Hundreds of Students Trapped in Gaza as Egypt Maintains Harsh Restrictions on Travel

09/10/2013 13:57 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

At the Rafah crossing, linking Egypt and Gaza, an exhausting, nerve-rending ritual has been played out for weeks. Hundreds of people regularly crowd into the departure lounge on the Gazan side, desperately hoping to get be allowed to cross into Egypt. The overwhelmingly majority are denied entry by Egypt and are told to come back to try again another day. Along with the people trying to leave Gaza for medical treatment or work, there are hundreds of Palestinian students with places at universities across the world, currently trapped in Gaza.

Fidaa Abuassi, 25, has a place on a MA International Relations course at the University of Indianapolis in the US but her dreams of studying abroad are fading fast. She has been prevented from travelling through the Rafah crossing and has missed nearly two months of classes. "I am angry, upset, and furious all the time because this situation is unjust and unfair" she told me via Facebook, "I cannot cope with the injustice or normalize this suffering."

When I ask what she will do if she can't get out of Gaza, she simply replies "I don't want to think of this possibility."

Mohammed El Majdalawi, 25, is a student from Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. He has been studying for a diploma in film and media at Lund University, Sweden. He has spent the last six months back in Gaza making a documentary film for his course about the lives of Gazan women, yet he now fears that all this work has been done in vain. He urgently needs to get back to Sweden to present his film and complete his course and has been trying to cross into Egypt via Rafah every day for the past week. "Tomorrow is the first day of my graduation conference" he told me via Skype on Monday evening, "if I don't go during the next three days I will lose everything."

According to the Palestinian Authority's Department of Travel Registration, over 300 students were allowed to leave Gaza via the Rafah crossing in the past month. None were allowed to go through Israel's Erez crossing. Yet, as of the 7th of October, there were still more than 1,300 students with university places abroad who were trapped in Gaza. No one from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was available for comment.

"Freedom of movement should be a basic right for Palestinians" Majdalawi told me, "I feel shame when I see we are imprisoned by Egypt."

The Gaza Strip has regularly been described as the world's largest open air prison. The tiny Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean is home to around 1.6 million people and has been blockaded by Israel by land, air and sea since 2007, when the Islamist party Hamas took power in Gaza.

Egypt also plays a role in imposing the blockade. During the final years of Mubarak's regime the Rafah crossing was largely closed but after the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohammed Morsi became President of Egypt in June 2012 the Egyptian authorities eased the travel restrictions at the passenger crossing, although the transfer of goods were still not permitted. Restrictions at the crossing were lifted further in November 2012 when humanitarian pressures mounted during 'Pillar of Defence', an 8-day Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

However, following the recent military intervention that ousted Morsi in the wake of popular protests against him, the Egyptian authorities again drastically restricted the movement of people through the Rafah crossing, citing security concerns emanating from militant groups in Gaza, who the Egyptian authorities claim are active in the worsening violence in the restive Sinai Peninsula.

Fidaa Abuassi doesn't see what Egypt's security claims have to do with her or the other trapped students in Gaza. "How am I a security concern?" she asks with incredulity, "Why am I denied the right to education and freedom of movement because of security concerns? Absurd."

In addition to severely tightening passenger controls at the Rafah crossing, Egypt has also tightened the blockade on Gaza by destroying most of the tunnels linking the enclave with Egyptian territory, which Egypt says are used to smuggle weapons.

However, the tunnels have also provided a lifeline to Gazans, facilitating the transfer of much needed supplies that are otherwise usually unavailable. 'Slow Death', a report released in September by the human rights NGO Euro-Mid Observer, stated that Israel's blockade has been "an unprecedented form of severe collective punishment" that has now reached a critical point.

The report also states that Egypt's destruction of the tunnels has exacerbated the situation in Gaza, precipitating an acute fuel crisis that could soon prevent the already foundering sewage system from functioning at all, and leading to "a complete halt of all construction materials and medical supplies."

Student filmmaker Mohammed El Majdalawi speculates that, like Israel, Egypt has tightened restrictions to put pressure on Gaza's ruling power Hamas, an Islamist organisation linked to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. El Majdalawi claims to have no political affiliation, telling me that he and the other students trapped in Gaza are just "normal citizens, not soldiers."

Majdalawi and others also claim that Egypt has also blamed the delays in processing passengers on technical problems with their computer systems. Majdawawi jokes that he will bring two laptops with different operating systems to lend to the Egyptian authorities when he next tries to cross.

People in Gaza dream of the day when they can travel without being subjected to the vicissitudes of collective punishment. In the meantime many of those who need to leave the enclave must pass through a repetitive ordeal. Gazan students continually haul their luggage to the border on the small chance they might pass through; repeatedly bidding goodbye to family members, with no way of knowing if they'll next see them in a few months or, more likely, in a few hours, as they return dejected from the border.