Syrian refugees, Sumakieh, Lebanon
Syrian refugees gather around a small fire to get warmth inside a camp located at the village of Sumakieh in north Lebanon just a few hundred yards from the Lebanese-Syrian border, January 31, 2022. Photo credit: © Marwan Naamani/dpa via ZUMA Press

“I am a dead person. No emotion really, just living in fear.”

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TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Daniel lives with his family in a one-bedroom home in northern Lebanon.

There’s no electricity and little water. He supports 13 family members with aid money and supplemental income he gets from odd jobs and the generosity of others.

Eleven years after fleeing Syria to escape the country’s brutal civil war for a safer life in Lebanon, Daniel now finds himself in a situation no better than the one he left behind.

“I am a dead person,” he said. “No emotion really, just living in fear.”

Amid an acute economic crisis, marked anti-refugee sentiment, and the perpetual fear of deportation back to Syria, Daniel, like many refugees living in Lebanon, is eager to go somewhere else.

Since 2019, a worsening economic collapse has made daily life in Lebanon increasingly difficult. Inflation floats in the triple digits and the local currency, the Lebanese lira, has lost more than 90 percent of its value. From 2017 to 2021, about 216,000 people emigrated from Lebanon, according to the Beirut-based research and consultancy firm Information International.

Economic woes impact Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike, making everything from food to electricity increasingly unaffordable.

“It’s bad for almost everyone, except a very small minority who have amassed a large amount of money and can still survive,” said Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament for his home city of Tripoli in the country’s impoverished north.

Mushapha Alloush, Syrian, Lebanon

Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament for Tripoli, poses for a photo during an interview on November 20, 2022. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

As of last year, remittances — funds sent by emigrants back home, which have historically played an important role in Lebanon — made up nearly 54 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Mercy Corps, a global NGO.

“Now, a good proportion of the population is living on their sons and daughters and husbands and brothers who emigrated — and many emigrated,” Alloush said.

With food prices rising 700 percent from 2019 to 2021, such remittances are vital. As of October, food prices in Lebanon were the highest in the Middle East and the second highest globally, according to the World Bank. Still, only 2 percent of Syrian households in the country reported receiving remittances in 2021.

men fishING, Tripoli, Lebanon

A group of men fish along the shores of Tripoli on February 13, 2022. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, most of whom have been pushed into extreme poverty by the socio-economic crisis.

Unable to afford much else, Daniel is often forced to purchase expired food. His wife picked up a bag of food, and Daniel pointed to the expiration date.

“I don’t need my children to be hungry,” he said.

Daniel stopped working in Lebanon years ago because of concerns about his safety. Having been imprisoned and tortured by Syrian officials before fleeing to Lebanon to avoid military conscription, he lives in constant fear of being deported back to Syria.

While in prison, Daniel lived in a small, windowless cell packed with other prisoners for three months. There were so many others in the cell, he said, that people would sleep and defecate where they stood.

“Until now, I haven’t accepted what happened,” he said.

The paranoia keeps him on edge, distrustful of everyone. Prior to meeting us, he shaved his head and donned a cap and mask to shield his identity. Daniel said he speaks nine languages, most of which he learned in Lebanon in order to further mask his nationality.

Syrian children, ruins

There is little to return to in Syria. Photo credit: Ali Haj Suleiman / UNOCHA

Hundreds of Syrians have been arbitrarily arrested, detained and imprisoned on terrorism-related charges in Lebanon, according to a 2021 report by Amnesty International. Detainees have faced torture and unfair trials. Amnesty also noted that Lebanese officials had deported at least 6,000 Syrians since May 2019, a violation of the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from sending people back to a place where they face a serious risk of human rights violations.

Though the war in Syria is not as intense as it once was, conflict continues in parts of the country, and rights agencies note that the country is still unsafe. Syrians returning to the country are at risk of abuses ranging from arbitrary arrest to sexual violence and death.

All the while, political gridlock in Lebanon impedes reform needed to secure billions in aid and rescue the country from further collapse.

“We have the mediocrities reigning now,” said Alloush.“This adds to the situation of helplessness, of desperation.” 

With no hope that the situation will improve soon, Syrian refugees face a difficult choice: move again, or stay and continue to weather out conditions that are becoming as dire as those back in Syria.

vegetable market, Tripoli, Lebanon

Men purchase vegetables at a market in Tripoli on February 13, 2022. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

Getting Out

On a warm winter afternoon in Tripoli, Abdul Rafoul Sleiman stopped a group of reporters and me as we made our way through the city.

“Are you journalists?” the 45-year-old asked.

When we answered yes, Sleiman told us that one of his sons died in late September after a hospital he was taken to refused to treat him for a stray bullet wound without first receiving payment.

