In Lebanon, a desperate depression: risk dying at sea against “living this life”


Without a functioning state, amid political paralysis and as the international community looks to other crises, residents of Lebanon say they have been left to find their own ways – and sacrifices – to a secure life.

Many hard and difficult choices lie before them: stay in relative safety in a country with limited electricity, hyperinflation, little income and no prospect of relief – or risk their lives for dignity and a paycheck. decent.

Why we wrote this

What happens when the needs for dignity and security collide? As Lebanese society collapses, individuals take more and more risks, invade banks and flee on boats; 100 died last week.

For some Lebanese with their backs to the wall, their options include risking their freedom to invade banks and withdraw their money by force. Others opted for the expensive and perilous sea route to Europe. Around 100 men, women and children died at sea en route to Italy last week.

“It’s a tragedy and a disaster that has touched us all,” says Beirut salesman Mohamed, who like many says he is eager to follow the same path. “But the only chance to live with dignity is to leave Lebanon. Rather than expecting the best and hoping their boat won’t sink, people will now expect the worst and hope their boat will be the one that does.

The tragedy of the sinking of a boat of asylum seekers en route from Lebanon to Italy last Wednesday is still reverberating in Lebanon and the Arab world, with entire communities in mourning.

A hundred men, women and children – Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians – drowned, one of the deadliest maritime disasters in the eastern Mediterranean.

It highlighted not only the widespread desperation in a country whose capital, Beirut, was once dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East”, but also the lack of legal pathways to emigrate and the deadly dangers faced by those who try. .

Why we wrote this

What happens when the needs for dignity and security collide? As Lebanese society collapses, individuals take more and more risks, invade banks and flee on boats; 100 died last week.

And yet, Mohamed, the seller from Beirut, like many, is eager to follow the same path.

“It’s a tragedy and a disaster that has touched all of us,” the 29-year-old says via WhatsApp. “But the only chance to live with dignity is to leave Lebanon. Rather than expecting the best and hoping their boat won’t sink, people will now expect the worst and hope their boat will be the one that does.

Many people in Lebanon face stark and stark choices: Settle for relative safety in a country with limited electricity, hyperinflation, little income and no prospect of relief – or risk their lives for the dignity and a living wage.

For other Lebanese with their backs to the wall, their options include risking their freedom to recover their money by force.

Without a functioning state, amid political paralysis and as the international community looks to other crises, residents of Lebanon say they have been left to find their own ways – and sacrifices – to a secure life.

Difficulties in wartime

Lebanon’s economic implosion began in late 2019 due to government mismanagement and insolvency, which only worsened.

The economy has shrunk by 60%, the currency has lost over 90% of its value against the US dollar, and banks are not allowing people to withdraw from their own accounts. If they do, it’s for pennies on the dollar. Hunger is on the rise; half of lebanese children depend on humanitarian aid.

“Imagine a situation where you have lost your savings and your pension. If you still have a job, your salary is worth nothing, you can’t support your children or pay for transportation,” says Halim Shebaya, a Beirut-based analyst and nonresident researcher at the Arab Center Washington DC.

“The effects of the crisis since 2019 on society can be compared in some respects to wartime. It was downright cruel and showed no mercy,” he adds.

The economic pain is sorely felt among Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities, who make up the bulk of those trying to escape by sea. Attempts to escape Lebanon by sea are up 72% in 2022 compared to 2021, according to the United Nations.

Among them are 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for generations. They have long been disenfranchised, working largely in the informal labor sector due to government restrictions, and were close to the poverty line even before the country’s economic collapse.

Today, 90% of Palestinians in Lebanon live in poverty and 65% are unemployed, according to UNRWA, the United Nations organization for Palestinian refugees. Of those employed, only 10% had a written contract.

Nahr al-Bared camp in northwest Lebanon, one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in the country and home to many victims of last week’s shipwreck, is in mourning.

There, many camp residents say they now rely on a daily meal of potatoes or beans and a few vegetables when they can afford it. Many say they skip meals. Residents collect scrap metal and clean houses to earn a living.

Those with more stable incomes worked in restaurants and the service sector, which were hit hard by the national economic crisis. This has led many people to sell their cars and possessions to collect the $4,000-$6,000 fee charged by smugglers for the passage of boats to Europe.

