Dying for a better life: On board Lebanon’s ‘death caravans’ to Europe

Desperation is driving hundreds of Lebanese and Syrians to risk everything to reach Cyprus by boat, but the journey is fraught with danger – and many won’t survive

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Friday 18 December 2020 19:49 GMT
After the blast: the race to escape Lebanon’s shattered economy

It was on the third day lost at sea, when they started trying to filter seawater using baby’s nappies, that Mohamed, 23, volunteered to swim to land and find help.

Two children, a diabetic man and a woman had already died in the deteriorating conditions.

With no food or water, time was running out for the remaining 40 or so panicked passengers, who had all paid over $1,000 (£740) each to take the rickety boat from Lebanon to Cyprus in search of a better life.

The smuggler, who took their bags and provisions promising to follow with a bigger boat, had disappeared.

And so, floating aimlessly on the Mediterranean with no way of navigating to safety, Mohamed, a former shop assistant, and four other young men agreed to make for shore in a last bid to be rescued.  

“He had given the water and dates he had with him to the children,” said Samir, Mohamed’s older brother, from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli where the boats leave from.

“No one knows what happened after that.”

“My brother’s body washed up in Saida, in southern Lebanon, the other body of his friend was found in Akkar in the water.  

“The other young men were never located.”

Samir is struggling to cope with the loss of his brother at sea (Bel Trew)

The survivors were found six days later on 14 September by a United Nations peacekeeping marine force. Only 37 people, including five children, had survived out of the 50 on board. Many were near death and at least one was unconscious.

Like hundreds of Lebanese and Syrian citizens who have attempted the sea crossing from Tripoli this year, the survivors explained how they each paid a local smuggler between 5-8 million Lebanese lira. That is worth between $3,300-$5,300 on the official exchange rate but $625-$1,000 on the black market.

He put them to sea in a tiny wooden boat, taking all their supplies and promising to return with a larger ship to make the rest of the perilous crossing.

But he never showed up.

Mohamed volunteered to swim to shore and find help, but he never returned (Bel Trew)

“The mother of one of the children on board had powdered milk, so they tried to survive on a few spoons of that a day. Those that died, including the babies, were thrown overboard,” Samir continued breaking down into tears.

“Many bodies washed up on the shore.”

“It was a death trip.”

Mohamed, who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, had not told his family that he was trying to get to Cyprus.

He used to work at the Zara clothing store but lost his job during the financial collapse in Lebanon which this year has seen the local currency lose 80 per cent of its value, food prices quadruple and more than 50 per cent of the country slip below the poverty line, according to the United Nations

Like many of the embattled youth in Lebanon, Mohamed had hoped getting to Europe would mean finding work and saving his family from abject poverty.

Grounded in decades of mismanagement and corruption, Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis crescendoed last October, sparking a revolution. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March only made matters worse.

In August several thousand tonnes of explosive materials in Beirut port blew up swathes of the capital city, killing over 200 people and injuring thousands more. It initially left over a quarter of million people homeless and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.  

All of this has devastated the economy and households. In Tripoli, it has driven hundreds like Mohamed to board boats for Europe to try to seek a better life.

Getting accurate statistics on how many in total have crossed is hard to come by but the UN says numbers have surged this year.

The United Nations refugee agency told The Independent that since mid-2020 they know of 712 individuals who have attempted the crossing and 13 have died or gone missing trying. That is a significant increase from the 490 known to have travelled in 2018 and the 270 known to have made the journey in 2019.

Lisa Abou Khaled, a UNHCR spokesperson said that it is clear that the desperate journeys are “undertaken by people who see no way of survival in Lebanon as the socio-economic situation is continuously worsening”.

Most trying to cross the Mediterranean either club together to buy a wooden boat, known locally as a felucca, or pay smugglers at least $1,000 in the rapidly depreciating lira to bypass the security forces, sail out of Lebanese territory and into Cypriot waters.

As the trade has become more lucrative the smugglers have become even more callous and brutal. They often hail from powerful local families Tripoli residents nickname the “mafia”.  

Ibrahim, 38, an out-of-work carpenter and protester who sold all his tools to help support the 2019 uprising, accused the smugglers of bribing corrupt members of the security forces to let their boats pass.

Ibrahim is determined to reach Europe – whatever the cost (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Despite the dangers Ibrahim says if his efforts to travel legally to Europe don’t work, he’ll sell everything he has left to pay for passage on a boat.

