Nizar Mohammad is struggling to recount the details of a journey that started in hope but quickly descended into a nightmare.
“On Tuesday we ran out of fuel and we were just drifting in the water,” he remembers in a phone call from the Lebanese city of Tripoli. “On Wednesday, my cousin lost his child. By Thursday, my son had died.”
Just after midnight on the 7th of September, Mohammad and a group of around 50 others, including several members of his extended family, crammed into a smuggler’s boat near the El Mina harbour. The group were given compass directions that were meant to guide them across the waters until they saw the mountains of Cyprus.
By Tuesday afternoon the boat was hopelessly lost and the passengers began to argue over whether to continue to Cyprus or return to Lebanon. Later that day their fuel ran out, followed by the water supply. Two children, including Mohammad’s 20-month-old son, succumbed to dehydration and heatstroke. With no help in sight, the parents were forced to bury their bodies at sea.
On Tuesday at 4AM, Rahima* received a message from her husband Mohammed that they had entered international waters and not to worry. A day passed with no news so she began to make frantic calls about the boat’s whereabouts to the smuggler, who over the next few days told a series of lies, claiming that everyone had successfully arrived in Cyprus and would be in touch soon. Only days later would Rahima learn through one of the survivors that her husband had jumped into the sea with several other men in a desperate attempt to seek help.
“They jumped in after the children started dying,” Rahima said quietly by phone from Tripoli. “There were many ships passing that ignored them. The plan was to swim close and ask for rescue.”
After swimming for hours, one of those men reached a vessel from a UN peacekeeping mission, who then located the stricken boat. After eight days adrift, four adults had also died and at least six of the men that jumped were missing, leaving 36 survivors. Early this week, the Lebanese Civil Defence reported that four bodies had been found washed up at several locations along the coast.
It is not the first time that the Lebanese have fled to Cyprus. After the outbreak of civil war in 1975 and following the 2006 invasion by Israel, the Mediterranean island provided sanctuary for many who subsequently returned to rebuild their lives. But in the last few years, overlapping political crises have plunged most of the country into poverty, leading some to look towards the nearest European Union member state floating a mere 90 kilometres away at its closest point.
Late last year, the government floated a series of unpopular proposals to raise revenue, including plans to tax WhatsApp calls, which triggered mass outrage. Over a million people hit the streets to denounce a political class long seen as amassing vast ill-gotten wealth through the patronage systems of Lebanon’s complex sectarian power-sharing governance structure. Since then, the Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar, causing prices of everyday goods like rice and sugar to surge amid pension cuts and widespread joblessness.
At the height of the demonstrations, Lebanese President Michael Aoun provoked further outrage by saying to protesters unhappy with the government, “let them emigrate”.
Rahima said that her husband Mohammed used to manage a phone shop in Tripoli. “We were doing well but after the currency collapsed, and then COVID-19, he couldn’t pay the rent and the owner locked the door to the business,” she says.
For four and a half million Lebanese pounds ($3,000) he bought himself a seat on that boat bound for Cyprus where he hoped to find stable work.
On the 4th of August, nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Beirut port leaving 190 dead, 300,000 homeless and causing over $15 billion in damage, with severe disruption to a country reliant on imports. The explosion rattled windows in Cyprus, whose government responded by donating €5 million for humanitarian relief, and sending several shipments of food and medical supplies. The Cypriot government, however, have been less generous to the small boats of human cargo fleeing the carnage and drifting the opposite way to their shores.
According to data provided to VICE News by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 18 boats were recorded leaving Lebanon in the last month, with the majority of passengers Lebanese nationals. Meanwhile, an estimated 270 have been returned from Cypriot waters or returned even after being allowed to disembark. The government has been quick to deem them “economic migrants” even though among the deported have also been Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
Not wanting to engage with smugglers, Shams Kerdli together with a group of Lebanese and Syrian friends and family, raised seventeen million Lebanese pounds ($11,000) for a boat which they pushed out to sea near Tripoli with 52 on board, including 15 children one night in early September. They were initially approached by the Lebanese Navy, who aimed their guns at them, and tried to turn them back.
“We shouted at them: ‘We are not doing anything wrong, we just don’t have a future here. Leave us alone’.
The Lebanese Navy boat eventually stood down. Kerdli claims that once they were in sight of the island, the Cypriot coastguard suddenly appeared swerving several times in front of them in an apparent attempt to buffet their boat by waves and, when this was not effective, rammed into it causing water to rush in. After a tense stand-off they were admitted into Cyprus on the 3rd of September and transferred to the Kokkinotrimithia reception centre; a threadbare and overcrowded tented camp outside the divided capital of Nicosia.
The island’s Greek and Turkish-speaking communities have been divided by a UN-administered buffer zone since 1974 when Turkey invaded to counter a coup backed by the Greek government. The war displaced and forced abroad hundreds of thousands of Cypriots and remains one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, though a largely peaceful one.
On the 8th of September, after claiming that they were being transported to conduct COVID-19 tests, all of the boat’s occupants were driven down to the southern port of Larnaca.
According to Kerdli, police aggressively ordered them to order a boat chartered by the coast guard. In videos shared with VICE News, one man appears to be lying handcuffed on the floor of the boat wailing while other passengers remonstrate with officers. All were driven back to Lebanon.
Kerdli says: “Another boat pulled up with other people who weren’t allowed in. There were Syrians afraid that they would be taken back to Syria.”
The Cyprus Police deny mistreatment.
Human Rights Watch has documented how the Lebanese security services have forcibly returned thousands of Syrians back to Syria as part of a wider crackdown on refugees including demolishing makeshift shelters and raiding businesses employing undocumented workers. Lebanon hosts the world’s largest per capita refugee population counting an estimated 1.5 million Syrians and 200,000 Palestinians among its country of six million.
During 2015-2016 when over a million mainly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees entered Europe, Cyprus was a largely ignored destination receiving just 2,253 asylum applications. In 2019 that number jumped to 13,648. As borders to the Europe continue to tighten, Cyprus is following suit.
In March, the Greek Cypriot Coast Guard refused entry to a vasty overcrowded vessel of over 250 Syrians that arrived from southern Turkey on the grounds of COVID-19 restrictions. After a lengthy standoff, the boat upturned on the shore of the north of the island run by the Turkish Cypriot authorities and the passengers quarantined for several weeks before some were deported back to Turkey.
Rights groups are incensed. Corina Drousiotou, senior legal advisor at the Cyprus Refugees Council said the recent expulsions to Lebanon “undeniably constitute a violation of international and EU law.”
Earlier this month, Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told local media that those coming over the sea were economic migrants and reception centres in the country were too full to accommodate them.
Achilleas Demetriades, a prominent human rights lawyer in Cyprus, said: “Where is the due process? Just because you have a malfunctioning system, you don’t put people’s lives at risk and deny them access to justice.”
A spokesman for the Cyprus Interior Ministry was not immediately available for comment but the government has previously claimed that none of those deported from Cyprus had claimed asylum, so no rights had been violated.
Back in Lebanon, the prospects for Nizar Mohammad are bleak, having sold his house and all the furniture inside to pay for the trip that claimed the life of his son. But he says that smugglers reportedly continue to openly advertise their ruinous voyages on the street corners of Tripoli and through Facebook groups, and others will follow his path.
“There is nothing left in Lebanon, no basic elements for life,” he said. “Explosions, protests, shooting, government corruption…we are dying here anyway. People will leave.”
*Name have been changed to protect their identities.