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Meeting the Syrian Refugees Leaving Lebanon for Europe

Lebanon has taken in one million Syrians displaced by the war raging in their home country. Now, thousands are leaving every day on ferries for Europe.

by Martin Armstrong
18 September 2015, 1:45pm

Outside Tripoli's port, groups of Syrian families sat around plastic tables beside a makeshift coffee shop. A small mountain of suitcases was piled close by.

Between 2012 and 2014, the frequency of gun battles in Tripoli between armed groups cast a shadow over the city. Focused in the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite community that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Bab al-Tabbaneh, a Sunni neighborhood opposed to Assad's continued rule, inhabitants soon found their hometown cast as a haven of support for the Islamic State in local press leads and headlines.

Gun battles in Tripoli have since all but ceased, following raids conducted by the Lebanese army late last year. However, Tripoli is now synonymous with another phenomenon linked directly to Syria's civil conflict: it's increasingly becoming a transit point for a growing Syrian exodus from Lebanon.

There are over one million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, accounting for a staggering 25 percent of the total population in a country that also hosts over 450,000 Palestinian refugees. Currently, over a thousand Syrian refugees depart on ferries from Tripoli's port to the Turkish coastal city of Mercin almost every day. A one-way ticket costs around £80 [$125].

For many Syrians, a future in Lebanon—let alone Syria—has become untenable.

Earlier this year, Lebanon's Internal Ministry announced the closure of the country's border with Syria and established new measures making it difficult for Syrian refugees already in the country to extend residency permits and obtain work legally.

Syrians are still permitted to enter the country, but almost exclusively through the attainment of temporary visas (tourist, business, and transit) that reassure the Lebanese authorities that any newcomers will not add to the number of Syrian refugees already here.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Such restrictions have dovetailed in the wake of huge international aid cut-backs. The World Food Program, for instance, has dropped one-third of Syrian refugees from its food voucher program in MENA host countries; the maximum allocated to urban refugees per month in Lebanon is now $13, down from $30 in 2014.

Sitting beside his eldest son Amr in the shade of a tree outside Tripoli's port, Mohammad Suleiman, a former bank clerk from Damascus, explained that he had traveled to Tripoli from the Syrian capital the previous day.

"I am trying to give my son a future," explained Suleiman, a broad-shouldered man with curly brown hair and friendly, inquisitive hazel eyes. "There is none for him in Syria."

Suleiman's son Amr was set to travel on a ferry to Mercin that evening. Relatives awaited him in Istanbul. Suleiman, however, was returning to Damascus, where his wife remained. Suleiman expressed an interest in obtaining a visa to travel to the UK, but said he was unwilling to smuggle himself or members of his family on a boat, or travel overland to Europe and then attempt to seek asylum.

"It is too dangerous and unpredictable," said Suleiman. "I have lost too much already."

Read all of VICE News' coverage of the refugee crisis here

Before images of the limp body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish boy from the northern Syrian city of Qamishli, appeared in the global media, the UK had accepted only 216 refugees of the conflict since March of 2014.

The British government has since pledged to re-settle 4,000 refugees per year in the UK for the next five years, and the US has agreed to take 10,000 in the next year. However, those figures still pale in comparison to other European states, led by Germany, which has offered to take in 800,000. The UK Conservative party's approach to the refugee crisis has been described as "wholly inadequate" by Labour's new leader Jeremy Corbyn.

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited informal Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley as part of a whistle-stop diplomatic visit to Lebanon, his first ever to the country.

During the visit, Cameron drew attention to the British government's provision of £300 million [$469 million] of assistance to Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, stating that further aid was part of a "comprehensive approach to tackle migration from the region."

A Syrian refugee in Lebanon

In the wake of Europe's largest refugee crisis on record, the Conservative government has advocated for a Middle Eastern solution. Previously, Cameron had described Syrians seeking refuge in Europe from a conflict that has killed over 200,000 people as a "swarm." Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has preferred the designation "marauding."

While Suleiman believed that attempting to travel to Western Europe from Turkey involved too great a risk, others among the assembling crowd disagreed.

Hiba, a 34-year-old woman with dark-brown eyes and dressed in a black-cloth hijab, sat on a plastic chair a few yards away from Amr and his father. Originally from the Salaheddine district of Aleppo, Hiba left Syria's second city three years ago, making the treacherous 300 km-plus [186 mile] journey to the Lebanese border with her husband and two young children before settling in Qobbeh, an impoverished neighborhood in central Tripoli.

Hiba said that the World Food Program's lowering of monthly food tokens from $30 to $13 per person, per month, has made it increasingly difficult to keep food on the table.

"There are no work opportunities here, and my children are not enrolled in schools. My husband has an eye infection but we cannot afford to pay $50 just for a doctor's appointment," explained Hiba, who declined to reveal her family name, placing a couple of bottles of water and a packet of biscuits for the ferry journey in a rucksack. "Ideally I want to go to Germany," Hiba continued, before admitting that neither her nor her husband were sure of the exact route they planned to take upon arrival in Turkey.

On Wednesday, riot police in Hungary fired water-cannons and tear-gas at Syrian refugees attempting to enter the country from Serbia after the border was closed on Tuesday night. Syrian refugees have since begun to explore alternative routes to reach Western Europe via Croatia. But even Germany, the most welcoming European nation to Syrian refugees, has now re-established national border controls along its border with Austria.

European governments are currently discussing the prospect of tightening access to Europe for refugees, as well as imposing restrictions on asylum applications among plans to build camps outside the EU, pointing to the failure of Gulf Arab states to welcome more Syrian refugees.

While 22 European nations have agreed "on principle" to share 160,000 refugees across at least 22 countries, a formal decision that would make such a scheme binding was notably postponed during a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels on Monday.

As Hiba spoke, a young boy with scruffy hair ran up to the table. It was one of Hiba's children. Hiba ruffled the boy's hair for a second before he darted off to play once again. Watching her son chase a couple of friends around the trunk of a nearby tree, Hiba repressed a giggle before breaking into a smile.

"We still have hope."

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