The Migration of Lebanon’s Palestinians: “Individual Choice” or “Organized Conspiracy”?
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are experiencing a growing migration outflow of their youth and families, and difficult economic and social conditions as a result of the crisis facing the Lebanese economy and the legal restrictions imposed on them. This situation is exacerbated by the bleak international political outlook preventing a just solution for their cause. For Palestinian factions, these “migrations” are a highly sensitive issue. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon suffer from harsh living conditions. The restrictions on them are many, UNRWA is contracting its services because of the financial crisis, and aid from NGOs has decreased. Officials do not have any alternatives to offer them.
Palestinians wonder if there is a political plan behind these “departure flights”, which seem too easy. Reports, studies and articles have warned that systematic migration poses a major threat to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, leading to a drop in their numbers, amid fears that the rest of them will be permanently settled using various humanitarian and social pretexts meaning the loss of the right of return.
The difficulties to make a decent living and attempts to end their cause with what has been referred to as the “deal of the century” as proposed by the US administration amid a deafening Arab silence has pushed some Palestinian refugees to “desperate migration” to Europe, Australia, Canada and even Africa, in any way or route possible, in the face different risks. Some have arrived at their destinations while others have returned, and the fate of others still remains unknown or they are missing.
Between 10,000 and 13,000 have left in three years?
Some figures provided by Palestinian leaders and officials show that 4,000 Palestinian families from Lebanon have been registered in Europe in 2017-2018 and about 1,500 have emigrated over the past six months. According to these figures, more than 13,000 Palestinians have left the camps during the past three years, about 4,000 of them in the past few months alone. According to media reports, in three months, 500 people departed from the camps in North Lebanon, 300 from Ain al-Hilweh camp, in addition to those who migrated from camps in Beirut, South Lebanon and Bekaa. From Rashidieh camp alone, families with 100 to 150 members have migrated. The amount obtained by a broker ranges between USD 6,000 and 8,000 per person.
Growing migration of individuals and families This migration, which also coincided with the emigration of Lebanese youth as a result of worsening economic and general living conditions, has revealed a marked increasing trend according to the preliminary results of the general census of population and housing in the Palestinian camps and gatherings in Lebanon that was overseen by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee in 2017. It covered 12 Palestinian camps and 156 gatherings in partnership with the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The results showed that the migration rate of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon after the departure of the PLO fighters and their families in 1982 was 8.5% between 1982 and 1989. It rose significantly between 1990 and 2005 up to 32.8%. Between 2006 and 2012, there was a relative drop down to 24.4% only to go up to 29.1% again between 2013 and 2017. It is worth noting that the rate of migration was the same for men and women at 29.1%. In terms of age groups, it primarily included Palestinians between the ages of 25 and 64, with twice as many men as women, although these figures do not include those that left as a whole family. The main destinations were Europe with 36.3%, the United States with 21.3%, Gulf countries with 11.7% and 4.0% to other Arab countries.
Between Europe and South America
According to Palestinian sources, the migration of refugees from Lebanon began individually and “legally” in 2014 mainly to Germany. It included “educated” young people looking for jobs that were not and would not be available to them in Lebanon, using the “family reunification” channel. But since the beginning of 2017, migration journeys are now undertaken by air part of a widespread “phenomenon”. It first began in Tyre camps and the surrounding gatherings, before spreading to the other neighboring camps and gatherings. Palestinians in these camps affirm that there are a number of “tour operators” arranging departures. But the name that’s on everyone’s lips is “facilitator” J.Gh., whose phone number is shared between residents in camps. His office used to be located in the Sakiet el-Janzeer area in Beirut and is known to all. About two months ago, he was located in an old cleaning products warehouse on a backstreet, which was a modest building entrance. The small square in front of it was lined with rows of “travel” applicants. Destination: Europe. Later he moved to a ground floor apartment in an elegant building surrounded by luxury buildings in the same area with camera surveillance and two security guards. According to many of the applicants for departure, J.Gh. claims that the route he proposes is “a legitimate route”, with lawyer guarantees, and presents himself as a “benefactor” for refugees.
