Syrians abandon Lebanon as new migrant route to Europe beckons

Syrians abandon Lebanon as new migrant route to Europe beckons
Belarus has been accused of offering migrants tourist visas and helping them across its border. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 October 2021

Syrians abandon Lebanon as new migrant route to Europe beckons

Syrians abandon Lebanon as new migrant route to Europe beckons
  • Thousands seek “tourist visas” after Belarus accused of helping asylum-seekers across its border
  • In the past two months, more than 16,000 undocumented migrants are believed to have entered the EU from Belarus

BEIRUT: Struggling to cope with soaring living costs and low wages, desperate Syrian refugees and workers are abandoning Lebanon and turning to a new migration route into Europe, via Belarus, with many risking their lives and family savings in the process.

An illegal Syrian worker who arrived in Beirut four years ago and lives with his 20-year-old sister in the capital told Arab News that “working in Lebanon no longer makes sense.”

“I work all day long delivering goods to be paid 50,000 Lebanese pounds (equivalent to $2.50 on the black market),” Ahmed said. “That is not nearly enough because of the rising costs.”

In the past two months alone, more than 16,000 undocumented migrants are believed to have entered the EU from Belarus after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko responded to Brussels-imposed sanctions by saying he will no longer stop asylum-seekers from crossing into neighboring Poland.

Belarus has been accused of offering migrants tourist visas and helping them across its border — a move that appears to have made the previous migrant route through Turkey and on to the Greek islands a thing of the past.

Arab and foreign airlines arranging trips to Belarus through Lebanon have seen demand surge since September, while Syrians have been queuing outside the General Directorate of Public Security’s offices in Beirut for hours to have their passports returned or to pay residency fees.

Lebanese citizens can obtain a visa for Belarus once they arrive at Minsk airport. However, Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians are required to get a tourist visa in advance.

Ahmed told Arab News that he found a video on TikTok of Syrians talking about their trip to Belarus, then Poland and finally to Germany, and claiming that the journey is less risky than traveling by sea.

“I am now getting my documents ready to leave before the end of October, because things will not get easier after that because of the conditions in winter,” he said.

Migrants undertaking the journey face hazardous conditions, with freezing overnight temperatures and the risk of getting lost in dense forests along the 500 km frontier. They must also deal with people smugglers of different nationalities who demand thousands of dollars in advance payments.

Social media posts offer details about the journey and the sums migrants can expect to pay. Those who reach their final destination reassure their families that they have arrived at “the camp” — an expression refugees use to describe salvation, as they pursue a “better life.”

Ali, 35, who has worked as a janitor in Beirut’s suburbs for more than 10 years, said that friends who completed the migration route called him via WhatsApp and “seemed very happy.”

However, Ali said that he would not consider making the trip. “Migrants must be young. There is no place for families on such an arduous journey.”

Belarus’ announcement at the end of May that it would not stop migrants from entering Europe came in response to a series of EU sanctions imposed after Belarusian authorities forced a passenger plane to land in Minsk and seized opposition journalist Roman Protasevich who was on board.

Following the incident, the EU banned Belarusian carriers from using its airspace and airports.

A Syrian worker, who declined to be named, said: “Syrians in Syria and Lebanon have heard stories about migration to Belarus, then on to Europe, since August, but they remained skeptical about this route until September.”

He added: “Those who work legally in Lebanon have the right to travel from Beirut International Airport and the right to return to Lebanon as long as their residency permits are valid, but if a refugee wishes to leave Lebanon and go to Belarus, they are required to sign a document stating they will never come back.”

The website of the Belarusian Consulate in Lebanon provides instructions on obtaining an entry visa for Belarus, with a list of required documents and visa fees. Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians need a tourist visa to enter the country, and must provide the name of the airline, a passport valid for at least six months, and an insurance policy that costs €12 ($14). A single-entry visa costs €25.

The embassy’s website has been overwhelmed with questions from Syrians seeking a “tourist visa for one week.”

Three airlines, Syrian Air, Emirates and Turkish, fly to Minsk from Lebanon. According to Syrians, the flights “are fully booked by tourists.”

