Lebanese ride the tide of Syrian migration
Tripoli, Lebanon - Rami al-Omar had to pay extra to reach Germany with thousands of war-weary Syrian migrants flocking into Europe. A Lebanese from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, he first had to buy his “pass” to political asylum in Europe — Syrian nationality.
Taking advantage of Germany’s open-border policy for Syrian refugees fleeing death and destruction, many impoverished Lebanese pose as Syrians to join the migrants heading towards Europe.
Omar, 27, said he decided to leave Lebanon after a fruitless months-long attempt at finding employment.
“I sold my motorcycle and, with the few savings I had, travelled to Turkey from Beirut airport with 12 other young men from Tripoli. We first secured Syrian identity papers that cost us $500 each,” he said in a telephone interview with The Arab Weekly.
Omar was accompanied by 40 Lebanese compatriots who made it from Turkey to Germany where they sought asylum using falsified Syrian identities. “The journey cost me $3,500 and it was hectic and fraught with great dangers,” he said. “I don’t advise anyone to try it.”
While Lebanese prefer to travel to Turkey by air, Syrians and Palestinians from the refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus use the port of Tripoli as their departure point on the journey.
Every day, hundreds of Syrians who have valid travel documents board ships bound for Turkey. The unlucky paperless take their chances on illegal boats that sail from beaches near the city, risking being caught by police or cheated by smugglers.
“Between two to three ships bound to Turkey leave Tripoli on a daily basis, with more than 1,000 passengers on board. The majority are Syrians who don’t come back,” said port director Ahmad Tamer.
“Also a good number of Lebanese people are travelling on these ships but we do not know if they are going there for tourism or something else. What we know is that the port has become the main point of departure to Turkey.”
An estimated 53,000 passengers, 90% of whom are Syrian, used the port of Tripoli in 2014, compared to more than 100,000 so far in 2015, Tamer said. “We expect the number of departures to diminish as winter weather conditions settle in,” he added.
According to Lebanese security sources, as many as 6,000 Lebanese, half of whom are from the impoverished quarters of Tripoli, travelled to Turkey through the airport or the city’s port. The majority did not return and are believed to have continued the journey to Greece and other locations on smugglers’ boats.
“The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and the mass exodus of refugees to Europe via Turkey and Greece stirred the appetite of many Lebanese wishing to leave the country, taking advantage of asylum facilities offered by some European countries,” said one security source, who requested anonymity. “Moreover, it is very easy to secure falsified Syrian travel documents at a cost of $500 to $1,500.”
The death of a Lebanese family on a migrant boat that capsized recently in the Aegean Sea caused a national uproar, bringing back into the spotlight illegal migration from Lebanon, which was common at the height of the country’s civil war in the 1980s. The trend receded with the end of the war in 1990, as European countries gradually denied Lebanese asylum for humanitarian reasons.
Nine members of the Safwan family, who lived in the slums of Ouzai, at the southern edge of Beirut, are believed to have died at sea while trying to reach Greece from Turkey.
Seven bodies were repatriated; two are missing and three survived. They were the first Lebanese “migrant casualties”.
“They had left less than a month ago looking for a better life and safer future. Unfortunately, they drowned with their wives and children. It is a real catastrophe that befell on our family and our nation, which is deserted daily by tens of youth who have no idea what their future is hiding,” said family member Youssef Safwan.
Khaled Yassine, a 33-year-old from Tripoli who asked to be identified by that name, decided to play it safe at the last minute. “Four months ago I decided not to resort to smugglers for my passage to Europe, after my brother and cousins had spent a whole month on the road to reach Germany and were cheated by smugglers, costing them $5,000 each.”
Instead, Yassine married a Syrian girl who migrated to Germany with her family and is now waiting to join her under family reunion regulations.
“Matters are progressing well but if there are obstructions, I will have to make the journey like my brother did.”