyouna's situation: "They are very helpful in giving me extra time. I have until the 15th of October to reach my university. I hope the BISO will open very soon as I don't have much time or I am going to lose my scholarship."

Tahani Abu Shaban

The case of Tahani Abu Shaban, a student awarded with a MA scholarship to study Translation at Durham University, might be much better than that of Falyouna. She applied for the visa online a day before the latest aggression started, but she could not send her passport and documents to the British Embassy in Amman because no mail was getting in or out of Gaza during the war. She sent the papers two weeks ago, the embassy tried to help, and she may get her passport back next Monday. However, she still does not know if she has been granted the visa or not.

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(Photo by Hanan Habashi)

Abu Shaban said: "I have been worried about the idea of leaving Gaza. The crossing was opened after the war, but there are still many restrictions. I cannot register my name to leave through the Rafah crossing until I get the passport. If I get the visa, there will be no big problems. However, if I have not been granted the visa, I have to pay $500 to the Egyptian officials to let me pass to Egypt in order to apply for the visa again. It is worth mentioning that the British Information and services office, which follow the visa issues in Gaza, has been closed until further notice. This caused a delay in our procedures."

She expected that the BISO would be open after the war, but it is still closed and that is why she follows all the procedures by herself. In the case of the Erez crossing, it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permission to go to Jerusalem and apply for the visa there. The Israelis deny her permission to go to Jerusalem or the West Bank. In her opinion, to solve this problem, there is a need to contact the British Foreign and CommonWealth Office in the UK and ask them to reopen the BISO in Gaza. She adds that some students want to go to Egypt to apply for the visa there, but they need a letter from the British embassy that states that their issue is urgent. The Egyptian officials at the Rafah crossing will not allow them to pass to Egypt until they see that letter. It would be helpful if the British embassy in Egypt accelerated this process.

While three students from Gaza have been awarded scholarships to study in Durham, the other two have not even applied for the visa because the BISO in Gaza is still closed. They need to pass to Egypt to apply for the visa at the British Embassy in Egypt - but they need the said letter. Durham University expects them to arrive on September 25th. They didn't give them a deadline, but the students hope to make it to the UK before October 6th, the first day of academic year.

A British friend who prefers not to mention his name contacted the UK Visas and Immigration Office in the UK to ask about the BISO office and the reasons for its closure, despite all other international organizations and offices being re-opened by now. The reply was dated on 15/09/2014:

"Whilst we accept that a ceasefire has been agreed, we are still waiting a full security assessment before we can re-open the British Information Services Office (BISO) in Gaza. Until the assessment is completed, we will not be opening the BISO.

Applicants can apply for visas in Amman but we will keep their passports during the processing period, which means they will be unable to leave the country. If applicants apply in Amman we will fast track their applications. They can also apply in Cairo but similarly we will keep their passports during the processing period. The other alternative is to apply in West Bank if the applicant has access and can book an appointment.

I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any further questions about the situation please do not hesitate to contact us. "

It is worth mentioning again that only visa holders can leave Gaza, which means that Falyouna and all other students cannot go to any other country to apply for the UK visa, as advised by the Immigration Home Office.

The petition

To support these students stuck in Gaza, more than eighty five of the National Union of Students' (NUS) Officers/Committees and Sabbatical Officers signed a petition detailed below on Monday September 15th, a day before we received a message from Gaza confirming some positive outcomes. Mr. Kamal Kalloub of the BISO office in Gaza told me on September 16th that the office will be open by the end of this week. He added that only one thing makes them delay this process is: "the Biometric machine in our office that is not working. We are just waiting for the new Biometric kit to arrive from Jerusalem. Hopefully by the end of this week I will be able to collect the biometrics and the applications from our students." Abu Shaban commented: "I believe in students' activism and in occasions where students' officers use their powers to highlight injustice and to make a difference."

"This year at least 10 students from Gaza have been granted MA scholarships at UK universities. At this moment in time none have been able to travel because the British Office in Gaza, where they need to apply for their UK visa, is closed until further notice. We are calling on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to order the Gaza office to re-open. This is paramount to the students being able to keep their scholarships and therefore continue on their educational journeys. UK universities start in the last week of September which is rapidly approaching and students have October as the deadline to reach their universities.

At this difficult post-war time, we are also standing in solidarity with young people and their right to access to education as enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Due to the continuous siege on Gaza, UNESCO has reported that students are increasingly being forced into dropping out as tuition fees become un-affordable, which in turn impacts on the quality of education provided (60% of university funding is derived form tuition fees). As Max Gaylard, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory warns, isolating Gaza's youth from the rest of the world and depriving them of this basic right could prove disastrous for long term prospects for peace."

