Lebanon’s human smugglers ready for the post-Ramadan rush
Lebanon’s economic crisis has made the 1000-mile sea journey to Italy an attractive way out for many
People smugglers in Lebanon say migrant boats will soon be departing for Italy now that Ramadan is over. Interviewed as part of a wider research project on smuggling, migrant smugglers in Beirut and Tripoli revealed that as many as 2000 people have paid a deposit to reserve their place on the boats.
Mohammed A. is a 42-year-old Lebanese taxi driver in northern Lebanon. “I met the smuggler a month ago,” he told us. “I’m now counting the days to the travel date.” He has paid $2000 in advance to book places for himself, his two young sons, and his wife. The full price for the four of them is $10,000. “We are going to borrow money, sell the car, and everything we have, including my wife’s wedding ring,” he said. In his view, the prospect of a dangerous journey to arrive Europe is better than barely surviving in Lebanon.
A dangerous new route
In 2022, the UN agency for refugees warned that the number of migrants attempting to reach Europe from Lebanon by crossing the eastern Mediterranean had doubled for the second year in a row. This popularity of this route is new. Cyprus was a less attractive destination than western Europe, and sea routes from Lebanon to Italy or Greece were considered too long and dangerous.
In the last five years however, the situation in Lebanon has become so dire that smugglers have seen more and more requests from people desperate to leave the country, both Lebanese and non. “A good 75% of the people who reach out to me asking for opportunities to get a boat are Lebanese,” said Abu Hussein, a Lebanese smuggler based in Beirut. “It used to be only Syrians and Palestinians.”
If they want to travel, we are their only option
Facing relentless political instability, an overwhelmed and broken health system, and the shock of Beirut’s port explosion in August 2020, Lebanon has been grappling with the worst economic crisis of its modern history. The local currency, exchanged at a rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in 2019, fell to a record low of 100,000 at the start of March 2023.
Lebanon also hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with 1.5 million Syrians and 480,000 registered Palestinians living amongst 5.5 million Lebanese. With wages and pensions obliterated by inflation, the UN has warned that four in five people in Lebanon now live under the poverty line – locals and refugees alike.
No better options but the sea
Those who cannot sustain a living under these conditions have few options. The country only shares borders with Syria, which remains dangerous; Israel, a country with whom Lebanon is technically at war; and the Mediterranean Sea.
“If they want to travel, we are their only option” said Abu Yazan, a Lebanese smuggler based in the northern city of Tripoli. At least when it comes to Europe, he’s not exaggerating. That is the truth that sits at the core of the smuggling business: for most people in Lebanon, there is no available way to legally travel to Europe. To get there one must go though people smugglers.
“It’s easy for us to find clients since almost everyone is dreaming to leave Lebanon,” Abu Yazan said. “I don’t need to advertise online. I get clients just by word of mouth, especially when I am referred to by others who have already made the journey.”
Whilst the closest destination for migrants leaving Lebanon by sea is Cyprus, new routes are forming that take people on a 1000-mile sea journey to reach Italy directly. This is around five times the distance between Libya and Italy. “Eighty percent of the boats we are preparing will go to Italy,” Abu Hussein said. “Twenty percent to Cyprus.”
The Lebanese police don’t have time and capacity to control the sea.
Abu Yazan used to sell electronics in Beirut. At some point he tried his hand as a recruiter, and now works as a smuggler. He said he makes about $45,000 a year through the 25% markup he charges for each person. “I try to do my job at my best,” he said. “I feel solidarity with most people, especially those who lost everything due to the crisis. [People who are] now are in debt or had to sell their properties, and are hoping to start again from scratch.”
“Today we are getting requests mostly from whole families or minors travelling alone, usually young boys of 15-17 years old,” said Abu Hussein. Some of these minors are being sent ahead with the hope that, once they are in Europe, they will be able to apply for family reunification and bring the rest of the family over through a safe route.
Policing, pushbacks and corruption
Smugglers confirmed that policing was a risk, but remain confident than many boats will get through.
“The police in Lebanon are very busy with the economic crisis and Lebanon’s domestic problems, so they don’t have time and capacity to control the sea,” said Abu Hussein. There are also other ways of getting around obstacles. The smugglers we talked to noted that there is a big difference in price between trips whose success is ‘guaranteed’ through bribes to the Lebanese coast guard, and those that are not.
“It’s the Cypriot police that is the main problem for migrants,” Abu Yazan said. “When they send boats back it can become very dangerous.” Cyprus has been accused of carrying out pushbacks of migrant boats since 2020.
Migrants may be detained if they are returned to Lebanon, and an investigation is often opened to find the smugglers – even though authorities know it is rare to find smugglers on the boats. There are some recorded instances of Syrian refugees being deported back to Syria after being returned. The UN estimates that 75% of the boats leaving for Cyprus are intercepted and returned to Lebanon.
Death by drowning is the biggest risk for people trying to leave Lebanon. In September 2022, around 90 people drowned off the Syrian coast after leaving from northern Lebanon. In January 2023, 200 people were rescued by the Lebanese Navy as their boat was sinking.
Despite the high risks involved in such a long sea journey, people will continue to make the attempt. Lebanon is no longer a fragile but resilient country, as it has so often been described. The sustained economic and political crisis has eroded what remains of its citizens’ confidence that things can get better. More and more are simply looking for a way out.
The increasing number of boats leaving Lebanon should ring alarm bells. In all likelihood, there will be more shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in the coming months.
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