Ahmed said: “The tourism office asked me to pay $4,000 for the visa, a one-week hotel reservation and a ticket. When I get to Belarus, I will have to wait with a group of 10 or 15 people for someone who will get us a mobile phone with Internet access and a pinned location on the Belarusian-Polish border that we are supposed to reach by foot, crossing through a forest on the frontier.”

He said that the journey might take hours. “When we reach the location, a car will be waiting for us on the Polish side of the border to get us into Germany. There, we will turn ourselves in and ask for asylum. To get from Belarus to Poland, my family must transfer $3,000 to an account in Turkey, whose owners will handle the cost of the next phase, from Poland to Germany.”

Crossing from Belarus into Poland is getting increasingly difficult.

Ali was told by his friends that “the Belarusian police turn a blind eye to those walking in the jungle, but the Polish security authorities have very strict measures. If they catch people trying to cross the borders illegally, they send them back to Belarus. However, asylum-seekers do not give up. They keep trying. Those who fail to reach the location, return to their hotels and try again the next day.”

He said that “those who handle the smuggling operation are from different nationalities, and might be Belarusian, Iraqi or Syrian.”

Ali also said that his relative “got lucky while crossing the jungle, as he fell and injured his leg, but there was a Syrian doctor in the group, who is also an asylum-seeker.”

Poland said that its border patrols have detained hundreds of migrants since August. Groups of migrants include Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, as well those from Turkey and Jordan.

According to press reports, several asylum-seekers have died of exhaustion as temperatures in the forests on the Belarusian-Polish border plummet.

The Polish Press Agency reported that the body of a 19-year-old Syrian man who drowned in the Bug River on the border was found on Wednesday.


Coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot

Coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot
Updated 6 sec ago

Coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot

Coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot
  • The coalition is taking all necessary measures to protect civilians and stop cross-border attacks, it said in a statement

DUBAI: The Arab coalition launched a series of attacks against Houthi targets overnight, destroying a communication system in the Al-Bani district and a weapons depot in Sanaa. 
The coalition said the communication system was being used to launch cross-border drone attacks. 
Coalition forces earlier intercepted and destroyed two drones in Yemeni airspace, one of which was monitored and launched from Sanaa airport.
Clashes between the Iran-backed Houthis and the coalition have intensified in recent months, specifically in Marib where it destroyed a Houthi missile defense system.
On Wednesday, the coalition carried out 16 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Marib in the past 24 hours. It said 95 militants were killed and 11 Houthi military vehicles were destroyed during the operation.
The coalition is taking all necessary measures to protect civilians and stop cross-border attacks, it said in a statement.


UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
Updated 09 December 2021

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
  • Two incidents in the past week, one in Basra and the other in the north of the country, left dozens of people dead or injured
  • Council members pledged their continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and in opposing Daesh in particular


The UN Security Council on Wednesday strongly condemned recent terrorist attacks in Iraq that killed or injured dozens of people. Daesh has claimed responsibility.
At least four people were killed and 20 injured in an explosion in Basra on Dec. 7, and at least 13 died in an attack in the north of the country on Dec. 3.
The members of the Security Council offered their condolences to the families of the dead and wished the injured a speedy recovery. They also reiterated their support for the “independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, democratic process and prosperity of Iraq.”
They urged all states to “actively” cooperate with Iraqi authorities to bring to justice the “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism.” Such cooperation, they stressed, is in line with obligations under international law and Security Council resolutions.
Council members “reiterated that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”
Pledging its continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and particularly Daesh, the council “reaffirmed the need for all states to combat by all means — in accordance with the charter of the United Nations and other obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law — threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”


Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts
Updated 09 December 2021

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

Half of Iran’s civil jets grounded for lack of spare parts

TEHRAN: More than half of Iran’s fleet of civilian aircraft is grounded due to a lack of spare parts, the deputy head of the country’s airlines association has said.

“The number of inactive planes in Iran has risen to more than 170 ... as a result of missing spare parts, particularly motors,” Alireza Barkhor said in an interview with state news agency IRNA.