Signed by

Yael Shafritz President at Sheffield SU

Emily Connor, President at Hallam SU

Jose Diaz de Aguilar International Students' Officer at Sheffield SU

Jonny Block, Sports Officer at Sheffield SU

Miriam Rachel Women's Officer at Sheffield SU

Tom Harrison Welfare Officer at Sheffield SU

Jack Wyse Sheffield SU Development Officer

Clio Symington, Activities Officer at Sheffield SU

Malaka Mohammed Education Officer at Sheffield SU

Gordon Maloney, NUS Scotland President

Vonnie Sandlan Women's Officer at NUS Scotland

Shreya Paudel International Students' Officer at NUS

Malia Bouattia Black Students' Officer at NUS

Areeb Ullah, Vice President of Education for Arts and Sciences - KCLSU

Aisling Gallagher NUS Disabled Students Campaign

Helena McCoy NUS Welfare Committee

Shelly Asquith Suarts: University of the Arts Students' Union

Barbara Ntumy NUS Women's Committee

Edmund Schlussel NEC, Postgraduate Committee and Socialist Students

Sayed Alkadiri, NUS London Black Students Officer

Mostafa Rajaai Culture and Diversity Officer at University of the Arts London/NUS International Students' Committee

Kae Smith NUS NEC Part Time Rep/Mature and Part Time Committee

Hannah Graham, NUS NEC

Zarah Sultana, NUS NEC

Samayya Ood-Sigma Afzal, Women's Officer at Bradford SU and NUS and Black Student Committee at NUS

Hannah Sketchley, Democracy & Communications Officer UCLU

Ari Diaz-Cebreiro, NUS Black Students Committee

Michael Segalov, Communications Officer at USSU - University of Sussex Students' Union

Aaron Kiely, NUS Antiracism Antifascism Committee at National Union of Students

Elaha Walizadeh, NUS London Women's Officer

Hajera Begum, UCLU BME Students' officer

Adam Allnutt, Environment and Ethics Officer, University of Hull Students Union

Gary Paterson, President at University of Strathclyde Students' Association

Annie Tidbury, UCLU Women's Officer

Ibrahim Abdile, BME Officer Golsmiths Su and NUS Black Students' Committee

Annie Tidbury, UCLU Women's Officer

Piers Telemacque Vice president of society and citizenship for the national union of students

Abdi-aziz Suleiman NUS NEC

Bahar Mustafa welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths SU and disabled students rep on NUS women's committee

Adam Cooper University of Oxford SU & NUS NEC

Jack Douglas, President of the Student Association of the University of the West of Scotland

Will Nickell, UELSU Ethics & Environment Officer

Harriet Pugh, UMSU education officer

Hassun El Zafer Black Student Committee at NUS

Kelly Teeboon - LiverpoolSU womens campaign officer

Rosie Dammers - Wellbeing Officer, Manchester SU

Noor Khan, Vice President of Learning and Teaching at Official Kingston University Students' Union (KUSU)

Adil Qureshi NUS LGBT Committee (Open Place)

Reubs Walsh NUS LGBT cttee Trans rep

Tasha Boardman Vice President Services - Edinburgh university students association

Kirsty Haigh, NUS Scotland Vice President Communities

Noorulann Shahid, NUS LGBT Committee, black rep (open place)

Shabina Raja- NUS Black Students' Committee

Lukmaan Kolia, UCLU Education and Campaigns Officer

Fran Cowling NUS LGBT Officer

Howard Littler, President Goldsmiths Students' Union

Tessy Maritim, UMSU Diversity Officer

Lyndsay Burtonshaw Activities-Officer university of Sussex students union

Zekarias Negussue Black Students NEC Rep

Sofiya Ahmed, Nus London's women's officer

Jess Lishak, university of Manchester SU women's officer

Kathleen Brook Chair SEC Hull University

Sam Morecroft - NUS PG Committee

Maahwish Mirza, Education Officer at Warwick SU

Sai Englert, NUS PGR

Leah Francis, UCLU Welfare and International Officer

Yasmin Ahmed, Marketing Officer at Hull SU

Rochelle Owusu- Antwi, NUS Women's Committee NEC Member

Nosheen Dad, NUS NEC

Bushra Almari - Academic Affairs Officer, University of Bradford Union of Students

Joel Smith - Activities & Development Officer, University of Manchester Students' Union

Ben Towse, NUS Postgraduate Committee

Tom Dixon - Education Officer, Leeds University Union

Tom Robinson, UCLU LGBT+ Officer

Saifullah Maishanu, NUS Black Students Committee

Howard Littler, President at Goldsmiths SU

Freya Govus Welfare Officer, Leeds University Union

Sarah El-alfy, Education Officer at Goldsmiths SU

Shay Olupona, Campaigns and Activities Officer at Goldsmiths SU and NUS London Exec. Committe member

Robert Foster Vice President NUS Scotland

Ibrahim Ali, Vice President Student Affairs. Federation of Student Islamic Societies

Ammar Al-zeer, Head of Campaigns - Federation of Student Islamic Societies

Subira Ismail - black minority and ethnics officer- Bradford Univeristy Union

Rhys Jenkins VP Education at Cardiff SU

Vidya Brainerd- Students With Disabilities Officer Cardiff SU

Alasdair Clark, Vice President Education and Representation at Fife College Students' Association

Claire Blakeway VP Heath Park Campus