At the heart of human smuggling lies one unsaid principle that is to ensure that not everybody smugglers take money from gets on the boat.
Yasser Al Omari, a 56-year-old Syrian immigrant to Lebanon, saved his money for three years in order to pay a smuggler to take him, his wife, and their three children to Europe.
As a building concierge in Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood, he makes 500,000 Lebanese Lira per month. In 2019, that was $330.
Now, after an economic crisis that the World Bank has said is one of the worst the world has seen since the 1850s, Yasser’s salary is worth about $20.
The decline of the local currency, and the unlivable conditions that go along with the decline of the lira- including 600 percent inflation and a lack of subsidy on basic goods like fuel and medicine- are just some of the reasons Yasser is desperate to leave Lebanon. Like many of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, returning to Syria is no longer an option, either: for Yasser, his house has been destroyed, and his family has dispersed across both Lebanon and Jordan. For many others, political affiliations and feared retribution by the Assad regime make re-entering Syria out of the question.
But, a rise in anti-Syrian sentiment and crimes in Lebanon make staying a nearly impossible choice, too.
Yasser says it’s his children - ages 17, 15, and 13 - and the hope of a better future for them that makes him sure of his decision to leave.
“I tell them, when we go, we’ll have a better life. They’ll study, and learn the language, and go to college,” he said.
“They are very excited about the idea.”
In November, Yasser had finally saved the required $3,000. The largest chunk of the money came from selling his few pieces of gold, including his wife’s wedding ring.
“I was left with not even one lira,” he says.
He paid the smuggler, who told Yasser to wait for his call. The boat would be departing as soon as enough people had paid.
Yasser waited, and waited. He called the number on the receipt the smuggler had given him. The line had been disconnected.
He inquired with neighbours, who knew nothing of the man Yasser spoke of. The only remaining piece of information Yasser had of the man was that he hailed from Tripoli, about an hour and change drive from Beirut.
In an economic crisis where a tank of gas costs more than Yasser’s monthly salary, a drive to Tripoli is no easy feat. But, Yasser decided, it was the only way he would find the man who he still believed would take him and his family away from nightmarish Lebanon.
He went to Tripoli twice, and on the second occasion found a woman who knew not the smuggler, but stories similar to Yasser’s.
May God have mercy on you and punish such people, she told Yasser.
A new industry
Illegal immigration to and from Lebanon- and the smuggling industry as a whole- is not a new phenomena, with an estimated 500,000 Syrians living without documents in the country. But trafficking to Europe via the Mediterranean has seen a massive uptick since the start of the economic crisis in 2019, when an estimated 500 people smuggler boats bound for Cyprus. Now, the Lebanese navy estimates that number to be between 2,500 and 3,000, and the UNHCR has said it is "deeply concerned by the spike in self-organized movements by boats to Cyprus,” particularly that vulnerable groups like refugees, women, and children are often onboard.
As the conditions in Lebanon continue to worsen, smugglers have found more and more opportunities to prey on increasing desperation.
Khaled, who, for security reasons would not provide TRT World with his surname, runs a trafficking ring from Beirut. He employs young men across the country who offer people like Yasser the opportunity of a new life in Europe.
But, he admits from the beginning, part of the business is ensuring that not everybody gets on the boat to begin with. That’s where a large portion of the profit comes from. When asked how he decides who gets a chance and who gets ripped off, he says, like many things in Lebanon, it’s about who you know.
“Well, if I know them or if they are family friends or coming through… my people, in general, get to make it. I can’t say for others,” he says.
For Khaled, and his friend Ali, who also works in people smuggling, they’re, at best, performing a public service, and, at worst, doing what they can to make sure they and their families can survive the crisis.
“I’m doing the people a favour by taking them. I don’t feel guilty at all,” says Khaled.
“I feel the same way actually as long as I’m making money from it I’m fine,” says Ali, laughing hysterically.
“After they get to Cyprus it’s not my responsibility.”
Both say they’re not afraid of being arrested, but they won’t explain further. If an outsider were to watch them converse about the subject, the person would likely think they were talking about an exciting new video game.
“Once I took these people from Tripoli and dropped them off near Raouche and told them you made it start swimming to the shore,” says Ali, as he dissolves into another fit of laughter.
Sailors feel the effects of the crisis
For the Lebanese navy, combatting human trafficking attempts masterminded by people like Khaled and Ali is a top priority for several reasons.
In an exclusive interview with TRT World, the navy detailed that such attempts not only pose physical risks to civilians on the boat, but also “pour money into crime networks,” and allow for the movement of “recognized terrorists who pose a real threat to destination countries.”
“Taking into account the volatile security environment in the region, we have to stay always vigilant to terrorist actions. Not only do these [anti-smuggling] operations have a direct impact on national security, but they are considered a pillar of regional security as well since terrorists are using smuggling routes to transit to other countries,” the navy said in a statement.
Using both patrol boats and a radar system gifted to Lebanon by Germany in 2006, the navy is able to spot and rescue smuggler boats, though, they say, it’s impossible to say how many boats they stop on average.
“It depends on the sea state. Between July and December is the biggest number of boats. In August, it happened that we detected four boats within one week. But there’s no average,” a source within the navy said.
After the boat is brought back to shore, the names of those onboard are handed over to the Internal Security Forces, which conducts thorough background checks on each of the passengers. If they are not wanted, they’re released, which the navy says is the case in the vast majority of situations, given that the smugglers themselves are rarely on the boat, and passengers don’t know the real name of the person that organized the trip.
Sometimes, the navy says, they’ve found passengers in a boat with nothing but a compass to help them get to Cyprus.
But the Lebanese Navy itself is far from absent from the very economic crisis that people are desperate to flee, with the average earning around the equivalent of $60 per month.
A navy source in Lebanon, citing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, says it’s impossible for his sailors to perform their best work when their basic needs are not met. Sailors, who work 24-hour shifts, have not been fed meat since 2020 due to budget cuts, for example, and, due to the fuel crisis, many have a difficult time paying for gas to get to work.
There’s also the fact that the navy doesn’t have the cash to pay for the upkeep of necessary technology
“The deep economic crisis along with the devaluation of the national currency made it difficult for the government to allocate the necessary funds needed by the navy. The navy's success in anti-smuggling operations relies on its capability to ensure a high degree of readiness of its fleet,” the navy statement read.
‘We just cry’
Back in Hamra, Yasser says he is out of options.
“Every night my wife and I just cry because we have nothing left. The kids ask, when are we travelling? And we just say we postponed the trip, we’ll go next week, or next month. They have no idea what happened,” he says through tears.
But he doesn’t harbour hatred towards the smuggler, who he still hopes will show up.
“If he came and told me right now that it was time to go, I would leave. I would take my children and I would go,” he says.
“I’m so tired. I can't take it anymore.”