The fee was more than Sleiman could afford, the father of six said, so the hospital did nothing more than place his son, Nassif, in an emergency room.

Sleiman left Syria two decades ago, years before the civil war and long before Lebanon collapsed as a result of gross corruption and fiscal mismanagement. Initially, Sleiman found better opportunities for him and his family in Lebanon. But now, with the death of his son Nassif, Sleiman plans to take his family back to Syria.

Despite the risk noted by rights groups, Sleiman is not the only Syrian choosing to go back. Since 2016, at least 79,000 refugees have returned to Syria, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In October, the Lebanese government resumed a program for refugees to go back to Syria. So far this year, the UNHCR has documented the return of 8,793 refugees, a figure that includes personal returns as well as those facilitated by the Lebanese government.

“The situation in Syria is safer,” Sleiman said, adding that the country also has better services than those in Lebanon.

But for other Syrians, especially young men of military age, returning to Syria is out of the question.

A Dangerous Exodus

Last October, after paying a smuggler $5,000, a man named Mohammed, along with a few dozen other people, gathered on a beach near Tripoli with hopes of reaching Europe.

Mohammed, who asked that his last name not be used, had fled Syria shortly before turning 18 to avoid military conscription. He entered Lebanon illegally, trekking through mountains between the two countries. Once out of Syria, he made his way to Tripoli, where some of his relatives already lived.

Mohammed, Tripoli, Lebanon, shore

Mohammed, a 22-year-old father of two, stands along the shore of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, during sunset on November 12, 2022. Many boat trips from Lebanon to Europe have departed from Tripoli and other parts of the largely impoverished northern region. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

He started working, selling coffee, making at least $30 a day. Today, the 22-year-old father is lucky if he makes $10.

With a wife and two kids, his income is not enough to get by. He lives with his parents and brother, all of whom work to support the entire family. Without legal residence, he worries constantly about being deported back to Syria, where he risks punishment for avoiding military conscription.

Less than 20 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in 2021 held legal residency permits, according to the UNHCR. The Lebanese government estimates that 1.5 million Syrian refugees reside in the country, though only 831,053 are registered with the UNHCR.

Confronted by the worsening challenges of daily life, Mohammed joined a growing number of people trying to leave Lebanon by sea. 

Under the cover of darkness, three small boats took him and other passengers to a nearby island. About 45 minutes later, a larger boat arrived to take the more than 50 passengers to Italy.

Once reaching Europe, Mohammed planned to make his way toward Germany, where relatives and friends already live. Later, he hoped to bring his family, possibly through a family reunification visa.

“The situation is so bad here,” Mohammed said about Lebanon. “There’s no future for them.”

Worried about the danger of the trip, he opted to go by himself. Multiple failed sea departures resulted in fatalities last year. One particularly gruesome incident reportedly left at least 89 dead.

About an hour into the trip, Mohammed said, the engine broke down. Panic ensued, but no one was hurt. Still, the trip was canceled. Another boat came and took the passengers back to Lebanon.

Abdulkarim, Syria, Lebanon

Abdulkarim, a 36-year-old Syrian residing in Lebanon, poses for a photo on November 6, 2022. He is one of a growing number of people attempting to depart Lebanon through irregular sea departures as the country’s economic collapse worsens. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

Claiming that the motor failure was not his fault, the smuggler refused to fully reimburse passengers. Abdulkarim, a friend who accompanied Mohammed on the trip, believes the motor failure was deliberate. Abdulkarim also noted that the boat did not have sufficient fuel to reach Italy.

“After a while, we found out that it was a scam,” the 36-year-old said. “They were the ones who broke the engine.”

The smuggler promised to make another trip, but more than a year later the passengers are still waiting.

A few months ago, Abdulkarim attempted another trip with a different smuggler. On that trip, however, the military stopped the boat and its crew before the passengers could board.

As of November, 4,334 individuals had departed or attempted to depart by sea last year, marking a 176 percent increase in the number of passengers over the same period in 2021, according to the UNHCR. Of the passengers whose nationality was known, 62 percent were Syrian.

Most departures — or attempted departures — have sought to reach Italy.

“These are desperate journeys that are undertaken by people who see no way of surviving in Lebanon as the socio-economic situation in the countries has worsened,” said UNHCR spokesperson Paula Barrachina Esteban.

Despite the smuggler’s promise to attempt another trip in the future, Mohammed is seeking other ways to reach Europe.

Mural, Al Aqsa Mosque, Tripoli

Onlookers observe a mural of Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the most holy sites in Islam, painted on a wall in central Tripoli on February 13, 2022. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

Finding Safer Routes

“I won’t travel by sea, because it’s dangerous,” Mohammed said. While he wasn’t concerned about the danger, his mother and wife were terrified. For them, he promised not to attempt another sea voyage.

