Fleeing from death … and toward death
Facts and testimonies from victims of illegal migration from northern Lebanon
The “Tartus boat” tragedy reopened the wounds of illegal migration from the coast of Tripoli in northern Lebanon to “European Paradise” which Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians are resorting to in the hopes of escaping the unprecedented economic crisis that has been deepening in Lebanon for three years. Alongside the voyages of the “boats of death,” tragedies accumulate with painful stories and testimonies, while the crimes and greed of merciless mafias before and after the journeys unfold.
The most recent voyage of death (September 21, 2022) resulted in 104 victims, most of whom were children and women who were cast by the waves on the shores of Tartus. As a consequence, it can be said that since the revival of illegal migration from Tripoli in the aftermath of the Syrian war, for the first time a major active trafficker was arrested on the Akkar coast, adjacent to Tripoli. In addition, survivors’ corroborating accounts revealed human violations against the escapees. These people’s suffering presents an opportunity for brokers of illegal immigration to accumulate wealth, as they demand cash payments in the tens of thousands of dollars in return for unsafe travel conditions. In addition, they subject the migrants to blackmail that amounts to death threats if they refuse to travel. This exploitation entails a modern form of “human trafficking” that in most cases ends with the victims dying by drowning and the survivors losing their families and money, while the smugglers take no legal measures to deter the recurrence of these tragedies.
As it is well known that extreme poverty is the main driver behind the journey into the unknown, the following questions arise from the continuation of this issue: How did illegal migration grow on the shores of Akkar and Tripoli? What do the survivors as well as the families of the victims and the missing say about the Tartus boat trip? Who are the groups most affected by illegal migration in recent years? Were the consequences of the Tartus boat and other boats that sank previously a deterrent to the launch of new boats? Why do those involved in these crimes against humanity go unpunished? And how can the cycle of illegal migration be averted?
Pre-existing factors: War and poverty
The recent illegal migration from the shores of Tripoli and Akkar coincided with the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. North Lebanon, considered a center for Syrian asylum, served as a platform for the export of refugees to Europe.
At the beginning of the war, the migration of refugees started by air as Syrians were heading from Beirut airport to Turkey, and then crossed into Greece by land to take a long and dangerous path through the forests that ended up in Europe. Later, starting in 2021, illegal migration became active from the shores of Tripoli and Akkar towards Cyprus, Greece, and the Italian islands, and from there overland to Germany. The Belarus, Poland and Germany line also started, but was stopped by the Russo-Ukrainian war in February 2022.
Legal immigrants in general view Germany as the country of dreams, and many say their adventure was based on the stories of relatives and friends who preceded them, depicting for them a life of dignity away from the kind of misery they endure in Lebanon. This prompted some Lebanese to impersonate Syrian nationality, taking advantage of the humanitarian conditions that provided Syrians with a “passage card” to Europe for humanitarian asylum during the war.
With former German Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing the opening of her country’s borders to Syrian immigrants in 2015, and the establishment of inclusive internal policies for refugees, an illegal migration route was launched from the port of Tripoli and Akkar involving the poorest segments, mostly Syrians, in addition to Lebanese and Palestinians. Since 2020 this wave has resumed activity in a reflection of the dramatic collapse of economic and financial conditions.
A sea that swallows corpses and spews out victims
Based on the preceding, the phenomenon of illegal migration is not new, but its recent tragic events have unleashed the cries of survivors and the families of the drowned and the missing, calling on the authorities to recover the bodies of their children, and to impose the harshest punishments on the traffickers.
On the night of September 8, 2020, 50 people from Al-Qubba, Al-Suwaiqa, and Al-Rahbat, which are poor neighborhoods of Tripoli, in addition to young men from the town of Benin In Akkar, along with two Syrian families, departed on a boat that could hardly accommodate 30 people. Some hours later, the boat got lost at sea, and the victims knew that the trafficker had deceived them. There were reports of the sinking of the migration boat, which set off from the coast of Miniyeh, north of Tripoli. UNIFIL forces found survivors in the southern territorial waters, while the bodies of sic of the boat’s passengers were thrown into the sea. Three of the passengers, Abdel Latif Hayani, Mustafa Al Dhanawy, and Hisham Soufan, the ship’s captain, were missing.
