DUBAI: Even before the economic collapse in Lebanon, the Syrian and Palestinian refugees living there struggled to get by. Many have chosen to uproot themselves once again and seek greater safety abroad, often turning to smugglers for help.
Today, the situation seems so desperate that a growing number of Lebanese citizens who cannot afford safe and legal passage abroad are also risking the same dangerous and illegal sea crossings to Europe.
In early June, the Lebanese army apprehended 64 people in the north of the country who were trying to board a smuggling ship bound for Cyprus. Among them were several Lebanese citizens, driven to despair by severe economic difficulties.
“I cannot feed my family. I feel less of a man every day,” Abu Abdullah, a 57-year-old delivery man from Tripoli, the country’s poorest city, told Arab News. “I would rather risk my life at sea than hear my children’s cries when they are hungry.”
Inflation, unemployment, shortages of food, fuel and medicine, a crumbling healthcare system and dysfunctional governance have created a perfect storm of poverty and desperation.
The shortage of grain following the war in Ukraine has worsened Lebanon’s economic difficulties, with the prices of basic foodstuffs soaring. Queues for bread are commonplace in many cities, while public sector workers have often gone on strike to demand better pay.
The national currency has lost around 95% of its value since 2019. In July, the minimum monthly wage was worth the equivalent of $23 based on the black market exchange rate of 29,500 Lebanese pounds to one dollar. Before the financial collapse, it was worth $444.
About half of the population now lives below the poverty line.
“My salary barely lasts a few weeks and the tips I get are nothing,” Abu Abdullah said. “One of my sons wanders around the neighborhood dumpster, looking for cans and plastic to sell. It breaks my heart to see him do this. But to eat, we have no other choice.
Since 2019, Lebanon has been in the grip of the worst financial crisis in its history. The effects have been compounded by the economic pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s political paralysis.
For many Lebanese, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. At least 218 people were killed and 7,000 injured in the explosion, which caused at least 15 billions of dollars in property damage and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. .
These simultaneous crises have sent thousands of young Lebanese abroad in search of greater safety and opportunity, including many of the country’s top health professionals and educators.
For those who stay and feel they have nothing left to lose, the idea of paying smugglers to transport them illegally across the Mediterranean to an EU country has become increasingly attractive, despite the dangers obvious.
In April, a boat carrying 84 people capsized off the Lebanese coast near Tripoli after being intercepted by the navy. Only 45 of those on board were rescued. Six are known to have drowned, including a baby. The others are officially listed as missing.
“A relative of mine lost her husband and child at sea about two years ago,” Abu Abdullah said. “The tragedy still haunts the family. And yet, here I am ruminating and entertaining the idea that I should get on the next boat.
The situation is perhaps even more difficult for the millions of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. Long treated as an underclass and denied access to several forms of employment and social assistance, many of them now face a similar dilemma: stay put or attempt a risky journey.
“I escaped the war in Syria and lived in Lebanon for three years,” Islam Mejel, a 23-year-old Syrian Palestinian, told Arab News from his new home in Greece.
“I tried time and time again and applied for visas to legally travel overland, but who would give a Syrian Palestinian a visa? I fled Lebanon — I had to. I am the eldest and I have to take care of the family I left behind in Lebanon.
Mejel described the terrifying ordeal he experienced crossing the sea to Greece.
“We were a group of 50,” he said. “They split us between two small boats. The boats could not accommodate passengers. The second boat sank. Some survived and the others were lost at sea.
“When we finally arrived on a Greek island, the captain scuttled the boat and radioed the organizations to help us. Then he left. I knew my chances of dying were high, but I had to try.
The extreme risks refugees are willing to take to find safety and economic opportunity abroad, often after being displaced multiple times, speaks volumes about the severity of Lebanon’s socio-economic collapse.
“For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, there were already several layers of vulnerabilities they were exposed to before the crisis, such as being prohibited from owning homes or property and being prohibited from working in liberal professions, as well as rights limited social and political issues,” said one researcher. Palestinian refugee issues in Lebanon, who asked not to be named, told Arab News.
“What is happening now is an accumulation of crises built over time – COVID-19, the economic collapse – that have built on pre-existing vulnerabilities that the Palestinian refugee community previously faced in Lebanon.”
The researcher said that the rate of illegal immigration, according to some sources, has increased in recent months, especially among young people.
A well-known trafficker allegedly charges more than $5,000 to fly someone out of Lebanon, passing through three airports before arriving in Europe where migrants tear up their identity papers and apply for refugee status. For those who do not have the financial means for this air link, the option of traveling by sea is less expensive but much more risky.
However, some sources the researcher spoke to said that the rate of illegal emigration is currently declining due to the astronomical sums charged by smugglers for even the cheapest options. The desperate state of personal finances in Lebanon is such that even a life-threatening sea crossing is now beyond the reach of many.
This is why some have reportedly chosen to apply for a program called Talent Beyond Boundaries, which offers work visas to young Palestinians looking for jobs in other countries.
Lebanon was seen by its citizens and foreign investors as a land of promise after the end of the civil war when the buzz of reconstruction replaced the rhetoric of sectarian slogans.
But these days, its citizens, along with residents of neighboring states who have taken refuge in Lebanon, are looking abroad for opportunity and economic security. As a result, the country is deprived of the skilled young workers it will need to recover from the current crisis.
The general consensus is that until Lebanon’s political paralysis is overcome and long-delayed economic reforms are implemented, the human tide is unlikely to stop. “It was a humiliation, day after day in Lebanon,” Mejel said. “I could not any more.”