The Perfect Storm: Lebanon and European Countries Collude to Put Migrants at Risk

As the Lebanese political establishment tries to shift blame for sea migrant deaths, EU pushbacks, blockades, and backroom deals place migrants in greater danger
Leonora Monson, Connor Kanso, Shaya Laughlin

November 17, 2022

November commenced with the arrest of Lebanese and Palestinian migrants attempting to flee from the shores of North Lebanon. This crackdown, led by the Lebanese Armed Forces, follows one of the worst migrant boat tragedies in recent history when a boat launched from Lebanon capsized off the Syrian coast in September. The sinkage claimed the lives of over 100 passengers. These events form a growing pattern of refugees and migrants, increasingly of Lebanese citizenship, attempting to escape the country by boat.

Attempts by the political elite to avoid addressing the economic reality at the root of informal migration most often manifests in a narrative pinning Lebanon’s ongoing crisis on Syrian refugees. For instance, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati addressed the UN General Assembly in September claiming that Syrians have “overwhelmed Lebanon’s capacity to bear the burden.” The statement comes alongside a plan by the Lebanese Ministry of Displaced to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees per month. An estimated 1,000 individuals have already been returned to Syria in the first two convoys. Another markedly less publicised instrument is a Bilateral Readmission Agreement with Cyprus, renewed in 2020, enabling the forcible return of migrants arriving by sea to Cyprus from Lebanon. 

“The Lebanese state … will try to find a person that is responsible like we also saw in the case of the shipwreck in April,” said Corinna Zeitz, spokeswoman for Alarm Phone, a mobile hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean.  

Survivors of a migrant boat sinkage off Tripoli last April described deliberate Lebanese navy ramming as responsible for the tragedy in which around 40 passengers died. The Lebanese authorities swiftly responded with an Internal Security Forces (ISF) campaign arresting smuggling suspects. Smugglers have since been presented as orchestrating migrant boat crossings, carelessly overloading vessels, and ignoring safety requirements. Markedly less publicised was a lawsuit filed by victims’ families from the April sinkage alleging that the Lebanese army had detained missing survivors. 

Such diversion tactics come as no surprise. “It is the classic extreme right-wing discourse that puts the responsibility on the victim rather than the executioner,” explained Wadih Al-Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights. Indeed, it is decades of government mismanagement and systemic corruption that most Lebanese view as responsible for the current situation compelling nationals to flee. 

In 2021, 12% of passengers leaving Lebanon on migrant boats were of Lebanese nationality according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That number more than doubled to 28% in 2022.

Driven by desperation  

Driven by the near collapse of state institutions, an increasing number of Lebanese are attempting to leave the country in what was a journey predominantly taken by Syrian and Palestinian refugees since 2011. The Lebanese government has repeatedly made claims that the burden of hosting Syrian refugees is to blame for the strain on public resources such as electricity, water, and bread. Social tensions are regularly stoked and Lebanese politicians are in large part to blame for igniting the incendiary social fabric of Lebanon. Indeed, over the summer Syrian refugees were forced to stand in separate bread lines by the Lebanese authorities who believed that Lebanese customers should be prioritised. 

Yet, as much as anti-Syrian racism flares, the Lebanese that wish to leave may attribute the lack of resources to a different culprit – the Lebanese state itself. 44% of Lebanese respondents cited corruption as the primary reason for wanting to emigrate, whilst only 7% cited the economic crisis, in a survey conducted by the research group Arab Barometer.  

The government may struggle to find someone new to blame for the excessive difficulties Lebanese citizens face in accessing official migration routes, specifically the long delays in obtaining or renewing a passport. In April, Lebanon’s General Security Directorate (GSD) announced that it would stop issuing or renewing passports despite requests for new passports increasing tenfold. Citizens currently face months and even year-long wait times to receive a passport appointment 

The difficulties Lebanese face in accessing regular routes of migration via passports and visa requirements pushes many to flee via dangerous sea routes. In 2021, 12% of passengers leaving Lebanon on migrant boats were of Lebanese nationality according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That number more than doubled to 28% in 2022. The UNHCR informed Badil that the main reasons cited for leaving include: the “inability to survive in Lebanon due to the deteriorating economic situation, lack of access to basic services and limited job opportunities and having relatives or community members in destination countries.” 

Maher Hammouda, one of the many Lebanese desperate to leave, survived the Lebanese migrant boat sinkage in April 2022. Hammouda described dire living conditions in Lebanon as compelling him to flee. “The situation in the country is not right… there is no electricity, there is no water, there are no hospitals.” 

The Lebanese government’s refusal to provide access to the details of the renewed agreement with Cyprus proves to be all the more incriminating.

Navigating murky political waters 

Behind closed doors Lebanon’s political establishment has used the migrant crisis to bolster its hostile domestic policy towards Syrian refugees in the country. With the intent of stemming irregular sea migration, Lebanon renewed a controversial 2002 Bilateral Agreement with Cyprus in 2020. 