On September 22, 2022, the tragedy of the sinking boat resounded off Tartus, with 104 victims (including 49 men, 31 women, and 24 children), about 40 missing, and 20 survivors. it was preceded on April 23, 2022, by the disaster of a boat sinking off the island of Ramkin in the port of Tripoli in which 42 victims died, most of them women and children. Thirty-three people were lost at sea or within the sinking boat, which sank to a depth of 450 meters and could not be recovered even with the use of a submarine months after the disaster.
At the beginning of the same month, an Egyptian vessel deviated from its course to rescue an illegal migration boat that had set off from Akkar on its way to Italy. Its 60 passengers – Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians (most of them from Nahr al-Bared) – were all facing death after the engine broke down in the territorial waters between Greece and Malta.
Between September of 2020 and September of 2022, illegal migration became a regular operation run by family networks, and the town of Benin in Akkar became a base for it.
There are frequent names that facilitate and conduct illegal migration voyages, such as H. S., nicknamed “Bo Tony”; the Owaida family; Bilal Deeb, known as Abu Ali Nadim, the main person implicated in the Tartus boat crime; and A.A. who recently entered the world of trafficking, according to local media reports citing unknown “sources” without relying on official reports or statements, which raises big question marks.
These names manage the trafficking networks by preparing boats that are usually dilapidated and can’t accommodate the volume of passengers. The smugglers establish relationships with security forces to secure the routes in exchange for a bribe, and provide crews and logistical equipment. Some cruises reached the coast of Italy successfully, while others were disrupted off the coast of Greece and Malta.
The majority of voyages relied on fishing boats, which were secured from the fishermen’s port in Tripoli, or the Al-Abdah port. One of the sources confirms, “After the boats exhausted crews, the smugglers started acquiring them from Tartus.” The launching points for boats were also concentrated along the northern shore from Chekka to Al-Areeda, where trips from Qalamoun, Al-Mina, Miniyeh, Al-Abdah, and Sheikh Zinad were documented through the accounts of the refugees.
These flights provide huge profits for traffickers, as payments range from $5,000 to $7,000 per passenger. It is worth noting that the number of passengers on voyages increased from dozens to hundreds. Of the three boats that have sunk since September 2020, about 46 passengers were on board the first, while the number rose to 86 passengers on the tragic boat trip off the port on April 23, 2022. The death toll reached 170 passengers on the Tartus boat trip on September 22, 2022. One of the boats that arrived in Italy in mid-September 2022 and was carrying dozens of Palestinian refugees and residents of the town of Benin in Akkar, had 207 passengers on board. It had broken down before arriving in Italian territorial waters, where it languished for a week before being assisted by one of the humanitarian relief vessels.
According to the International Information Institute, the number of victims between September 2013 and September 2022 is estimated at least 248, while a large number in Cyprus and Turkey remain unaccounted for.
Even if the safety of the boat is secured, which only happens rarely, passengers face the risk of being detained by the coast guard along European shores. In several instances, including the detention of a boat that set out from Qalamoun, south of Tripoli, towards Italy in October 2021, vessels were detained by Turkish forces upon entering the country’s territorial waters. According to Muhammad Youssef, 23, a survivor from the “Al-Tanak neighborhood,” a slum in the port of Tripoli, during detention the migrants, including women and children, lived in inhumane conditions in cells holding criminals, their money and gold stolen, while the men were taken to detention rooms where they were severely beaten and electrocuted.
The “Tartus boat” and huge profits
With the Tartus boat catastrophe, a warning bell was sounded about the dangers of the illegal migration, which has turned into a criminal cycle that, in its last episode, claimed more than 100 lives. Meanwhile 21 survivors returned, recounting painful facts that illustrated greed, deception and the threat exercised by the trafficker and his network.
Survivor Zain Hamad, 26, recounts the details of the Tartus boat he embarked on with his bride, Duaa, after impossible living conditions they had endured throughout their six-year association, which culminated in his dismissal from the Lebanese army in January 2022, and his failed attempt at a new beginning with a hairdresser’s salon in Tripoli. Following a search, he was guided to the trafficker Abu Ali Al-Nadim from the town of Benin. In June, the latter informed them that he had organized a trip to Italy for $5,000 per passenger.
At the time, the couple decided to get married in a hurry so that they could head out on that trip, and started collecting the money. Zain says, “We sold everything we owned. We even sold my wife’s laptop, and also borrowed $3,000.”