Instead, Mohammed is hoping for a route through the UNHCR, possibly through resettlement as a refugee with his family to another country.

“Resettlement to third countries from Lebanon is a limited solution, but it is key for many refugees who cannot go home and who have specific needs that cannot be addressed in Lebanon,” said Esteban.

In 2021, the second largest number of resettlement cases in the world came from Lebanon, with 8,034 refugees being submitted for resettlement, Estaban said. As of early December last year, 7,000 refugees had departed Lebanon.

“Resettlement quotas save lives and provide a chance for a new beginning,” Estaban said. “This is very critical for many families that have specific protection concerns, be it medical, security related or of other nature.”

The number of refugees that can be resettled is limited, however, by the number of quotas offered by countries accepting resettlement cases. Amid the challenges facing Lebanon, the UNHCR has urged countries to increase their quotas.

“We continue to call for more resettlement opportunities for refugees in Lebanon, particularly at this critical time that the country is facing,” Estaban said.

With the prospects for resettlement limited, Mohammed is also hoping to obtain a humanitarian visa or scholarship — anything to get him out of Lebanon.

“I’m ready to go to any country,” he said.

A Hostile Environment

Abdulkarim is also eager to leave.

A sociable guy, Abdulkarim said he knows of several hundred Syrians who have left Lebanon, especially after the start of Lebanon’s economic collapse in 2019.

In addition to financial hardship, he said discrimination is another factor behind Syrians’ desire to leave the country.

“In general, anything that happens in this country, such as the rise of prices, the people say it’s caused by the Syrians,” said Abdulkarim. “The lack of dollars? The reason is the Syrians. People are unemployed? Because of the Syrians. All of this talk is racist. Syrians don’t have anything to do with this. It is a crisis. The crisis is caused by them, the government.”

Amnesty International has noted that the Lebanese government has enacted policies restricting job opportunities for Syrian refugees and their access to services related to education and health.

Mural, Ghiath al Robih, Tripoli

Vehicles pass an iconic mural painted by Palestinian artist Ghiath al Robih in Tripoli, November 12, 2022. Photo credit: Hunter Williamson / WhoWhatWhy

Syrians like Abdulkarim cite different examples of what they perceive as discrimination, including segregated lines at bakeries.

“All of the problems happening here, they blame us,” Abdulkarim continued. “They say we caused this and we don’t even have anything to do with it. We hear these things on the daily.”

Though he disagrees with anti-refugee sentiment, Alloush, the former MP from northern Lebanon, sees it as stemming from a lack of opportunities in the country amid the economic crisis and large population of refugees.

“If you are competing with someone else, and someone else will accept a lower salary and living conditions or whatever, then you will look at him as he is stealing your rights in your own country,” Alloush said. “This is not something that happens in Lebanon only. It happens in France, it happens in Germany, it happens in Italy — everywhere in the world.”

With Lebanon facing its own dire challenges, Alloush noted how some Lebanese are frustrated about the hundreds of millions in aid given by the UN to refugees. That support, at least in the form of cash handouts, is set to shrink this year. Due to budgetary constraints, the percentage of Syrian refugees supported with cash assistance by the World Food Programme and the UNHCR will drop from 89 to 78, Estaban said.

Despite the grievances felt by some Lebanese, Alloush noted that regional political troubles in 2011 that went on to contribute to Lebanon’s economic decline occurred two months before the start of the uprising in Syria.

“Many people say that the presence of the Syrians did not make any increase in the hardship,” Alloush said. “The hardship is there, and it would have happened, irrespective of the number of Syrians.”

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Daniel’s goal is to reach Europe, where many of his siblings live. He longs to be reunited with them, to no longer feel so alone. He says he has been contacted multiple times by the UNHCR, but isn’t sure if he will be selected for resettlement.

If he does reach Europe, he believes that he can finally live a normal life, one without the constant fear of being caught or found out, one free of the paranoia that plagues him in Lebanon.

“After the Syrian war, I’m destroyed, me and my family,” he said. “First of all, we are separated. Second, my family, I don’t know anything about them. Sometimes we talk to each other.” 

Recently, Daniel’s sister called him, crying. “I just need to hug you for once before I die,” she told him.

With the onset of winter, Daniel worries about his family. He notes the hunger, the expired food, a lack of clothes, medical issues faced by him and his wife — conditions forcing him into survival mode. Conditions that he didn’t imagine he would face when he left Syria 11 years ago.

“If I did, I would have never come here,” he said. “But you know, Allah, he always does great things, and he is always right.”

Sometimes, Daniel continued, life hurts you. But eventually, Daniel believes, it will get better for him — when he makes it out of Lebanon.

“One day, it will not hurt you. This one day will let you forget all that [happened].”

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