Lebanese migrant traffickers: "New flows are coming - Cyprus police are a problem"
"I met the smuggler a month ago. Now I'm counting the days until the travel date" - He paid $2000 in advance to book seats for himself, his two young sons and his wife. The full price for four of them is $10.000
Smugglers in Lebanon say migrant boats will soon leave for Italy now that Ramadan is over. Interviewed as part of a wider investigative program into smuggling, traffickers in Beirut and Tripoli revealed to Open Democracy that up to 2000 people have paid in advance to secure their place on the boats.
Mohammed A. is a 42-year-old Lebanese taxi driver in northern Lebanon "I met the smuggler a month ago," he told us. "Now I'm counting the days to the date of the trip." He has paid $2000 in advance to reserve seats for himself, his two young sons and his wife. The full price for four of them is $10.000. "We're going to borrow money, sell the car and everything we own, including my wife's wedding ring," he said. In his view, the prospect of a dangerous journey to reach Europe is better than barely surviving in Lebanon."
A new dangerous route
In 2022, the UN refugee agency warned that the number of migrants trying to reach Europe from Lebanon by crossing the eastern Mediterranean had doubled for the second consecutive year. The popularity of this route is new. Cyprus was a less attractive destination than western Europe and sea routes from Lebanon to Italy or Greece were considered too long and dangerous.
However, over the past five years, the situation in Lebanon has become so dire that smugglers are seeing more and more requests from people desperate to leave the country, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese. "A 75% of the people who approach me asking for opportunities to get a boat are Lebanese," said Abu Hussein, a Beirut-based Lebanese smuggler. "Before it was just Syrians and Palestinians."
If they want to travel, we are their only choice
Lebanon also hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with 1,5 million Syrians and 480.000 registered Palestinians living among 5,5 million Lebanese. With wages and pensions wiped out by inflation, the UN has warned that four out of five people in Lebanon now live below the poverty line – locals and refugees.
While the nearest destination for migrants leaving Lebanon by sea is Cyprus, new routes are being created that take people on a 1000-mile sea journey to reach Italy directly. This is about five times the distance between Libya and Italy. "Eighty percent of the boats we prepare will go to Italy," said Abu Hussein, who is a migrant trader. "Twenty percent in Cyprus".
Abu, according to the relevant publication, was selling electronics in Beirut. At one point he tried his hand as a recruiter, and now works as a smuggler. He said he makes about $45.000 a year through the 25 percent markup he charges for each person. "I try to do my job the best I can," he said. "I feel solidarity with most people, especially those who lost everything because of the crisis. [People] are now in debt or have had to sell their properties and are hoping to start again from scratch."
"Today we receive requests mainly from whole families or minors traveling alone, usually young boys aged 15-17," said Abu Hussain. Some of these minors are sent in the hope that, once in Europe, they will be able to apply for family reunification and bring the rest of the family through a safe route.
Policing, pushbacks and corruption
Smugglers confirmed that policing was a risk, but remain confident that many boats will get through.
"The police in Lebanon are very busy with the economic crisis and Lebanon's internal problems, so they don't have the time and ability to control the sea," Abu Hussein said. There are also other ways to overcome obstacles. Smugglers we spoke to noted that there is a big difference in price between trips whose success is "guaranteed" through bribes to the Lebanese coastguard, and those that are not.
"It is the Cypriot police that is the main problem for the migrants," Abu Yazan said. "When they send boats back it can get very dangerous."
Cyprus is accused of carrying out pushbacks of migrant boats since 2020, the publication notes.
Migrants can be detained if returned to Lebanon and a search is often carried out to find the smugglers – although authorities know it is rare to find smugglers on the boats. There are some recorded cases of Syrian refugees being deported back to Syria after their return. The UN estimates that 75% of boats leaving for Cyprus are intercepted and returned to Lebanon.