Private sources told Jusoor that the amount that smugglers receive from passengers may range between $6,500 and $8,000, while some pay more than the amount required to ensure their arrival, and the value may reach $12,000 per person.
Technical obstacles led to the delay of the trip for four months, until September 2022, when demands pressured the trafficker to return the money due to what appeared to be fears and doubts that began to be felt by those wishing to employ his “services.”
The words of the survivor Zain concur with the account of Abu Omar, the father of Osama, 17, the missing Palestinian youth from Nahr al-Bared camp. According to Zain, “the smuggler kept delaying from week to week,” then “suddenly, on Tuesday evening, on September 23, at 10:30 pm, we received a call asking me to go to Benin with my wife and not take anyone else with us.”
Zain woke up his father and told him, “I’m going, if you want to drive me. Or I’ll take the car and go alone.” Zain’s family was opposed to the trip, but the young man insisted on going in order to secure a life for his unborn child, as Duaa was in her first months of pregnancy.
At midnight, the couple headed to a location in Benin indicated by the trafficker. After a while, they were taken to a farming area in a pickup truck, which was too crowded to sit. Following that, the process of transferring them to one of the fishermen’s boats began. Zain points out that the fishing boat had about 50 or 60 people on board, and he noted from their dialects that they were of different nationalities, including Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians. When their fishing boat reached the middle of the sea, they had to transfer to the main boat that would carry them.
Zain points out that the night concealed the fact that the boat was over capacity, and “as soon as the darkness began to recede, the shock came. A large number of passengers were standing, and wherever we looked we found passengers, at the bottom and top of the boat, and along the edges.”
Zain sat his wife down on a diesel container while he remained standing. Soon after, the boat began to take in water, and the captain [Osama Hassan] expressed his reluctance to complete the voyage. “A few meters away from the captain, I was listening to the call he was on with the trafficker [Abu Ali], informing him that he did not want to complete the trip because the passengers were too many and the boat could not continue,” Zain says, emphasizing, “I heard the trafficker saying: ‘You can’t go back, I paid $170,000 for the route in order to bypass the security control.’” He adds: “After the engine broke down, the captain tried to install a spare engine that ran on gasoline, but it didn’t work.”
For his part, Abu Omar says that he was opposed to the trip, but the trafficker convinced him that the 18-foot boat, equipped with two engines, would carry a limited number of only 70 passengers, and he showed him a picture of a boat with these specifications.
The father continues, “My heart was not reassured. A week before the trip, I went to the trafficker, asking him to return the money he had received from my son, so Abu Ali vowed to return the money within a week,” and adds: “I went back to my work in Shatila camp, and in my mind the trip was cancelled. On the same day, my son received a call asking him to come and take a boat ride.”
The father says: “Later, we found out from the photos that the boat was 12 meters long, with more than twice the alleged number on board, and the passengers were distributed over three levels, with an upper section added to the boat.
The father, like many, is still hanging on with a sliver of hope that his son will be alive and return one day.
The path to inevitable drowning!
Survivor Zain recounts that “when the sinking alarm went off, the terrified passengers had no choice but to wait, hoping for a boat to pass by. Strong winds blew in, and the waves rose. The boat swayed, and they moved from side to side, trying to find some kind of balance to prevent it from sinking. But the water started to seep in more and more, and the screaming of the terrified passengers reached its peak until the boat capsized in just four minutes, “before the sun grew hot,” Zain says, describing that frightening moment.
After a while, the bodies of those who had gone overboard started to float to the surface, with some trying to grab others. The survivor continues, “One of them grabbed my wife, Duaa, and I pulled her towards me, and I swam away with her. I made her hold a wooden plank.” The couple swam at sea until a fishing boat rescued them in the waters of Tartus about 36 hours later. They had found a bag containing some apples and lemons floating on the water, and they ate some and hid what might help them to survive.
Zain concludes: “I don’t remember more than two minutes after my arrival at the hospital, at which point I passed out. I returned to Lebanon after a few days, bearing the shocks of death and moments of terror, and heavy psychological burdens.” The couple lost their newborn and all their savings, and they say, “We are forced to live in the place that bars our dreams, but the price remains less than what was paid by those who lost their lives.”