The Lebanese government had previously failed to ratify the Agreement’s implementation protocol, following its signature in 2002, which aimed to protect readmissions under the Geneva Convention and European Convention on Human Rights. Human rights groups have since argued that this refusal provided the Lebanese government with the leeway to deport Syrians readmitted to Lebanon under the deal. This was made all the more possible in the decision by Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council in May 2019 that Syrians re-entering the country irregularly after April 2019 would be deported and handed over to Syrian authorities. This would constitute indirect refoulement for which both Lebanon and Cyprus could bear joint responsibility. 

“It is a way of sending them back to Syria directly,” said Al-Asmar about the agreement. The Lebanese government’s refusal to provide access to the details of the renewed agreement with Cyprus proves to be all the more incriminating.  

Badil obtained a copy of the Bilateral Readmission Agreement from the office of Cypriot Ministry of Interior. The agreement did not contain a specific non-refoulment clause protecting asylum seekers from return to a territory where they could be in danger. 

Despite being listed as the “competent authority to deal with readmission and transit requests” in the Agreement, a spokesperson from Ministry of the Interior and Municipalities referred Badil to the ISF for questions on the Agreement’s details. ISF declined to comment on the record when contacted by Badil. However, an ISF security officer, who asked to remain anonymous, informed Badil that arrests of “illegal migrants” are coordinated between the Lebanese Armed Forces and ISF. He explained that any foreign nationals arrested by ISF, namely Syrians, are transferred to Lebanese General Security. Despite repeated attempts, General Security did not respond to requests for comment.  

Cypriot-Lebanese political collaboration has had tangible repercussions across the Mediterranean. Lebanese migrant boats are now embarking on longer and more treacherous journeys to deliberately avoid Cyprus. Where in previous years the nearby Mediterranean island was the primary destination for migrant boats leaving Lebanon, five times more vessels were heading for Italy than Cyprus in 2022, according to the UNHCR. The decision of increasing numbers to journey some eight times the distance reiterates just how combative Cypriot maritime borders have become.  

In a statement to Badil, the Cypriot Minister of Interior’s Head of Cabinet Loizos Michael migrants “do not enter the Republic” under the terms of the bilateral agreement. Rather, Cyprus has the “legitimate right to intercept them” and following an inspection, the Cypriot authorities may “return them safely back” to Lebanon if the migrants in question lack the necessary asylum claim. 

These stringent border controls serve a pre-emptive purpose, according to Corina Drousiotou from the Cyprus Refugee Council, to “send the message [to asylum seekers], don’t even bother to come”. 

Meanwhile, Lebanese nationality carries a whole new set of challenges for migrants landing on European shores. Upon arrival, Lebanese nationals fleeing poverty to improve their economic situation are consequently categorised as ‘economic migrants’. Whilst ‘refugees’ retain a legal right to reside in their host country under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1945, ‘migrants’ lack such official protection and consequently remain at risk of deportation. Only a small percentage of Lebanese may claim political asylum in light of the deteriorating security situation in the country. For those without such an option, abandoning any documentary evidence of Lebanese citizenship is increasingly common.  

“I didn’t want to take anything that proved that I was Lebanese,” said Hammouda about his preparation to flee from the country. 

The struggle for Lebanese migrants to arrive, settle, or transit through European countries has been further exacerbated by the growth of xenophobic political discourse in Europe. Most recently, this was marked by the victory of the far-right candidate, Giorgia Meloni, in Italy’s presidential elections this September. Following through on campaign pledges, the new Italian government formally closed all of its ports to migrant rescue ships in early-November. This prompted chaos on Italian shores as rescue vessels carrying migrants were stranded at sea and eventually forced to dock in France. 

Where do we go now? 

Regardless of nationality, pushback practices are illegal. All migrants have a right to access legal pathways to asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For migrants arriving to international European borders, they should, in theory, be provided with assistance, protection from harm, non-discrimination, and informed of legal pathways for claiming asylum as per Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the principle of non-refoulment under the Geneva Convention 

“It is the closing of borders that generates these tragedies. As they go further, with less equipped boats, there are more dramas. And we are talking about more than a hundred deaths in the last 3-4 months,” explained Al-Asmar. 

Pushbacks practices can take different forms from physically barring a migrant boat’s arrival on land to delaying search and rescue efforts. In any case, these practices recurrently result in the death of passengers. The pushback of migrant boats can be considered as collective expulsion which violates the EHCR. Without individual assessment of a migrant’s case, it cannot be known whether repatriation to their home country would risk their life or safety. 

Despite the hostile message that Europe sends to discourage migrants from attempting the journey, for many Lebanese citizens, Europe still offers more opportunities for a better quality of life than Lebanon. Hammouda reiterated that he would keep trying to leave, despite his experience in April. “[But] now, here, everyday I’m dying,” he said of life in Tripoli, one of the Mediterranean’s poorest cities.   

Sea migration to mainland Europe is likely to persist as the socio-economic situation of Lebanon continues to deteriorate. For some of Lebanon’s residents, irregular migration remains one of the only viable options for leaving the country.  

“I would try again at sea. I’m not scared,” said Hammouda. “It’s not easy. I’ll find a way.”