The shortage represented more than half of the civilian aircraft in the sanctions-hit country, he said in an interview this week.

“If this trend continues, we will see even more planes grounded in the near future,” Barkhor was quoted as saying.

“We hope that one of the priorities of the government will be helping to finance airlines so that they are able to provide the spare parts to refurbish the grounded planes,” he added.

According to the Iranian economic daily Financial Tribune, national carrier IranAir currently operates a fleet of 39 planes, the majority of them Airbus jets.

Iran’s economy has struggled under sanctions that were lifted after a landmark nuclear deal in 2015 but reimposed again after the US withdrew from the pact in 2018.

In 2016, following the lifting of sanctions, Iran concluded deals to purchase 100 Airbus jets, 80 Boeing planes and 40 ATR aircraft.

But the Islamic republic received only 11 planes as deliveries were interrupted following the reimposition of sanctions, according to the daily.

Meanwhile, Iran has voiced criticism over new US sanctions imposed on a dozen Iranian entities and officials accused of “serious” human rights abuses.

Washington announced the sanctions late on Tuesday, adding to already stringent measures against the Islamic republic.

They came just before talks on reviving a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers are to resume on Thursday in Vienna, according to Iran’s main negotiator.

“Even amid #ViennaTalks, US cannot stop imposing sanctions against Iran,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted.

“Washington fails to understand that ‘maximum failure’ and a diplomatic breakthrough are mutually exclusive,” he added.

“Doubling down on sanctions won’t create leverage — and is anything but seriousness and goodwill.”

The new US measures target government officials and organizations involved in the repression of protesters and political activists, and prisons where activists have been held in brutal conditions.

After a pause of several months the nuclear talks resumed in Vienna last week but paused on Friday.


Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans
Updated 09 December 2021

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans

Music therapy helping lift spirits of war-weary Gazans
  • Music therapy gained official recognition after World War II in successfully dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • According to UNICEF figures, 1 million children live in Gaza which has witnessed four wars with Israel since 2008

GAZA CITY: Specialists in the besieged Gaza Strip are mixing psychiatry and music in therapy sessions designed to improve positivity among the Palestinian enclave’s war-weary population.

And 12-year-old Reem, whose family home was bombed in May during the latest clashes in the ongoing Israeli Palestinian conflict, has been one of those to benefit.

The youngster was left traumatized after an explosion at her house in Gaza’s Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood, an experience that has since regularly reduced her to tears and caused her to feel isolated and depressed.

But after getting involved in a music therapy scheme run by the Sununu Association for Culture and Arts and funded by the German GIZ organization, her stresses and fears have been significantly eased.

Reem listens to music without words during her weekly psychological support sessions organized as part of the Enjoy Your Life with Music initiative.

Program coordinator, Rania Al-Shurihi, said Reem’s mental health had improved dramatically as a result of her treatment, adding that the association also held group sessions for Gazans suffering from the psychological effects of years of war and economic hardship.

Music therapy gained official recognition after World War II in successfully dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and it is now used to treat a range of conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, heart irregularities, and blood pressure issues.

Al-Shurihi pointed out that sometimes exposing people to sad music helped them shed negative energy through crying but added that happy and relaxing music incorporating the sound of rain and waves could have similar positive outcomes.

She noted that psychological pressure often generated the need to listen to music or readings from the Holy Qur’an for relaxation.

Mental health specialists also use therapeutic methods such as writing, cooking, sailing, and breathing exercises to relieve tensions.

“Despite society’s inherited and negative view of mental health center visitors, the success of the music therapy experience has greatly contributed to changing these concepts,” Al-Shurihi said.

Experts believe that many children living in Gaza suffer from psychological damage related to the conflict including depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders, urinary incontinence, and nervous mood swings.

According to UNICEF figures, 1 million children live in Gaza which has witnessed four wars with Israel since 2008. The aid organization said the deadly conflict in May had a devastating impact on many youngsters after schools, health facilities, homes, and offices were damaged or flattened in missile attacks.

