Economic ruin turns Lebanese into boat refugees

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Everyone is talking about how they will manage to get out of the country, says a father. He had to bury his son after an unsuccessful attempt to get to Cyprus.

– On Wednesday, my cousin lost his child. On Thursday, my son died.

On Monday, September 7, Nizar Mohammad and nearly 50 other migrants were stranded in a smuggler’s boat near the port of El Mina in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. They were equipped with a simple compass to help them navigate towards Cyprus. A trip of 160 kilometers over the open sea.

They sailed in the wake of several hundred other migrants who have risked their lives in the hope of finding a better life.

“I thought that when I came to Europe, my child would be better off than in Lebanon,” Mohammad told Vice News.

For this dream he was willing to risk his life at sea.

Most on board were from Lebanon. What they have in common is poverty and the belief that the only way to give families a better life is to leave their homeland.

Thrown corpses overboard

A journey that started full of hope for the future, quickly developed into a nightmare.

The boat ran out of fuel. Without food and water, they drifted around the Mediterranean for eight days in a crowded boat.

Mohammad’s 20 – month – old son and cousin Mohammed Sufian’s two and a half year old son died of dehydration and heat stroke. Without help in sight, the parents were forced to bury the children in the sea, they say.

– My son died due to lack of food and water, says the father of the child.

Several began drinking seawater. Thirst and hunger soon began to kill the migrants one by one, while the boat drifted around, says Mohammad.

The emaciated survivors have explained that the fellow travelers died along the way and were dumped from the fishing boat. Many ships sailed past without helping them.

Several jumped into the sea from the smuggler’s boat and tried to swim to the ships that sailed past.

Finally, the boat was found by a vessel from the UN peacekeeping forces, Unifil.

The migrants were returned to Lebanon.

Lebanese authorities have reported the discovery of four bodies believed to be from the boat, and they are looking for six people who are still missing.

– We just want to get out of here, says Mohammad. – What everyone is talking about now is how they will manage to get out of the country.

Lebanese migrant Mohammed Sufian (21) was rescued at sea by UN peacekeepers. He is now sitting outside his home in Tripoli, Lebanon. Both he and his cousin lost their children during the crossing to Cyprus. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP / NTB

UN: Fleeing economic crisis

In the last two months, the number of escape boats from Lebanon has increased sharply. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), eight boats were registered in 2019 from Lebanon to Cyprus. The majority of the passengers were Syrian nationals. In the last two weeks, 18 boats have left Lebanon, UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Aftenposten.

Eight of these boats reached Cyprus with certainty, and another two are said to have arrived, but this has not been confirmed, says Khaled.

Meanwhile, eight boats have been cut off by the Lebanese Navy in international waters and sent back.

“Talks we had with the migrants who tried to leave Lebanon indicate that going to sea is an escape from the economic crisis,” said Abou Khaled.

The UN is concerned about the humanitarian situation and the security of the migrants now on their way from Lebanon to Cyprus.

Mohammed Khaldoun (27) was reported missing when he was on his way to Cyprus. The family prays and hopes that he will return one day. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP / NTB

– We’re dying of hunger

The Lebanese economy has collapsed. Even before the explosion in Beirut on August 4, the country was heading for economic ruin. The Lebanese currency has lost 80 percent of its value. Lebanon is now talking about the worst economic crisis in decades.

By 2020, almost half of the population will live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. There is a shortage of food, and the health service is down with a broken back.

Mohammad Ghandour (37), like many others, has tried the crossing to Cyprus. The family of nine has been hit hard by the crisis.

– I can not afford to provide food for my family. We can not survive here, he says to the Australian news agency SBS.

A vessel from the UN peacekeeping forces rescued Ibrahim Lisheen (22). Here he receives treatment from his friends at his home in Tripoli. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP / NTB

A vessel from the UN peacekeeping forces rescued Ibrahim Lisheen (22). Here he receives treatment from his friends at his home in Tripoli. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP / NTB

No future in Lebanon

For many years, Ibrahim Lisheen (22) saw how refugees from neighboring Syria fled to Lebanon and embarked on the dangerous boat journey on to Europe. Now he is on the run himself.

In early September, he sold everything he owned. He paid tens of thousands of kroner to human traffickers to buy a place in a fishing boat headed for Cyprus.

He and several others from the same neighborhood boarded the smuggler’s boat and risked his life. After a short time, they ran out of water and food.

“I saw children die in the arms of their fathers,” Lisheen told The Washington Post.

– Everyone was terrified. We thought we were all going to die, says the young man.

He himself survived “only by the grace of God.”

His face and arms are covered in bites and abrasions, after he spent three nights on board the boat. After that, a patrol vessel from the UN appeared. He jumped into the water and swam towards the vessel for help.

After the rescue operation, the migrants were returned to Tripoli.

The mother of Mohammed Khaldoun (27), who was reported missing when he was on his way to Cyprus, is crying and hopes that he will return one day. Photo: Hussein Malla / AP / NTB

May not stay

The Cypriot government considers those who come from Lebanon to be “economic migrants”. Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told the Cyprus Mail newspaper that the country would not accept more such migrants.

– We can not afford to receive additional economic migrants. The reception facility is literally no longer adequate, and the country’s efforts have been exhausted, says Nouris.

Authorities have rented private boats to send back migrants arriving in Cyprus, the Cypriot news agency reports.

Cyprus is asking the EU to send Frontex vessels to handle the flow of people leaving Lebanon.

This is not the first time that Lebanese have fled to Cyprus. Several thousand fled there when the civil war broke out in 1975 and after the Israeli invasion in 2006.

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