A camp filled with the dreams of refugees
The Tartus boat brought to the fore how the Lebanese crisis reflects on the Palestinian camps, which are already suffering from stifling economic conditions, one of the causes of which is to be deprived of the most basic rights to work, as the Palestinian refugee is prevented from practicing dozens of professions in Lebanon.
Young Taha Fargawi from Nahr al-Bared camp, cousin of the missing person in the Tartus boat, Mahmoud Nasser Fargawi, 21, says: “Mahmoud was working intermittently while he searched relentlessly for a job to secure his future, but his attempts were in vain. He always aspired to emigrate like the rest of the youth in the camp.”
As it turned out, Mahmoud resolved to migrate illegally after being tempted by the ease of the matter. His attempts were recurring, as for the first time he reached the port but was forced to return. The second time, the boat reached Cyprus, but the authorities refused to receive the migrants, so they were sent back to Lebanon. The last time, Mahmoud went missing.
According to the information issued by Abu Al-Liwa Mawd, the Secretary of the Palestinian factions in the north who is in charge of following up on the file, 28 Palestinians were on board the last boat of death, including women, men, youth and children, all refugees from different camps distributed among Burj Al-Barajneh, Shatila and Rashidiya camp, and according to the information, 23 of the 28 Palestinians were from Nahr al-Bared camp. The number of Palestinian survivors was only 5, with 11 still missing. An appointment confirmed that 20 bodies are still held at Al-Basel Hospital in Tartus.
According to the Lebanese Red Cross, its units transferred 29 bodies – 17 Lebanese, 10 Palestinian refugees and two Syrians, as well as four wounded (one Lebanese and three Palestinian refugees) (See the appendix) – from a hospital in Tartus in Syria during the period from September 23, 2022, to September 27, 2022.
A month after the sinking of the Tartus boat, the mood of the tragedy still hangs over Nahr al-Bared. Families still seek an account of the fateful journey from the survivors, asking them for details about the last moments of their victims and missing friends.
Among them is the tragedy of the boat captain (Osama Nafez Hassan), who died with his wife and four children, whose ages ranged from 2 to 7 seven years old. The survivors say that before the trip started, an argument erupted between Osama and the trafficker Bilal Deeb, because the former refused to take out the boat due to a lack of safety requirements, but he gave in after the armed trafficker threatened to kill his children, who ultimately drowned with their mother and father.
As for the survivor Muhammad Ismail, who was rescued by a Russian boat and taken to Al-Basel Hospital in Tartus, today he is in a critical mental state after losing his wife, three daughters and son. In a surprise to everyone, they went on the boat trip on the same night that his wife spent with her family, confirming that the evacyees were surprised by the trip. Attempts to contact Muhammad Ismail failed as his doctor preferred that the survivor not speak to the press in order to avoid any further deterioration in his mental state.
Survivor Ibrahim Mansour, 29, confirms that the trip started from the Miniyeh coast at 3:30 am on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, and “the journey was fraught with dangers from the beginning, as the boat’s engine failed several times until It broke down completely near the Syrian coast. Osama Nafez Hassan called the trafficker Abu Ali, asking him to send a second boat, but the other kept lying to him, saying a second boat would catch up with us within five minutes,” until the disaster happened.
For 48 hours, Ibrahim swam with his two companions Mahmoud Fargawi (missing) and Abdullah Al-Saeed (deceased), and he lost his way to land for long hours because of the complete darkness. Ibrahim continues, “I closed my eyes, surrendering to my fatigue, only to wake up on a Russian boat that picked me up from the sea. The rescuers treated me well and took me to Al-Basel Hospital in Tartus.”
The young survivor returned to the camp, bearing the burdens of shock and despair, and damage to the retina of his left eye from the salt water.
However, it has become clear that the camp’s youth are rushing toward illegal migration not only due to poverty, but also because they seek better life opportunities and more professional development. This is indicated by the biography of the missing Palestinian Yahya Wahba, 25, who worked as a professional photographer and party organizer in addition to participating in several artistic works.
Basil Wahba, the uncle of the missing, confirms that the young man’s financial situation was good, his work was flourishing, and he owned cameras and had several thousand dollars, but his ambition was broader than the camp’s borders.
What applies to Yahya applies to Captain Osama Hassan. Basil says that Osama, who was his nephew, “was working at sea and owned a new boat worth thousands of dollars. But he wanted for his children a stable future in Belgium or another European country, based on what many told him, and this would not be possible for them in the camp.”
