‘They live in a tent now’: the desperate plight of Australian children trapped in Gaza

<span>Scenes of destruction in Gaza amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. A number of Australians, including children, remain in Gaza five months after the bombardment began.</span><span>Photograph: Dawoud Abu Alkas/Reuters</span>
Scenes of destruction in Gaza amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. A number of Australians, including children, remain in Gaza five months after the bombardment began.Photograph: Dawoud Abu Alkas/Reuters

Mohammed Almassri, 43, speaks from the comfort of his Sydney home as he describes the plight of his children Hamza, Amani and Waleed, whose current address is a displaced people’s camp in the besieged city of Rafah in southern Gaza.

“They live in a tent now. Their home has been totally, completely destroyed,” the architectural engineer says. “It’s very bad, terrible. I am really scared about my family.”

Hamza and Amani, aged seven and six, are Australian citizens, born in Sydney, and they had been living in the Gazan city of Khan Yunis since 2019. They are now trapped near the Palestinian enclave’s southern border with their stepmother – Almassri’s second wife, a doctor – as well as the couple’s 17-month-old son and Almassri’s mother.

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Both the women are Palestinian and hold temporary visas to enter Australia, as does the youngest child, Waleed, whose application for Australian citizenship is currently being processed.

But Almassri says that while he has been told his Australian children are priorities for evacuation, he has been “waiting, waiting, waiting” for help from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) since November.

“The government told me they would arrange to get them out but there are a lot of people in front of them,” says Almassri, who moved to Australia in 2008 and supports his family in Gaza, visiting them every year.

“They told me it would be as soon as possible. I thought it would be one week, two weeks, but it has extended to four months. The case worker told me: ‘Nothing is in our hands.’

“I said: ‘Will you evacuate my kids or not? Please, give me an answer.’”

He tries to message his family every two days or so, and when he can’t reach them he contacts former neighbours who are able to get word of their safety to him. In the meantime he waits as the situation takes a toll on his own health.

“I spoke with the case officer this morning. I told her I can’t sleep … I went to the doctor. I am very tired, depressed,” he says.

Almassri’s elder children are just two of a number of Australians who remain in Gaza some five months after Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October and Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza.

A representative of the ambassador of the general delegation of Palestine to Australia said on Tuesday that based on unverified sources they believe there are about 25-30 Australians still in Gaza.

A Dfat spokesperson did not comment on the number of Australians in Gaza or on Almassri’s family, but said the government was “continuing to do all it can to advocate for Australians, permanent residents and their immediate family members and parents who wish to leave Gaza”.

They confirmed the government has so far helped 217 Australian citizens, permanent residents and their family members to leave Gaza.

“The Australian government remains deeply concerned by the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and recognises this is an extremely distressing time for those with family and friends in Gaza,” they said.

As Australian visa holders, Almassri’s wife and mother need Egyptian and Israeli clearance before they can leave Gaza, despite also being the carers of Hamza and Amani.

The spokesperson said the department was talking to Israeli and Egyptian authorities who manage the Rafah border crossing.

Nasser Mashni, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, said it was “unconscionable that the Australian government hasn’t pulled out every stop to expedite consular support to the Australian children trapped in Rafah to ensure they are able to be safely reunited with their family here”.

“The Australian community should feel appalled that our government has all but left Australian citizens to fend for themselves [in Gaza],” he said.

Graham Thom, the refugee coordinator for Amnesty International in Australia, said he was not able to confirm whether any of the individuals the organisation was currently assisting in Gaza were Australian, but that the case of Hamza and Amani posed a “complex” problem.

“These are high-risk people who have genuine connections to this country - you don’t get more highly linked than Australian nationals,” he said.

“It’s who are they travelling with and how are they going to get out - and if they have to travel with a mother who is not an Australian citizen, it starts to become very complex.

“What resources are there to meet and accompany children in Egypt and accompany them to Australia? It’s not a simple process to get [displaced] people to Australia in the best of times, let alone in a crisis,” he said.

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Because of difficulties and delays associated with the official channels to leave Gaza, people are using their own resources to cross the border, he said.

Egyptian brokers have been paid to assist hundreds of Palestinians to leave via the Rafah crossing – the sole remaining exit point from Gaza. Adults are commonly charged around US$5,000 and children US$2,500.

Almassri says he cannot afford to pay brokers without a guarantee of the safe passage of his wife, mother and children. His brother, who paid a bribe of $5,300 to exit Gaza a month ago, is yet to leave.

More than 2,000 Australian visas have been issued to Palestinians since 7 October but fewer than 400 people have arrived in Australia thus far.