“Every week boats are going to Cyprus,” the father-of-two told The Independent, showing the marina where the boats leave from.

“The situation is even worse than tragic. We are not living in misery, but in hell.”

According to the UN, while an increasing number of Lebanese are boarding the boats the majority of the people crossing to Cyprus are Syrian refugees who have borne the brunt of Lebanon and Syria’s financial crises.

Nearly 90 per cent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon now live in extreme poverty, Human Rights Watch’s refugee researcher Nadia Hardman told The Independent.

She said nine out of ten households borrow money for food.

Mohamed Ghandour, 37, whose wife Rana is a Syrian refugee, took a boat in late August. The family lives with his parents, twelve people to one squalid room, on the seafront of Tripoli. He has no work and has had trouble registering his children so they cannot go to school; his eldest, who is 14, hasn’t been to school since she was 9 years old.

Mohamed Ghandour’s family live in Tripoli, one squalid room housing a dozen of them (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Mohamed, some relatives and neighbours bought a rickety boat together and downloaded maps of the Mediterranean onto their mobiles to navigate the waters. But halfway across the phone signal disappeared and so the dozens on board nearly died at sea when they got lost.

”It was terrible, the boat was about 8 meters long and we stayed on the water for two nights. We signalled to many ships but they ignored us. We were about to start drinking sea water when we suddenly got a signal and were able to find Cyprus,” he explained.

“There is no father who would take seven kids by sea if he is not desperate.”

Despite the fact that his wife Rana is a UN-registered refugee, after being held in camp in Nicosia for 24 hours the family was deported back to Beirut by the Cypriot authorities.

“Imagine, nearly dying getting to Europe but just a day later finding yourself back in Tripoli,” he said adding he will try to cross again in the summer.

Mohamed Ghandour: ‘There is no father who would take seven kids by sea if he is not desperate’ (Bel Trew/The Independent)

Human Right Watch said that during the week that Mohamed travelled, more than 200 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Lebanon were summarily pushed back, abandoned, expelled, or returned without being given the opportunity to lodge asylum claims. 

The rights group also reported that Greek Cypriot marine police officers had in some cases beaten the groups.

The authorities in Cyprus have made it clear they will not accept those arriving by boat. The Cyprus Mail quoted interior minister Nicos Nouris saying: “We are unequivocally declaring that we can no longer afford to receive additional numbers of economic migrants simply because the reception facilities are literally no longer sufficient and the country’s capabilities are exhausted.”

Only a handful on Mohamed’s boat managed to slip past the guards and stay in Cyprus but without the ability to apply for asylum or work permits, they say the situation is exactly the same as in Lebanon.

“We risked our lives to replace the previous terrible situation with a worse new one,” said Khalil, 25, one of those on Mohamed’s boat who remains in Cyprus. He knows he will be returned back to Lebanon soon.

The situation is even worse than tragic. We are not living in misery, but in hell

Out-of-work carpenter Ibrahim

“We have no rights, we cannot find work or do anything. It’s a disaster,” he added, calling the boats “death caravans”.

The Independent was due to speak to Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab about this issue and the many other problems the country is struggling with. But on 11 December he was charged with negligence over the 4 August explosion and his office stopped responding to calls.

Tripoli’s mayor, Riad Yamak, said his office was extremely concerned about the rising poverty levels in Tripoli: over 70 per cent of the city now live under the poverty line. The municipality had rolled out a $2m financial relief package for 40,000 families amid the pandemic. But they had to pay it in Lebanese lira on the official exchange rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar.

That works out at just 75,000 lira per person which, on the current and realistic black market rate, is under $10 per person. The government did provide an additional help of 400,000LL (around $50 on the black market) for 10,000 of the worst-off families.

But since then, there have been no further funds and so there is little his office can do, the mayor claimed.

“The central government hasn’t supported Tripoli properly or given us other funds,” Mayor Yamak told The Independent.

“I am extremely worried about the coming year. There are no indicators of hope or any plans for Tripoli.”

He added he feared that more people will take boats to Cyprus in 2021.

And if that happens, many more families like Samir’s will pay the ultimate price.

“Ultimately the responsibility lies with the terrible and corrupt authorities who have abandoned everyone in Lebanon,” said Samir, showing photos of his brother Mohamed smiling with friends.

“All my brother wanted was a better future for his family. And he paid for that dream with his life.”

With additional reporting by Samira Al-Azar

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