Basel confirms that the conditions in Al-Bared camp are unbearable, as only 40 people got out of it on the last trip, most of them missing and waiting for DNA tests to determine their fate. “In the camp, there has been no electricity for two months, and no drinking water. The drinking water here is salty, and unemployment is widespread, not to mention the spread of diseases, poor health conditions and other forms of suffering.”
In a trembling voice choked with grief, the mother of one of the boat victims describes to Jusoor the loss of her son as “the loss of the entire universe.” The mother did not expect what happened to her son at sea, nor did she know the amount of injustice and psychological pressure that migrants suffer with the “human traffickers.”
Overwhelmed with tears, the grieving woman continued: “My son saw nothing of life. His only hope was to provide for the house and help his sick brother.” She concluded by asking for forgiveness from her deceased son: “May God have mercy on your soul, my son. I wish I had not sold you to death … forgive me.”
Survivor but missing?!
In Akkar, the brother of the missing Fouad Hablas, from the town of Zouk al-Habalsa, says that his brother appeared on the media and his name was mentioned among the names of the survivors. “We immediately went to Al-Basel Hospital to check on him, and his health condition was almost stable,” he adds. After Fouad was transferred to the military hospital in Tartus the next day, the family lost contact with their son. His brother added, “We contacted the Syrian security services, who told us they had received no information about him. My brother’s fate is still unknown.”
The narratives of relatives favor the hypothesis that Hablas is wanted. His sister had visited him with his wife after the drowning incident, and documented her visit with pictures and videos, and when the wife returned the next day, she was surprised that the survivor had been transferred to the military hospital., The security officer there refused to let the wife in, according to her story, saying, “No one but God can see him anymore.”
The parents demand that the state, with all its apparatuses, investigate the circumstances of their missing son in Syria, and they are filled with grief and sorrow over the fate of their missing person, who seems to have escaped from one difficult situation to an even more difficult one.
Denied a chance to bid their loved one farewell
The Tartus boat struck the Syrians in Lebanon with a double catastrophe, as the victims’ families were unable to bid them farewell or bury them. Syrian youth Ayman Qabbani, 19, is one such victim. His brother-in-law Bashar says: “Ayman, from a Lebanese mother and a naturalized Syrian father, dreamed of a better life in Europe, especially after his father passed away five months ago.”
The parents were unable to transport Ayman’s body to the town of Ayat al-Akaria, where he was born and raised. His brother-in-law Bashar says, “We had to bury him in Homs, because the Lebanese General Security refused to move him to Lebanon under the pretext that he was Syrian.” The family regrets this because Ayman’s parents are Lebanese nationals.
Similarly, the young Syrian refugee Musab Rahmon was buried far from his family in Lebanon, without a farewell. His relatives did not dare to enter Syria to transfer his body as they are from Idlib governorate in the north of Syria, which is outside the regime’s authority. Some of his relatives attended and received the body of the young man and buried him in Idlib. The victim’s family asserts that “he left without the family’s knowledge. We thought he was joking when he said he intended to emigrate by boat, but he did it without informing us.”
Since the loss of her son on the Tartus boat, the mother of the young Syrian Muhammad Salwaya, 26, who has a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, like many others lives with hope for his survival. Mustafa, the missing young man’s brother, says that his mother and uncle left for Syria to search for his brother, who used to work as a barber, and dreamed of recovering from the “alopecia” disease that afflicted his hair and beard. Muhammad’s family hopes he will return with his mother, “he may be on one of the deserted islands off Tartus,” says the brother, noting that he left with his two companions, Mustafa Misto, a victim from Tripoli who left with his entire family, and the survivor Zain Hamad.
Detention in Antalya
Death and all the dangers of illegal migration do not frighten those who prefer to head into the unknown and put themselves at risk to escape the hellish circumstances in the country. This is underscored by the continuation of these trips, the latest of which was a boat that launched in conjunction with the Tartus boat during the last week of September 2022. The vessel was carrying 352 illegal migrants, including 180 from the towns in Akkar, while the rest were Syrians and Palestinian refugees. The Turkish Coast Guard brought them to the shores of Antalya, and among the stranded children were some as young as 2 years old.
