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  • Writer's pictureSarah Henry

Crisis in Gaza

I won’t use this space to delve into my thoughts on the situation in Gaza for two reasons; firstly, anyone reading this will be dealing with their own inner- trauma from processing these horrific events which probably reflects mine so that would be pointless. Secondly, again like most people I struggle to find words to describe my reaction to the harrowing images, mostly consisting of killed or injured children that will never, ever leave my memory.   

I recently heard this type of trauma referred to as ‘empathetic distress,’ or secondary or vicarious trauma.  There is also a discomfort attached to writing about ‘our feelings’ as we sit safely in our homes as mere spectators to a modern-day genocide where Palestinians are forced to parade their dead children in front of our eyes to garner sympathy in the hope that it will move the ‘powers that be’ in to action. 

The necessary action has not arrived and there is little we can do aside from the obvious (lobby, protest, march, partake in the BDS movement) which as a world-wide collective act of humanity might make a difference in some respect but for now nothing will relieve the situation until the bombing and killing of innocent civilians in Gaza and Israel stops. And on the very point of feeling useless, as an immigration lawyer, there is nothing I can do within the remit of my work to help the Palestinian people to flee the nightmare which rains down upon them on an hourly basis. 

I say this in contrast to previous or existing conflicts happening around the world where I could prove useful in reuniting families, applying for visas on behalf of children and parents and taking asylum claims or judicial reviews to secure a safe home or safe entry to those fleeing war or persecution.     

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, like the rest of the world I gazed in shock upon the live images and reports of the escalating military invasion of a country so close to us geographically (and perhaps in many other ways).  That very week, lawyers across the UK and Ireland (and almost everywhere else it would appear) began to prepare for significant and unprecedented changes within immigration law and policy that would provide a route to safety for those able to leave Ukraine.  

Almost immediately, the UK introduced concessions on visas and a number of designated routes available for Ukraine citizens to reach the UK and obtain temporary permission to reside. Ireland would be next to open its borders to Ukrainians offering a visa-free route and immediate support on arrival for those refugees who needed a home, medical treatment, and financial support. 

As a solicitor who worked between both jurisdictions on the border, I was amazed (for many reasons – good and bad) to see how the various immigration schemes and government programmes encouraged the people of Ireland and the UK to open their homes to Ukrainians (they would receive some remuneration for their support). 

The immigration schemes for Ukrainian citizens presented many difficulties which in fairness is probably to be expected when they were rolled out in the blink of an eye but all in all, they were generally successful in their aim and most applicants or arrivals to the UK or Ireland did not need the help of a lawyer. Regardless, hundreds of us signed up to provide pro-bono advice for people who needed help and as lawyers we were busy but happy to help and glad to feel useful. 

The Ukraine cases I worked on proved somewhat complex as some of those who needed support travelled across the border from Ireland to Northern Ireland – immediate provision was not made for this. Some of those people presented with complex needs and were extremely vulnerable and until they were settled through the Home Office provisions, they relied on the local community to provide for them who felt compelled to help and – useful!

Many lawyers and indeed others, criticised the UK for introducing ‘visas’ for refugees – the very concept of which seemed at odds with humanitarian law and the Refugee Convention, advocating for the more liberal system adopted by Ireland and elsewhere of a visa-free route with a temporary residence application available on arrival.  

It serves no purpose to compare the various routes opened across the UK, the EU and further afield when the point is, options existed and plans for refugees were implemented rapidly.  And before I jump into what is clearly a vacuum of support for Palestinian refugees, it is important to mention that while we were offering pro-bono legal advice for those arriving from Ukraine, solicitors were still grappling with so called established ‘routes’ of entry for Afghan citizens who has already commenced their pursuit of options to gain entry to the UK. 

These options were promised to certain categories of Afghan citizens in need of immediate help and protection from the Taliban regime. With confidence I can say that the door swiftly closed for those vulnerable groups of Afghan nationals who were brought so far through the system only to be abandoned, and now forgotten by the UK and other EU countries. 

Of course, the same can be said for many citizens in dire need of refuge and immigration solicitors more skilled and experienced than I, can attest to their clients or family members of clients from Syria to Sudan, DR Congo to Kashmir and everywhere in between who have been essentially kicked to the kerb. 

In turning our attention to the hopelessness that inflicts the people of Gaza and now the West Bank and potentially Lebanon, as immigration lawyers, we cannot offer advice.  There are no routes to safety and it is clear that the UK, like most EU countries, the USA and Canada will not be rushing to implement safe options for escape and resettlement any time soon despite the fact that the numbers of deaths, injuries and missing people top the figures released for Ukraine victims even though the recent crisis in Gaza is relatively fresh.   

We can read between the lines, we can contemplate the lack of options to support and help Palestinians on every level but we remain hopeless bystanders both riddled with guilt and despair but also spurred into whatever small action we can manage through our rage and fury at our leaders’ sheer denial of the rights of the Palestinian people.   

Talk of the implementation of International Law in relation to Gaza and the Palestinian people at large commenced decades ago and no one can blame us for viewing the constructs of law and protection on an international platform with great scepticism at present. We shall leave this to the expert lawyers.  

For now, I know I write this with the empathy of lawyers around the world who ordinarily would have the tools, mechanisms, and relationships with international agencies to help, but instead, watch from the side-lines while focusing on the grim reality that there is little to do but feel quite useless.

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