TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AFP) — If he wasn’t making good money smuggling irregular migrants to the European Union by sea, Ibrahim himself might have joined the growing exodus from crisis-hit Lebanon.
“If I didn’t work in this profession, I would have left, just like so many other people,” said the 42-year-old trafficker, who asked to use a pseudonym when he spoke to AFP in the northern city of Tripoli.
“Maybe I would have turned to someone to smuggle me out,” he said, his face hidden by an anti-COVID surgical mask and a hoodie.
Lebanon, in the throes of a brutal economic crisis, is no longer just a launchpad for Syrian refugees and other foreign migrants.
Its own desperate citizens now also risk drowning in the Mediterranean in their quest for a better life.
Ibrahim argues that, while having smuggled around 100 Lebanese nationals to Europe since 2019 makes him no angel, there is virtue in helping his compatriots.
“I get them out of here, out of this beggar’s life,” he said. “At least if they are put in a camp, they can eat and drink with dignity.”
Ibrahim said he took pride in taking only Lebanese nationals on his boats, and even then, only those who can produce civil registry documents.
“I get requests from Palestinians and Syrians but I am responsible only for my own countrymen,” said Ibrahim, a former school bus driver whose tumbling income led him to people smuggling.
“There are many Lebanese who want to leave… They are ready to sell their houses, sell their cars, sell everything, just to make it out.”
Lebanon, a country of around six million people, is like a sinking ship, grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale usually associated with wars.
The currency has crashed, people’s purchasing power has plummeted and the monthly minimum wage is now worth $22.
The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said at least 1,570 individuals, including 186 Lebanese nationals, had embarked or tried to embark on illicit sea journeys from Lebanon between January and November 2021.
Most were hoping to reach European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometers (109 miles) away.
This is up from 270 passengers, including 40 Lebanese in 2019, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told AFP.
“In previous years, the vast majority of passengers were Syrians, while in 2020 and 2021, a notable number of Lebanese joined these movements,” she said.
Lives have been lost, including those of two little children, during attempted crossings over the past two years, though there is little data and no exact toll.
The Lebanese army said it is diligently monitoring the 225-kilometer coastline with radar systems and patrol boats.
A joint maritime operations room facilitates coordination between naval forces and other security agencies as well authorities in Cyprus.
“In 2020, the navy succeeded in seizing about 20 boats and detaining 596 people,” the army said.
The army said that “Lebanese nationals who know their way around the country’s coastline” are the most common smuggling culprits.
They include Ibrahim, who said he organized an illicit sea crossing to Europe in 2019 for a Lebanese family of five now residing in Germany.
Since then, he said he has organized nine others, including his latest in September, which saw 25 Lebanese nationals arrive in Italy.
With prices ranging from $2,500 per person for a trip to Cyprus to up to $7,000 to get to Italy, Ibrahim said he can make up to $5,000 profit from a single boat journey.
“We used to have to advertise our trips,” he said. “Now people come running to us.”
Sitting on a bench on Tripoli’s coast, Bilal Moussa, 34, was watching the giant waves that almost swallowed him in November.
Taking a long drag from a cigarette, the father of three said he would try again.
“There is no future here, not for us and not for our children,” said Moussa, who quit his supermarket job because his monthly salary of $55 barely paid for his commute.
In September, Moussa decided to attempt the sea voyage to Italy. He sold his car and borrowed $1,500 from a friend to cover the $4,000 for the trip.
On November 19, Moussa packed a small duffel bag and left his home in the Dinniyeh region without even telling his wife.
When he reached the Tripoli meeting point, he found around 90 passengers clambering onto a truck that would drive them to the Qalamoun region from where they would depart.
They included 15 Palestinians and 10 Syrians, while the rest were Lebanese.
“We had 35 children on board, and around 20 women,” he said.
Two hours after the 18-meter (60-foot) craft set sail, a navy boat took chase and ordered the captain back. Their overcrowded craft started taking on water from the wake of the patrol boat, but the captain sped off and lost his tail after an hour-long white-knuckle chase.
The next terrifying moment came when the engine broke down and the boat started to sink, in the dark. Panicked passengers started throwing suitcases and fuel tanks overboard.
Moussa and others contacted relatives back home to send help, which arrived several hours later. A Lebanese army ship came and towed them back ashore, where passengers were interrogated and then released.
“I felt defeated because I came back, because I didn’t make it,” Moussa said. “But I am going to leave again… We have no path ahead but the sea.”