According to Palestinian sources, the 1,500 Palestinians who left during the last six months of 2018 via Gh. paid between USD 8,000 and 12,000 per person, depending to the number of applicants, obtaining legitimate “transit” visas and departing from Beirut airport. Their destinations were European countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium or Sweden.
The main route to reach Europe started in Turkey to Greece–Spain. This is the route used from the outbreak of the war in Syria by Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. Those aspiring to a new “exile” could arrive at Madrid airport as transit passengers without a visa and disappear without trace once the asylum application was filed for Germany and Belgium. Many Palestinians claim to have traveled from Lebanon with the phone number of a “crossing facilitator” to contact upon arrival in Spain.
But this “route” through Spain was shut in November 2018. The Spanish police announced the disbanding of “a criminal network suspected of organizing the arrival of hundreds of Palestinians to Europe through fraudulent asylum applications.” Five people were arrested in Spain and four in France. The police estimate that since January 2018 the network has flown in about 1,200 Palestinians living in the Middle East through Bolivia and arriving in Madrid.
In the wake of the failure to obtain Spanish transit visas, a voice message attributed to J.Gh. himself was shared by telephone in the Palestinian camps, asking those who registered to leave to recover their money or wait until a new entry channel is found.
After a months-long disruption, J.Gh. returned to work with new facilities. It was now possible to pay USD 5,000 instead of 10,000 and travel two days following payment. But the journey became longer. The stops were now Ecuador and Venezuela, two countries where Palestinian refugees do not require an entry visa. According to a Palestinian source, the Lebanese middleman provides to the refugee a “visa” to Brazil. Then the refugee travels to Bolivia or another South American country before going back to Spain as a “transit” passenger. There he tears his official documents and applies for asylum.
“Escaping is a right”
In turn, Said Abdallah, 23, arrived in Berlin in 2017, after a long flight and then a car ride. Said never thought of leaving the so-called “refugee cemetery” by boat across the Mediterranean. He went to J.Gh. His travel document issued by the Directorate of General Security in Lebanon in hand, he was promised that he would set foot on European soil in return for USD 12,000. He was picked up from Tyre by a “broker” nicknamed “Abu Shabab” from J.Gh. office and dropped off at Rafic Hariri Airport, along with other young Palestinians. His first stop was Turkey and the next one was Spain, where he did as instructed before traveling and applied for asylum. As he was being taken to a building outside the airport, a smuggler arrived to accompany him to Germany. He had to pay an extra USD 2,000. To this day, Said’s father has to repay a debt of USD 4,000 for his eldest son’s journey. Said doesn’t regret leaving. “I love Lebanon,” he says, “but our lives as Palestinian refugees are just a series of prohibitions. I was studying engineering; would I have a job fitting my degree? I did not leave Lebanon. I escaped. This country is like a big prison for us, the Palestinians.”
“Risking one’s life for a better one”
Mustafa Sukkar, from Shatila refugee camp, decided to risk all he had to secure the money for the journey for him, his wife and son to “freedom from restrictions that limit their simple living on Lebanese territory.” But the risk was not easy and not guaranteed to pay off. “USD 20,000 is the amount I paid to J.Gh. to travel with my family. I put the sum together from relatives and by selling what I owned.”
“We took a flight from Beirut airport to Ethiopia and then to Brazil. Then we got to Bolivia, where we stayed for three days. We were communicating with J.Gh.’s assistant Sahar and with J.Gh. personally over the phone. He sent us new booking papers, which were “transit” papers from Brazil to Istanbul. He stressed that we had to show the new paperwork after destroying the old ones to Air Europa airline. After taking off, we arrived in Spain from Brazil after 12 hours. The police met us at the airport and four days later the asylum acceptance applications came in. “I never regretted my choice,” said Sukkar.
