BEIRUT/NAAMEH, Lebanon: The boats had left Lebanon two days earlier, bound for Greece, but their passengers now faced a dilemma: push for the European mainland or cut their losses and make for nearby Cyprus and safety.
For Ibrahim Maarouf, traveling with his wife and two children, the choice was an easy one. The water around the ankles of passengers in one of the boats was steadily rising due to a worsening leak, and one of the engines was faulty. “We told the captain, ‘Go for the nearest shore, wherever it is,’” he said.
The dangerous sea route to Europe from Lebanon is not the most well-known, but it has gained greater attention in the past months, spiking after the death in September of a 5-year-old boy from Nahr al-Bared, who drowned when a boat headed to Cyprus carrying 36 refugees sank off the northern coast of Lebanon.
While many of those making the journey are Syrian refugees, a significant number, including Maarouf and the young victim of the September disaster, are Palestinians who were born and raised in Lebanon.
Many are prepared to risk the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in a desperate attempt to reach Europe, but a large number – estimated by one Palestinian refugee at over half – end up back where they started.
Maarouf was born and raised in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs. He went on to gain a degree in Business Management and Computer Administration, but realized it would be extremely difficult to work in either field.
Although Lebanon gave Palestinians the right to work in 2010, many professional syndicates bar Palestinians from joining, and it remains prohibitively hard to obtain a labor permit.
He managed to survive working as a teacher and doing odd jobs, for which he would take home about $600 per month to support his family. With the arrival of more desperate, cheaper laborers from Syria, however, the school pressured him to leave. He did so in 2015.
“The future was so dark,” he told The Daily Star. But he said it wasn’t “the final straw,” which came later when his 7-year-old daughter went to buy candy from a nearby shop.
“After she left the house shooting started from everywhere ... the Palestinian guerrillas, the drug dealers and their gangs,” he recalled.
“There was shooting and bullets everywhere. I went to my daughter and I saw her hiding in the corner and screaming. That was the last straw.”
Proceeds from the sale of his house provided Maarouf with the $10,000 he needed to pay a smuggler in Shatila for himself, his wife and two children to take them to Greece, where Maarouf’s brother lives. In late 2015 they set off on a boat from northern Lebanon.
Khaled and Miree Jaber, who were then 17 and 21 years old, respectively, were two of the other passengers who joined the Maarouf family on the small fishing-turned-smuggling vessel.
The two brothers, from a Palestinian family in Naameh, south of Beirut, had also lost hope as a result of the dire economic situation in Lebanon and a system they see as fundamentally unsupportive: “If you’re dying in the entrance of a hospital, if you don’t have money they won’t let you enter,” Khaled said.
Eventually, having heard of a boat of refugees from Lebanon who had successfully made it to Europe, the brothers’ father gave them each the $4,500 they needed for the crossing.
After almost three days at sea, the boats made land at the British military base in Akrotiri, where their passengers waded into controversy.
The United Nations refugee agency claimed the British government had the responsibility to resettle the refugees as they had landed on British sovereign territory, but the U.K.’s Home Office flatly refused any such suggestion. The base, Miree remembers, was “like a jail. We couldn’t go out or do anything.”
“They lied to us,” Maarouf recalled. The British authorities worked to persuade his fellow passengers to move to Cypriot territory and apply for asylum there. “They told us ... ‘We can almost guarantee that you will be accepted by Cyprus and we will pay you money.’”
With little hope of processing an application for asylum in the U.K., many of the refugees chose to try their luck in Cyprus, and they were transferred to the notorious Kofinou refugee camp.
“It’s hell. Shatila is much better,” Maarouf said. “There is every kind of misery there. The smell, the sewage ... even animals shouldn’t stay there.” His compatriots recalled similarly bad conditions.
“It’s the worst place you’ll see in your life,” Khalid Jaber said, adding that five refugees would be housed in a room of 2 meters by 2 meters.
The journey to Cyprus is treacherous, but it’s one frequently made nonetheless. A report from the U.N. refugee agency published in September said 56 people have died so far this year while making the crossing.
According to statistics from the Cypriot police, the number of asylum seekers to the small Mediterranean island has more than doubled in three years, from 1,231 in 2015 to 2,480 in 2017.
The Daily Star spoke to Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry and General Security but was unable to obtain official statistics of the numbers of people that have taken the perilous crossing.
After six months, with no work and no prospect of having his asylum application accepted, Miree returned to Lebanon. His younger brother had more success, working for some months in a mobile shop in Nicosia.
When he ran out of work, Khaled also returned to Lebanon – a decision he now regrets daily.
“Anything is better than here, 100 percent,” he said. He is now trying to save enough money to make the dangerous journey to Cyprus again.
Maarouf is still in Cyprus. He had his initial asylum application rejected but has appealed to the Cypriot High Court and is expecting a decision in the next six months.
If he loses he will have to consider his options: “If I take my children back to Lebanon, it’s as if I’m signing their death sentence,” he said.