“I am more than a smuggler, I consider myself to be, let’s say... a kind of means of transport,” said Omar*, the grip of his gun sticking out of his jeans. “See the mountainside beyond Nahr al-Kabir? That’s Syria. And the barracks there? That’s the Lebanese army. My role is to pick up the Syrians and get around the army by making way through the mountain to a road where a van is waiting to take them to Tripoli,” explained the smuggler.
L’Orient Le-Jour visited Wadi Khaled, where a tangle of potholed alleyways links nine Akkar villages. Obtaining municipal status in 2012, this marginalized area lacks hospitals, universities and career prospects. The 40 km² Lebanese territory jutting into Syria has 30,000 or so Lebanese residents and along its porous border, anything passes, as long as it pays.
“In Wadi Khaled, every household has a smuggler and they make no secret of it. It used to be by donkeys, now it’s by car. Yesterday it was gas, heating oil or medicines, today it’s more likely to be Syrians, although smuggling of goods, and even drugs, also continues,” said Samira*, a Syrian human rights activist living in Akkar. Samira also has family members working as smugglers in Wadi Khaled.
In Wadi Khaled, smuggling “is even passed down from father to son,” Samira explained. Most locals consider it a legitimate, if not legal, profession — even when illegal immigrants are involved. This attitude defies thee rhetoric of politicians and authorities, who in recent months have warned against a new wave of migration in a country that already hosts the highest number of refugees per capita.
Illegal migration poses an “existential danger” to Lebanon, said Army commander Joseph Aoun to the caretaker cabinet on Sept. 11. According to Aoun, over 26,000 Syrians illegally crossed the border since the beginning of the year.
To curb illegal migration, the Lebanese Army deployed patrols along the border in recent months and has made a habit of regularly announcing the number of illegal migrants it sends back to Syria.
“On average, 400 people try to cross the border every day,” Army spokesman General Elie Mezher told L’Orient-Le Jour.
According to Mehzer, “it’s often the same people, those who didn’t make it the day before do it again the day after.”
In this cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, the smugglers often manage to escape. “Everyone is currently working in human trafficking in Wadi Khaled, because it’s profitable. We manage to arrest the little hands, but not the big guys. It’s a political issue, a bit like captagon trafficking,” Mezher said.
“Smuggling is a blessing for Wadi Khaled,” said the President of the Union of Municipalities of Wadi Khaled, Ahmad al-Sheikh. Shiekh spoke to L’Orient Le-Jour from his garden as he watched his children play. A table was set up and tea was served to the men that had gathered to meet us. One of Sheikh’s visitors, a man in his 30s, got up regularly to talk on the phone. “This is Walid*, he’s a smuggler,” said the mayor, who invited the man over to help debunk what he considers media exaggeration over border crossings.
“As in any border area in the world, there is trafficking,” Sheikh said. “Syrians pay $60 to go from Homs to Beirut. If they took a taxi-service, they’d spend the same. It’s the same, except that it’s illegal.”
According to the mayor, “in the last six or seven months, the number of Syrians crossing the border has grown because of the economic and monetary crisis that has hit their country.”
However, “not all of them are coming to stay [in Lebanon],” he continued. ”Some will try to cross the Mediterranean sea, others are going back to Syria for treatment, work or to obtain official papers.”
‘Military line’ or ‘transit’
Behind the constant influx of migrants is a well-oiled machine, the workings of which Omar briefly described. “At Wadi Khaled, there are five irregular border crossing points, each controlled by a chief who organizes the trafficking by distributing tasks and profits throughout the chain on both sides of the border.” Each chief, who like the smugglers we interviewed, remain unnamed, manage a small cross-border team, Omar explained. In Syria, the team includes a van driver and a smuggler that helps migrants cross the river. In Lebanon, it includes a smuggler to get around army checkpoints and another van driver. “In total, the [standard] trip costs [the migrants] $60. I take five [migrants at a time] to avoid the army checkpoint on the Lebanese side,” detailed Omar.
Omar earns between $600 and $1,200 a month from driving Syrians, divided in groups of five or ten, across the border five days a week. He earns far more than the soldiers responsible for arresting him, whose salaries have reached a maximum of $100 a month due to Lebanon's economic crisis.
Sheikh refused to speak in detial about the “network” and claimed that the leaders of the crossing points are simply the owners of the properties along the border, who charge a modest crossing fee to Syrians wishing to cross. “If it wasn’t for smuggling, we’d be killing each other in Wadi Khaled,” said Sheikh.
According to various accounts gathered, the cost of crossing the border into Lebanon varies considerably depending on the level of “comfort” offered. The cheapest crossing costs $30 and involves traveling by motorbike and then on foot, which is as dangerous as it is tiring. Crossing by van and then on foot costs between $50 and $60. Meanwhile, the “military line” or “transit,” option lets smugglers pass directly through the border checkpoints without being bothered by the authorities. This final option goes for a much higher sum, starting at $120 and reaching up to $10,000, according some of the smugglers interviewed.
These days, the smugglers prefer smuggling humans over oil and other commodities, but all the same, they keep an age old habit: bribes. “Once, we were below the dam. I had around 40 Syrians with me and when the soldier saw us, I handed him a $50 and he gave me 10 minutes to get through,” recounted Omar.
When asked about the extent of corruption at the border, General Mehzer said he had no information on the subject. “We’re just trying to stop as many Syrians as possible,” he said. “The border is big and we can’t close it. Of course, we are increasing our patrols, but they are hiding under trees or behind rocks and local residents are helping them cross in exchange for money.”
The mission to control the border is not without risks: on Wednesday, an Army patrol came under fire from Syrian smugglers near Wadi Khaled. With security pressure sweeping the region, smugglers like Omar could very well end up in prison. “If they arrest you, you spend two days behind bars, then you say you’re doing it to survive and they let you go,” he said. “When there’s money, there are no difficulties.”
*First names have been changed for security reasons.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient Le-Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.