Lebanese go into exile by sea risking their lives

Fatmeh Mohamad, 33, sister of Mohamad, 27, still missing at sea, in their parents' apartment in Qobbé, a district of Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on September 29.

Afaf Abdel Hamid climbs the damp staircase to the small family apartment in the Qobbé neighborhood of Tripoli, northern Lebanon. She has been devoured with pain since her son Mohamad went missing at sea. “I want someone to bring it back to me, dead or alive”, she bursts into tears. On September 7, the 27-year-old left clandestinely from the coast, north of Tripoli, to reach Cyprus.

The boat chartered by the traffickers, on which some 40 other people – Lebanese, like Mohamad, as well as Syrians – had boarded – got lost in the Mediterranean Sea. When she was rescued in mid-September by a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) boat, the young man was not on board. “I didn’t want him to leave; told him that he would support us financially, once far from here “, said Afaf, whom Nisrine, one of his seven daughters, hugged tenderly. The sea has since spat out several corpses. But she did not say what happened to Mohamad.

“Everything has become overpriced”

This one, continues Nisrine, “Left the boat after deaths on board”, in the ultimate hope of finding help. “I don’t know where to turn to find the missing”, she accuses. The motivations of her brother, unemployed for four years, are obvious to Nisrine. His daily life had become intolerable. “Unemployment, poverty, we have known this for a long time in the streets of Qobbé. Tripoli is forgotten by the authorities, she denounces. What has changed is the plunge of the pound [libanaise, face au dollar] : everything has become overpriced [l’essentiel de ce qui est consommé est importé]. “

Buildings riddled with bullets on the street where Zeinab Al-Kaak lives with his in-laws, in Qobbé, a district of Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on September 29.

The hell experienced by these aspirants for a better life shocked Lebanon, a country with a long tradition of emigration, but unfamiliar with the “boats of death”, those of despair. Sporadic clandestine departures, mainly of Syrians, have certainly taken place in recent years from northern Lebanon, to Cyprus, nearby and perceived as a gateway to Europe.

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But the pace has recently changed – between late August and mid-September, eighteen boats left for the island – as has the growing proportion of Lebanese attempting the trip. After the stiffening of Nicosia, departures were prevented. Will they stop? More than 50% of the population in Lebanon has fallen below the poverty line amid a severe economic and financial crisis. Palpable for several years, competition in access to humanitarian aid has increased between the destitute Lebanese and the large refugee population of Syrians and Palestinians. The country is still reeling from the double explosion at the port of Beirut at the beginning of August, and this has rekindled political tensions.

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