Al-Shurihi said it was important that music therapy continued to be offered in Gaza not just to tackle the effects of war but also the daily pressures of life faced by Palestinians.

“We all need psychological intervention to varying degrees. And through music, we seek to help the neediest people to overcome difficult circumstances and not drown in a sea of psychological crises,” she added.


Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes
Updated 08 December 2021

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes

Lebanese caught between old and new $100 banknotes
  • Banks and money changers deny taking commissions on old bills

BEIRUT: Lebanese money changers refusing to accept older $100 banknotes, known as “white notes,” is causing confusion, particularly after some people were charged an extra $5 fee for exchanging $100 white bills.

Dozens of customers flocked to banks to learn more about the news, especially since some of the white $100 notes were issued by banks.

A customer told Arab News: “Every Lebanese is keeping a stack of $100 bills in their home for when they need them the most since the banks confiscated our deposits, and no one dares to deposit a single dollar in the bank nowadays.”

He added: “I went to my bank to inquire about this new rule adopted by money changers. My daughter told me that one refused to exchange the $100 that she gave him, claiming it was an old edition and he had the right to take $5 as commission if she wanted to exchange it. Who gave them the right to do this? I, my wife and my children all work and we save whatever we make in dollars. Does this mean that our savings have become worthless?”

He said: “The bank manager told me that the problem is with money changers, not banks, since they do not have instructions to stop dealing with the old $100 bills; on the contrary, banks are using both the old and new editions. He suggested that I occasionally bring him $200 to $400, in exchange for which he would give me $50 bills until the issue with money changers is resolved.”

Over the past few days, the topic of “old, white” $100 and the “new, blue” $100 banknotes has dominated conversation.

Money transfer companies were also said to have refused to deal with the older notes. Some money changers have taken advantage of the ambiguity to impose a $10 fee for exchanging white $100 bills.

The confusion was said to said to have been stirred by one of the largest money shipping companies, shut down after it was subject to a judicial investigation into smuggling funds abroad after Oct. 17, 2019 — when the financial crisis hit Lebanon, and in light of which Banque du Liban froze transfers inside and outside Lebanon.

Mahmoud Murad, former head of the Syndicate of Money Changers, told Arab News: “This fad has been circulating in the Lebanese financial market for about a week now. We do not know its source, nor who invented it. The problem is that people believe anything in Lebanon.”

He added: “People who come to my business to buy dollar bills only accept the blue-colored edition now. We, as money changers, are buying and selling both the old and new editions; nothing has changed.”

Murad said: “If the $100 notes are worn-out or torn, we buy them from people but never sell them again. Instead, we give them to shipping companies to return them to the US and replace them with brand-new ones.

“But everyone in Lebanon is now a money changer. The Lebanese, the Syrian, the Sri Lankan, the Bengali, the supermarket cashier, the butcher, all engage in exchanging money. Money changers should not be blamed for this.”

Murad said that the Syndicate of Money Changers met on Wednesday and stressed that all money changers follow legal and moral rules when dealing with customers.

However, Banque du Liban revealed in a statement on Wednesday that “some banks and money changers have charged fees for exchanging $100 banknotes, claiming that they are outdated.”

It added: “The specifications of valid $100 notes are determined by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an agency affiliated with the US Treasury,” noting: “BDL alone determines the specifications of valid Lebanese currency.”

The US Embassy in Lebanon also stated on Wednesday that “it is US government policy that all designs of Federal Reserve notes remain legal tender, or legally valid for payments, regardless of when they were issued. This policy includes all denominations of Federal Reserve notes, from 1914 to present.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Banks in Lebanon announced that “after the great controversy surrounding some money changers taking commissions on old $100 bills, ABL would like to clarify that Lebanese banks deal with banknotes without any amendment to existing procedures. No additional fee is charged for accepting white $100 banknotes.”

OMT Exchange also stated that it “has not stopped accepting white $100 bills, if they are in good condition, and no additional fee is charged at any of our centers. OMT does not accept any banknotes that are torn, burnt, yellowed, or even partially damaged.”