“For the young men and women in the camp, fleeing Lebanon has become the only way to ensure their future,” said a resident of Nahr al-Bared via Facebook, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Most of the camp residents are now struggling to secure their daily food, and this is a dangerous indicator for the days to come,” the resident says. “That’s why they’d rather risk dying at sea than live this life.”

Aid cuts

Funding gaps dating from the pandemic have widened with donor focus on Ukraine, which has impacted the ability of UN agencies to support the most vulnerable in Lebanon.

Monthly multipurpose cash assistance provided by UNRWA to vulnerable Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was reduced in December 2021 from $100 per family to $50.

“Palestinian refugees in Lebanon feel that they have nothing left to lose and that if they can get to the other side, they have a better chance of leading a more dignified life,” says Huda Samra, door -word of UNRWA in Lebanon.

“If Palestinian refugees had a lifeline in the form of food, access to health care, minimal financial assistance or decent work, they might not be rushing to the sea. But the reality is that there there are very, very few prospects for a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon these days,” says Ms. Samra.

Suheila Kusheir (center) leaves a Blom Bank branch after receiving $1,000 in cash from her deposit, in Beirut on September 16, 2022. She reportedly entered with another depositor who took hostages in a bid to accessing his account amid a wave of bank robberies.

Options are also limited for the roughly 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, 90% of whom live in “extreme poverty”, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Unless it fills a $15 million funding shortfall, UNHCR will be forced to cut assistance to 160,000 refugee families from October.

“The increase in displacement from Lebanon on such risky journeys is a clear illustration of the desperation that is setting in among refugees in Lebanon,” writes Rula Amin, spokesperson for UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa, by e-mail.

On Facebook pages, Syrians in Lebanon wonder if refugee resettlement processes are stopped, what areas they can pitch tents at cheaper rates, and whether a boat ride or a return to Syria is a viable option.

“We live in a tent, we’re not allowed to hang curtains, have showers or heaters, we don’t have an internet connection,” mother-of-five Jenny says of his tent outside Beirut. “The smallest and cheapest apartment costs 80 dollars a month, and the international community always helps us in Lebanese pounds.”

“By Almighty God, those who died in the ocean saved themselves from this life.”

Take the things over control

Mired in an economic implosion that the World Bank describes as “orchestrated by the country’s elite”, which bankrupted the country with the embezzlement of public funds, some Lebanese citizens are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

Sali Hafiz, a 28-year-old who took part in the youth-led democratic protest movement in 2019 to oust sectarian politics, said she was pressured when her sister sought expensive cancer treatment to save his life.

After being denied access to her savings by bank staff, she hatched a plan: a bank robbery to withdraw money from her own account.

On September 14, armed with a water gun which she took from her young nephew, Ms Hafiz stormed the bank and demanded a withdrawal.

She walked away with $13,000 of the $20,000 in her account, enough for travel expenses and a month’s treatment for her sister.

Ms Hafiz now lives a life on the run from the authorities, while her sister travels and begins treatment.

“We are in the country of the mafias. If you are not a wolf, wolves will eat you,” Ms Hafiz told Reuters of her decision-making while in hiding last week. The monitor could not reach her.

The “robbery” captured the imagination of Lebanese and inspired six copycat robberies at other banks, forcing Lebanese banks to close for a week.

“Ordinary people who would never see themselves doing anything illegal now see that they have to go to the bank and try to get their money back by force,” says Mr Shebaya, the analyst.

“If the situation continues without any serious reform or corrective measures from the government,” he warns, “it will not be surprising to see more people resorting to such irregular measures.”

As Lebanese MPs voted on Thursday for a new president to replace outgoing Michel Aoun, whose term ends in October, Lebanese social media was filled with messages: “Sali Hafiz for President.”

The vote did not result in a new president; blank ballots topped the tally, with 63 out of 122 votes.

Some in Lebanon saw a clear metaphor.

“There is no plan, there is no functioning government, no one is coming to help us, we are alone”, explains Mohamed, the seller from Beirut. “We have to make our own decisions and our own plans to survive.”

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