BEIRUT — The number of would-be migrants undertaking treacherous journeys from Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Europe more than doubled in 2022 for the second year in a row, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), while the primary destination for the smuggler boats has shifted from Cyprus to Italy.
“After having nearly doubled in 2021 from 2020, this upward trend has continued in 2022 in line with the deteriorating socio-economic situation in Lebanon, with a 135 percent increase in the number of passengers intending to undertake such movements,” Dalal Harb, a UNHCR spokesperson told L’Orient Today in a statement.
UNHCR reported that in the first nine months of 2022, 2,670 individuals “departed or attempted to depart irregularly from Lebanon” by boat, compared to the same period in 2021 when 1,137 individuals did the same.
“Of those boats, six intended to reach Cyprus, while 26 to reach Italy — a shift in trend from recent years when Cyprus was the primary intended destination,” the agency reported.
While public attention has focused on the increasing number of Lebanese citizens attempting the dangerous journey, the UN agency noted that “Syrians comprise the vast majority of people undertaking irregular boat journeys,” while “the number of Lebanese passengers remains in the minority (24 percent so far in 2022, 12 percent in 2021 and 18 percent in 2020).”
UNHCR told L’Orient Today that the main reasons cited for migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing included the “inability to survive in Lebanon due to the deteriorating economic situation,” lack of basic services and jobs and “having relatives or community members in destination countries.”
According to Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization, one to four migrant boats leave off the coasts of Tripoli and Arida, Lebanon’s northern shore, daily, carrying 60 to 220 passengers, depending on the boat’s size.
As part of an investigation conducted by compiling data from experts, Legal Agenda detailed the trip costs of people who are preparing to make the sea crossing: an average of $5,000 per passenger, with families of five members or more receiving discounts for children. The costs to run the boat are between $30,000 and $50,000 per trip and the captain’s earnings vary between $30,000 and $40,000, the group found.
In recent weeks, a number of boats coming from Lebanon have run into trouble at sea with tragic consequences. Earlier this month, for instance, at least six people, some of them children, were reported dead when a boat coming from Lebanon bound for Europe sank off the coast of Turkey.
A volunteer with Alarm Phone, an activist network that alerts and urges authorities to rescue distressed migrants in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, told L’Orient Today that the group has seen a significant surge in calls received from boats that had set out from Lebanon.
Volunteer Corinna Zeitz could not confirm, however, whether the uptick in numbers has been due to an actual increase in migrant boats from Lebanon or because Alarm Phone’s hotline number has been circulating more among the migrants leaving Lebanon.
Zeitz said that Alarm Phone had received some eight distress calls from Lebanese boats between 2018 and 2021, all of which were headed to Cyprus, but the network has received around 14 calls in 2022 alone so far with most boats heading to Italy, with the most recent call on Monday.
The Lebanese authorities have had a bilateral agreement with Cyprus since 2002 regarding the return of irregular migrants, but Cypriot authorities have been more aggressive in recent years in pushing back migrants and asylum seekers coming by sea from Lebanon. In an open letter published last month, a group of human rights organizations alleged: “Since March 2020, under a non-public agreement with Lebanon, Cypriot authorities have repeatedly resorted to pushing back boats to Lebanon and have denied individuals access to the territory and the asylum procedure.”
As a result, advocates say, migrants have been attempting longer and more treacherous routes, mainly towards Italy, leading to an increased risk and hence an increased number of stranded or in-distress boats. Other migrants have made their way to Turkey over land by way of northern Syria, a risky proposition in particular for Syrian refugees who have political issues with the government of Bashar al-Assad — some have been arrested and detained in Syria while attempting this route.
Zeitz told L’Orient Today that Alarm Phone kicked off in October 2014 with the aim to create a transnational network of volunteers which grew and now includes around 200 people covering the Western Mediterranean Sea, the central Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel between France and England. The network of volunteers operates from many European countries but also includes groups in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Senegal, Nigeria and Mauritania.
“The idea was to create a network — somebody independent, somebody from the people for the people — which is fighting for the cause of freedom of movement and whose core work is to intervene in real-time with a telephone hotline and respond to boats that are on their way to Europe, and that are in distress,” she said, adding they “do not just call the coast guards, but also alert independent actors and the media to monitor for the rescue operations and put pressure on authorities.”
“We also want to provide support to the migrants and put further public pressure in case there are any human rights violations.”
Zeitz noted that the hotline operates 24/7, answering the telephone in two languages, French and English, but with Arabic-speaking volunteers available upon request. Upon receiving a distress call, the volunteers collect basic information from the migrants: the location they set out from, the number of people on board, and their GPS positioning.
Zeitz said there is not currently a team in Lebanon because the numbers of boats coming from the country have historically been low. It is unclear if a team might be formed here in the future, she said.
She noted that authorities and coast guards do not always pick up Alarm Phone’s calls or their requests to rescue the migrants.
“It's very tiring and stressful, especially for the migrants’ family members, and especially when the situation is very dangerous,” Zeitz said.
“We always say that we would really love to not be needed anymore, we work toward that goal, but the reality is different, unfortunately.”
Zeitz noted that when migrants die at sea, families are often left behind without answers or a body to bury.
“And what do you do with all this grief?”
Alarm Phone’s emergency hotline can be reached at +334 86 51 71 61.
BEIRUT — The number of would-be migrants undertaking treacherous journeys from Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Europe more than doubled in 2022 for the second year in a row, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), while the primary destination for the smuggler boats has shifted from Cyprus to Italy. “After having nearly doubled in 2021 from 2020, this upward trend has...