Lebanon’s deepening crisis prompting some Syrian refugees to flee to Cyprus

syrian refugees flee to cyprus
Boats started arriving in Cyprus directly from war-torn Syria. Lebanon’s deepening economic and political crisis is prompting many Syrian refugees to flee to Cyprus with the hope of reaching a European country

A rarely used migration route to Europe picked up steam this summer: boats started arriving in Cyprus directly from war-torn Syria.The scale of this new traffic hasn’t been seen before in the eastern Mediterranean. Until now, refugees traveling to the island would generally have left from Lebanon or Turkey. But Cypriot and Lebanese deterrence measures, combined with the corrupt activities of military personnel in Syria, have pushed departures to the Syrian coast, between the cities of Latakia and Tartous.

Taim, a 26-year-old Syrian man from Aleppo, traveled the 60 miles (100 km) separating Syria from Cyprus on a fisherman’s boat in June, along with 40 other Syrians. “I wanted to travel legally,” he explained over the phone from a refugee camp in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. “For over a year I tried really hard to get every requirement asked for a Schengen visa. I spent a lot of money and got into lots of debt. But it was all for nothing.”

His goal was to continue his medical training in France. But, despite receiving an offer to study from a university in Marseille, the French embassy twice rejected his application for a visa. After that, he said, he felt he had no choice but to turn to smugglers.

“You don’t understand what it is like in Syria,” Taim said. “There is no future there. The fact I was studying medicine bought me some time but I was soon to be recruited in the army. In Syria, that means being recruited into forced labour indefinitely.”

Mamdouh, a 24-year-old Syrian man from Idlib, made the same journey as Taim two weeks later. Speaking over the phone from another refugee camp in Nicosia, he said, “We were 20 people on board, and left at 3:00 am from a beach close to Tartous.” Cypriot humanitarian organizations, such as the antiracist NGO KISA, confirmed that most asylum seekers now arriving by sea claim to have left from the Syrian coast.

Corruption and smuggling

Speaking with Mamdouh and Taim led us to their smuggler. Abu Ali is a 38-year-old man from Latakia, the largest Syrian city on the Mediterranean. He used to be a government employee before the war, but became a smuggler to sustain himself and his family when no other jobs were available.

He said that crossings from Syria to Cyprus began in 2020 and that he was one of the very first smugglers facilitating that route. Today he is not the only one, but Abu Ali still arranges roughly 20 boats each year, especially in the spring and summer period.

“I send people on fishing boats or rubber boats. With these kinds of boats, the only destination that can be reached is Cyprus,” he said. Longer routes, such as those leaving Turkey or Lebanon to Italy, require bigger yachts and sailing ships.

“We add an extra engine to the fishing boat and train one of the migrants to be the driver,” Abu Ali explained. He said they usually give the job to a young person who cannot afford the full fare because they are less likely to be arrested when caught steering the boat. To his mind, he added, they shouldn’t be. “Drivers are not the smugglers,” he said.

Abu Ali owes his success as a human smuggler to corruption. “I have very good connections with many high-ranking security officers – many of them are my childhood friends,” he said. “I made a deal with the military security department and with some navy officers so that I could organize boats with refugees on a sea route to Cyprus.”

Corruption of Syrian army officers is old news, and in this case hardly surprising. Syria’s coastal region is a heavily regime-controlled area of strategic importance. The chances of irregular departures taking place without the knowledge or collaboration of the Syrian army are remote. Moreover, that stretch of coast is heavily manned by Russian security forces. Russia’s main air base in Syria is in the town of Hmeimim, between Latakia and Tartuous, and Russian forces also control Tartous’s naval facilities.

“I pay Syrian officers to make sure my boats won’t be stopped. I bribe the army with more than half [of what] I earn to guarantee my activity,” Abu Ali said. “I’m as safe as if I were ‘buried under seven lands.’”

The high overheads, however, aren’t hurting business. For some travelers, what they cover could even be considered an essential add-on. “In Syria, there are thousands of people willing to pay between $3000 and $5000 dollars to cross. They sell their houses and all they have to afford the journey,” Abu Ali said. “Prices are high because trips are guaranteed by the security forces.”

Cyprus pushes back

Corruption coupled with local demand provides one explanation for the creation of this new route. But other factors may be providing an additional push. Human rights groups in Cyprus and Lebanon suggest that the shift from Lebanon to Syria may also, in part, be a consequence of Cyprus’s pushback policy.

The number of irregular arrivals to Cyprus increased during and following the COVID-19 pandemic when Lebanese migrants joined Syrian and Palestinian refugees crossing the sea to escape Lebanon’s deepening economic and political crisis.

The Cypriot government reacted by beefing up its coastal surveillance system with anti-smuggling technology for surveillance and detection. European Union funding bankrolled the deployment of new vessels, thermal and mobile cameras, and ariel drones that could communicate with the operation centres of partner states and agencies.

This enhanced surveillance was coupled with pushback. The Cypriot government resurfaced a 2002 readmission agreement with Lebanon, which was created to regulate the repatriation of foreign nationals following Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90), to provide pushbacks with a legal basis. On 27 July, the Cypriot interior minister, Konstantinos Ioannou, visited Lebanon to re-confirm both countries’ commitment to the agreement. While there, he also announced the creation of a surveillance task force to monitor departures and sea crossings.

The government’s loose interpretation of the return agreement has been heavily criticised by human rights lawyers and human rights NGOs, who say this new implementation goes against the principle of non-refoulement.This legal principle essentially prevents states from returning someone to a place where their fundamental rights are likely to be violated.

“Intercepting small boats at sea and sending [them] back to Lebanon is a form of collective expulsion that does not allow authorities to examine, on an individual basis, why each person on the boat is fleeing,” explained Nicoletta Charalambidou, a Cypriot lawyer contesting pushbacks at the European Court of Human Rights. “It’s a direct violation of the Human Rights Convention that guarantees no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture or inhumane treatment. Without an individual assessment of each person’s protection needs, this principle is violated.”

Be that as it may, returns are happening, and observers say this shift in tactic is likely to be contributing to the number of boats now departing from Syria. “The rise in small boats arriving directly from Syria started after the increase of pushbacks to Lebanon”, says Doros Polycarpou, executive director of KISA, one of the most prominent human rights organizations in Cyprus.

We thought we would have rights

Deterrence mechanisms to stop small boats arriving in Cyprus from Lebanon are displacing departures to Syria. This means that Syrians are still arriving on European territory via the sea. Despite all the money being dumped into the Cypriot coast guard, and despite its enthusiasm for legally dubious pushbacks, people are still getting through. Yet Europe remains closed to them.

“I thought we had arrived in Europe and could access the rights we don’t have in Syria,” said Mamdouh. “We are waiting for a miracle to happen. It’s like you are in prison just because you are an immigrant. I met many people here who have been in the center for more than a year and are still waiting. What are they waiting for, they don’t know themselves.”

Open Democracy