Lebanese migrants look across the sea to Europe

Lebanon is suffering from one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen, forcing many of its citizens to seek a better life abroad. Some join other migrants in making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

Lebanon is currently in the grip of a brutal economic crisis, with more than half of the population living in poverty. The crisis has particularly hits the poor of the country, the United Nations estimates that three out of 10 children go to bed hungry every night.

This is why Lebanon is is no longer just a launching pad for Syrian refugees and other foreign migrants hoping to make it to Europe; more and more Lebanese citizens are also seeking to leave the country.

The press agency Agence France Presse (AFP) spoke to Ibrahim, a smuggler who helps smuggle irregular migrants to Europe by sea. He says that if he didn’t earn a lot of money from his work, he himself could have joined the growing exodus from crisis-ridden Lebanon.

“If I wasn’t in this business, I would have left, like so many other people,” said the 42-year-old trafficker, who asked to use a pseudonym when speaking to AFP in the northern city of Tripoli.

“There are a lot of Lebanese who want to leave… They are ready to sell their houses, sell their cars, sell everything, just to get by,” he said.

Lebanese citizens join the migratory flow to Europe

Lebanese citizens now also risk drowning in the Mediterranean in their quest for a better life.

Ibrahim argues that while having smuggled around 100 Lebanese nationals to Europe since 2019 doesn’t make him an angel, there is a virtue in helping his compatriots.

“I’m getting them out of here, out of this beggar life,” he said. “At least if they are put in a camp, they can eat and drink with dignity.”

Ibrahim, a former school bus driver, said he prides himself on giving preference to Lebanese nationals on his boats and only taking those who can produce civil status documents.

“I receive requests from Palestinians and Syrians, but I am only responsible for my own compatriots,” he said.

Debilitating economic crisis

Lebanon, with a population of around six million, is like a sinking ship, grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale typically associated with wars. The currency has crashed, people’s purchasing power has plummeted, and the monthly minimum wage is now worth $22.

The country’s economic crisis began in 2019 and was caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s political elite. While the international community has demanded economic reforms to unleash billions of dollars of investment, infighting by rival groups continues to prevent their implementation.

PA reported on Wednesday January 12 that Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that The European Union is ready to help Lebanon cope with its economic collapse. However, any assistance would require the country to continue the investigation of the August 2020 port explosion and restructure the hard-hit banking sector.

More Lebanese passengers embark on illicit maritime journeys

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said at least 1,570 people, including 186 Lebanese nationals, embarked on, or attempted to embark on, illicit sea voyages from Lebanon between January and November 2021.

Most hoped to reach European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometers (109 miles) away.

This represents an increase from 270 passengers, including 40 Lebanese in 2019, UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said. AFP.

“In previous years, the vast majority of passengers were Syrians, while in 2020 and 2021 a notable number of Lebanese joined these movements,” she said.

Lives have been lost, including those of two small children, in attempted crossings over the past two years, although there is little data and no exact toll.

Increase in smuggling activity

The Lebanese army said it was diligently monitoring the 225 kilometer coastline with radar systems and patrol boats.

A joint maritime operations room facilitates coordination between naval forces and other security agencies as well as Cypriot authorities.

“In 2020, the navy managed to seize about 20 boats and arrest 596 people,” the army said.

The military said “Lebanese nationals familiar with the country’s coastline” are the most common smuggling culprits.

Among them is Ibrahim who said he organized an illicit sea crossing to Europe in 2019 for a Lebanese family of five now residing in Germany.

Since then, he says he has organized nine more, including the last in September which saw 25 Lebanese nationals arrive in Italy.

With prices ranging from $2,500 per person for a trip to Cyprus to $7,000 to go to Italy, Ibrahim said he could make up to $5,000 in profit from a single boat trip.

“We used to advertise our trips,” he said. “Now people are running towards us.”

With AFP

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