And at a time when information indicates that Lebanese who departed in an illegal manner are stranded in the cities of Antalya and Izmir, a statement issued by the General Directorate of Public Security on October 17, 2022 stated that “following the Turkish Coast Guard on 9/22/2022 bringing a ship to the beaches of Antalya which had sailed from northern Lebanon with 352 illegal immigrants on board, including 101 Lebanese immigrants, the Director General of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, assigned the relevant agency in the Directorate to make the necessary contacts with the concerned authorities in the Republic of Turkey and with the Ambassador of Lebanon, Ghassan Al-Moallem, in order to follow up on the situation of the Lebanese in the Antalya center, identify their needs, and work to expedite the procedures to secure their return to their homeland, in addition to handling the files of non-Lebanese immigrants who were also on board the ship.
This gives rise to many questions. The large number that the statement talked about, which is 352 illegal immigrants, is in itself a scandal. How did they get out, how did they gather, how were they transported to the coast, and why were they not intercepted by any party?
Shortly after the tragedy of the Tartus boat, a number of their families staged a sit-in at the Abdeh roundabout, at the southern entrance to Akkar, calling on the state to follow up on the issue of their stranded children in Turkey.
For his part, the mayor of the town of Benin, Zaher al-Kassar, explained that in addition to the stranded migrants in Turkey – 101 people in Antalya, and 86 in Shamakali and Izmir – there are 25 stranded people in Greece, in addition to reports of people stranded on the island of Malta.
The General Directorate of General Security had issued a statement on October 17 about the efforts made by the Lebanese ambassador to Turkey, Ghassan Al-Moallem, to follow up on the situation of the Lebanese in the Antalya center, and to work to expedite the procedures to secure their return. However, it is worth noting that the statement did not mention procedures pertaining to the rest of the passengers – a estimated 170 Syrian and Palestinian migrants. The first batch of Antalya detainees arrived at Beirut airport on October 21, 2022.
In the eyes of the law
At the level of international legislation, lawyer Otaiba Mereb confirms to “Jusoor” that the description of “human trafficking” applies to illegal migration boats in Lebanon, where the trafficker exploits the individual’s need to escape or search for a better reality in order to achieve prosperity.
The legal expert adds that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” and the protocols supplementing this convention, specifically the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. Lebanon ratified the Convention and its protocols in 2005, and then issued on August 24, 2011 Law No. 164/2011 punishing the crime of human trafficking. This law was added to Chapter Eight of Book Two of the Penal Code. The crime of human trafficking was considered a felony with a penalty ranging between 5 and 15 years. year, depending on the offense committed.
Although the penal provisions for misdemeanors and crimes committed by traffickers have been established, regular migration remains in force in Lebanon, and judicial trials and penalties against those involved do not arise. This raises concerns about the laxity of the Lebanese authorities in the control and accountability processes, the gains of the traffickers and the perpetuation of the “boats of death” with blatant impunity.
As a result, observers are not surprised that the traffickers continued their work despite the Tartus boat disaster. This was highlighted by a statement issued by the Internal Security Forces on October 1, 2022, which cited that the patrols of the Information Division in the locality of Al-Arida in Akkar, northern Lebanon, thwarted an attempt to prepare for a new trip to Italy. Three individuals involved in human trafficking were arrested, including A. A., a Lebanese born in 1999; A. S., a Lebanese born in 1997; and Mr. A. A., Lebanese born in 1963, on top of the more than 30 people arrested by the Internal Security Forces during 2021-2022 who were, involved in trafficking hundreds of people (see Appendix No. 1).
In addition, army personnel thwarted an operation to smuggle people by sea from the coast of the town of Chekka, arresting 55 people of Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi nationalities. An Intelligence Directorate patrol arrested the citizen H.T., the owner of the boat used in the operation, and the two citizens K.H. T. and A.T., who were involved in the operation, according to the army statement.
Following the tragedy of the Tartus boat, the Lebanese army announced in a statement on September 21, 2022, the arrest of smuggler Bilal Deeb, nicknamed Abu Ali Nadim, who was taken for interrogation. According to the army statement, he “admitted to preparing for the recent trafficking operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea on 9/21/2022, which resulted in the sinking of the boat off the Syrian coast on 9/22/2022 … The result of the investigation proved his involvement in running a network active in trafficking migrants” illegally across the sea, starting from the Lebanese coast extending from Arida in the north to Miniyeh in the south.