“We will try again”
Marwa, 21, Safa, 19, and Mohammad Abdallah, 16, three siblings from Mieh Mieh camp, traveled with a group of five young men and a man to Togo in Africa as a stop before traveling to the Netherlands. The agreement with the broker was to spend three days in Togo and then leave for the Netherlands, where their relatives would take over from there. But the “visit” to Togo lasted a month, which they spent in the hotel without leaving it out of fear of being arrested by the authorities. During that period, their passports were nearing the end of their validity date. So, they had to travel to Ghana as there is a Lebanese consulate there. There they were told that their passports were valid to return to Lebanon. However, they returned to Togo to find that the broker’s African assistants had disappeared, although the broker’s cousin continued to pay their hotel bills. The group separated. They returned to Ghana, then to Egypt and finally to Lebanon. Despite the failure of their first attempt, which cost their father around USD 15,000, Marwa and Safa intend to undertake the trip again with the hope of reaching Europe.
“There, it’s those who’ve made it, and here, it’s those who are waiting”
Ahmed responded to one of the invitations on WhatsApp groups and then through some Facebook pages during 2018 to the people of the camps in Lebanon, to the residents of Nahr al-Bared and Beddawi camps in North Lebanon, and Ain al-Hilweh camp in South Lebanon in particular, to demonstrate and demand migration. He took part in a demonstration in Nahr al-Bared, holding up a banner reading “Migration is a right”. This was followed by other demonstrations with lower numbers of participants. In other camps, adverts were put up on the walls of houses reading “For sale due to travel”. But Ahmad, who just wanted to “get out of Lebanon”, has come back to it burdened with debt and having lost his house and job.
Sari (not his real name), 35, from Ain al-Hilweh camp, left for Germany through J.Gh. via South America. He does not recall facing any difficulties at Beirut airport from the General Security. In addition to his travel document, which he requested and received specifically to leave, Sari also received, as he said, a “visa for Ethiopia” (the first stop that lasted 20 days) but on a separate sheet. And nothing else for “entering Bolivia or Brazil”. He returned from there, vowing to his family to never go through this again.
Hadi, from Ain al-Hilweh, would only emigrate via a safe route. “I was told by friends about a smuggler in Beirut. He didn’t respond to any of our questions,” said Hadi. “All he told us was the countries and airports we’ll be going through: from Beirut airport via an airline to Africa, then to Brazil and Uruguay where we will stay with my family for several days, with the previous stops being ‘transit’ stops and from Uruguay back to Brazil then to Spain, where we will apply for asylum right at the airport. Asking about anything was not allowed, such as date of the flight, name of airline or place of stay in Uruguay. The smuggler told me that I’ll have these details before traveling.” According to Hadi, all the visas he and his family required were legitimate, according to the smuggler who told him to wait for a call to tell him when to leave. “It seems that this smuggler has many customers,” said Hadi, “I took a quick look at his diary and saw that it was full of names and numbers, all of them potential immigrants.” Hadi paid USD 32,000, 8,000 for each family member. So, he had to sell his furnished house “for barely half of its actual price”. He is still waiting.
“The matter is more complex than a mere business”
“What drives Palestinians to emigrate first is harsh living conditions, loss of civil rights, and many occupations that are prohibited to them,” said Ziad al-Sayyid, who used to be a barber in Ain al-Hilweh camp. He heard from an acquaintance about an office that provides visas to Spain and other European countries at a cost of not less than USD 10,000. From the moment your luggage is weighed until you arrive in Spain you are “covered in terms of security and they’re right there with you at every step”. “What matters is getting out of this country [Lebanon],” said Ziad. “But once you arrive in Spain, you get another type of treatment. We slept for 8 hours on a wooden bench and waited until the International Red Cross came to pick us up. The trip took eight months, plus 20 days on the road.”
The experience revealed to Ziad and many more like him who have come back from a “migration of loss and separation” the fact that firstly “those who run the operation of taking Palestinians out of the country are not just an office and a broker. There is someone behind it. The matter is more complex than a mere business. There may be parties that want to reduce the numbers of Palestinians in Lebanon.”
* During 2017-2018, there were approximately 5,000 active Facebook users on the page “Lebanon’s Palestinians Demand Migration”, “Yes to Migration of Lebanon’s Camps”, and “I am a Palestinian, I want to emigrate outside Lebanon”.