A New Lampedusa? Lebanese Risking Lives To Migrate By Sea

Lebanese have long emigrated to Europe and elsewhere. But not like during this crisis: on clandestine boats, in a perilous trip toward the island of Cyprus.

Walking past the ruble in Beirut on Aug. 9
Laure Stephan

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Afaf Abdel Hamid climbs the damp-ridden stairs leading to her small family apartment in the Qobbé neighborhood of Tripoli, the coastal city in northern Lebanon. Hamid has been consumed by anguish since her son Mohamad went missing at sea. "I want someone to bring him back to me, dead or alive," she says, bursting into tears.

The 27-year-old took off secretly, on Sept. 7, from the coast north of Tripoli. The idea was to reach Cyprus. But the boat, chartered by traffickers and with about 40 other people on board, lost its way. And when a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) boat finally came to its rescue, in mid-September, the young Lebanese man was no longer on board.

"I didn't want him to leave, but he said that once he was abroad, he'd be able to support us financially," says Hamid as Nisrine, one of her seven daughters, hugs her tenderly. The sea has since spit out several corpses but hasn't offered any clues yet about what befell her son.

Nisrine explains that "after people on board died" Mohamad left the boat in hopes of finding help. But what happened after that is unclear. "I don't know where to go to find the missing," she says.

The explosion at the port of Beirut has rekindled political tensions.

Her brother's motives — he had been unemployed for four years — are obvious to Nisrine. His daily life had become intolerable. "Unemployment and poverty are things we've experienced for a long time in the streets of Qobbé," she says. "The authorities have long given up on Tripoli. What has changed is the plunging of the Lebanese pound. Everything has become unaffordable."

The hell experienced by those risking their lives to seek an escape from poverty comes as a shock to Lebanon, which has a long tradition of emigration, but not by means of these so-called "death boats."

Recently, though, clandestine embarkments — from the northern coast of Lebanon to Cyprus, which is close and perceived as a gateway to Europe — have become far more commonplace. And the passengers are no longer just desperate Syrians. There are more and more Lebanese migrants as well.

Between late August and mid-September, 18 boats are presumed to have attempted the journey. After Cyprian authorities in Nicosia tried to prevent migrants from debarking last month, departures were delayed. But were they successful in totally stopping the boat journeys?

Mediterranean shores in Larnaca, Cyprus — Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969

Unlikely given that Lebanon's deep economic and financial crisis has pushed more than half the population below the poverty line. That, in turn, has exacerbated competition between poor Lebanese and the large refugee population of Syrians and Palestinians over the limited humanitarian aid that's available.

Complicating matters even more is the shock people still feel from the double explosion at the port of Beirut in early August, which has rekindled political tensions.

Zeinab Al-Kaak knows misery. With her husband and children, she was on the same boat with Mohamad, a cousin. "We wanted to arrive in Cyprus, to apply for asylum. We heard that we could choose where to go in Europe," she says.

The woman's 20-month-old son died at sea before her eyes. Survivor accounts suggest that the traffickers took the provisions away. "I had powdered milk, but no water. My son was thirsty, hungry," the 30-year-old recalls. Zeinab wanted to keep the body of her dead child, Mohamad, close to her. Another boy from the same extended family also died during the crossing.

Today, the small boy lies in a cemetery in Tripoli, shaded by trees. Zeinab takes tranquilizers to help her cope. "I lost my beloved son," she says.

What's the point? There are no prospects in Lebanon.

The skin of her fingers remains damaged after eight days of "death, fear, hunger, crushing sun by day, cold by night." She lets her rage explode in the face of the feeling of abandonment by the political authorities. The schools are still closed due to coronavirus-related health measures, but she has decided that her three daughters, who survived, are done even trying to study.

"What's the point? There are no prospects in Lebanon," she says. Zeinab still wants to leave; the family, she says, has "nothing left."

Another would-be migrant who tried to leave but now finds himself back in Lebanon is Sami Abdallah Yassine, 44. It's a hot, steamy night, and he's staying with his sister in Jabal Mohsen, another poor suburb of Tripoli. He used to have his own place, but sold it before taking off for Cyprus.

What Yassine didn't count on is that he and the nephews he'd traveled with would be sent back to Lebanon. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities in Cyprus "pushed back, abandoned, expelled or returned" more than 200 migrants and refugees from Lebanon during the first week of September. And they did so "without giving them the opportunity to lodge asylum claims," the organization claims.

Until a year ago, Yassine hadn't even thought about leaving. "I had a good life," he says. But now he's already planning his next departure, this time to Turkey, by plane. "There's no end to the crisis. That's what makes it unbearable," he says. "The country is sinking into chaos."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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