The families insist that the trafficker not escape accountability, and they renew their demand that security personnel who received bribes for “rights to the route” for turning a blind eye to the “boats of death” trips be held accountable. One of the victims’ families does not hesitate in saying that “iIf he is not held accountable, or if there is mediation for his release, we know how to recover our rights with our own hands from him and his family.”
According to a report aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on October 3, the Discriminatory Public Prosecution Office transferred the Tartus boat file from Army Intelligence to the Information Division, and it is unlikely that the trafficker will be released. The information reveals that Bilal Deeb was not alone in the network, most of whose members immediately disappeared. It includes his brother Youssef Deeb and the soldier Abdullah Deeb, who attended preparatory meetings and took over the transfer of a number of migrants to the assembly points, while the house of Muhammad B. in Benin was used to gather migrants who came from Tripoli. Some survivors talked about a gathering point in a lemon grove located behind the Al-Abdah police station.
Customs documents and the invoice related to the purchase of the boat that sank off Tartus also stated that Bilal Deeb, brother of Youssef Deeb, bought the boat (12.95 meters long, 4.20 meters wide) from Tartus in July 2022 for $8,000 not including customs duties.
It is worth noting that the boat remained bearing the name “Arwad,” and did not bear the symbol “T,” meaning it was never registered in Tripoli. This prompts the question as to how it sailed illegally from the port of Tripoli, passing by the coasts of Miniyeh and Arida.
Questions also linger about the freedom of small boats to transport migrants in batches to reach the “boats of death,” as well as the lack of suspicion of the network’s activities on land, at least during the collection and transportation of migrants in the truck. This calls for the need to investigate and expand the investigation into the capabilities of traffickers, and their cover while they commit violations, whether on land or at sea.
Based on the above, there is a growing urgent need to take serious steps in both the short and long term to eliminate the sources of illegal migration from the northern shores of Lebanon through:
- A speedy trial and serious penalties for those involved in organizing the “boat of death” trips and their civilian, military and security collaborators, and the recovery of the money earned from the families of the victims and survivors.
- Activating the work of the agencies and committees concerned with determining the fate of the missing on the boat of death trips.
- Concentrating control and monitoring devices at known illegal migration points, and in general activating them along the Lebanese coast.
- Studying the conditions of the families of the victims and survivors, assisting them in establishing small projects, or linking them to job opportunities that guarantee them a minimum living standard in light of this crisis.
- Intensifying initiatives, programs and projects targeting the most disadvantaged segments in Akkar, Tripoli and refugee communities.
- Improving the living conditions in the Palestinian camps, and not excluding them from the state’s circle of interest, through the restoration of the camps’ infrastructure and superstructures. The process of rebuilding the camp that UNRWA began as a result of the repercussions of the 2007 battles between the Lebanese army and extremists which erupted in and destroyed the Nahr al-Bared camp, as well as causing the displacement of 27,000 of its residents, must be completed.
- Reducing the policy of social isolation resulting from a security plan that prevents the Nahr al-Bared camp from interacting with its surroundings by strengthening the security presence inside the camps, as is the case outside them.
- Strengthening initiatives and inclusive spaces of convergence between Syrian and Lebanese refugees and the Lebanese host community, thus alleviating the impact of refugee and social stigma.
- Raising awareness and helping to overcome the concerns surrounding women’s education and work in conservative rural communities within Akkar, as well as in some neighborhoods of Tripoli and refugee families. Women constitute more than half of society, and their involvement in the labor market contributes to containing the living crisis that is crushing Lebanese and refugees.
Not to be confused with condemnations that spare the perpetrator and instead hold the victims responsible, the phenomenon of “boats of death” sums up the state of despair that a large segment of the Lebanese and refugees have reached, the marginalized who are completely bereft of the minimum necessities of life. The world has closed in on them and they have no other hope to build a future or a decent life than this dangerous flight.
After all, these “victims” did not choose to be refugees or get on the “boast of death.” And if they survive, they return leaving behind loved ones who were swallowed by the sea, and will carry for life psychological burdens and images of broken dreams. Moreover, they are haunted by the question that many will ask: “Were you compelled?” And some would say: “We will try again. What else is there for us to lose?”
(This report was prepared by Judy Al-Asmar, Bashir Mustafa, Basil Abdel-Al and Dani Al-Qasim).