Desperate Lebanese will continue to risk all to flee
The island may be just a trifling 800 meters long and 500 meters wide, but Arwad off the coast of Syria has experienced its fair share of grim history over three millennia. A host of empires competed over it, from the Assyrians to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Crusaders — all were aware of its strategic location.
Arwad is the only inhabited island between Tripoli and the Turkish border, yet it has so far remained physically unscathed from the Syrian war fought not far from its shores. It is, though, still affected by the drop in tourism and the crash of the economy that hit its other major economic activity: Boat building.
Last week, Arwad found itself at the center of the latest tragedy off the coasts of Syria and Lebanon. The numbers are not clear, but out of 150 people, perhaps nearly 100 died in the sea close to Arwad after an overloaded, dangerous death boat capsized. Dozens of the victims were children. They hoped, it seems, to reach Italy. They tried to call the Lebanese authorities, but no help materialized.
Having left the Miniyeh region, the boat was crammed with desperate refugees and migrants fleeing the economic crisis in Lebanon. It represents perhaps the worst such disaster in recent years. Bodies washed up on Syrian beaches. According to the Syrian authorities, 20 people survived and are being treated in hospitals. Of these, 12 were Syrian and three Palestinian.
Imagine, for a moment, being a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. You try to flee only to wash up into the arms of the very brutal regime that has terrorized your country and people. It is far from clear whether Syrian survivors will be allowed to return to Lebanon. Thus far, only survivors of other nationalities have been able to return and many families cannot get into Syria to identify bodies.
The people of Arwad were called into action. Its acute economic crisis forced its population to take tough decisions. The fishermen had barely any diesel for their boats. The people had been hoarding the fuel for the forthcoming winter months, unsure they would be able to afford or be able to obtain any. They fear death by freezing. In a display of compassion rarely on display in recent years, the population gave up their cherished winter supplies to ensure the fishermen could be in the first line of rescuers.
Most people outside of Lebanon do not appreciate how regular these maritime disasters have become. Only the week before, Cypriot authorities rescued 477 people in two boats. The UN says that 3,460 people have tried to leave Lebanon by sea in 2022, already more than double the number for 2021.
All of this points to so much of what has gone wrong, not just in this region but farther afield. The prospects for the future are grim.
Lebanon’s last three years of crushing economic mayhem has taken its toll. The currency has lost 90 percent of its value, with 80 percent of the population now classed as poor. Lebanese citizens and Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the country are just desperate to get out. At least 25 refugees from the Nahr Al-Bared camp were on the boat that sank off Arwad. Many of those who remain made it clear that they had become so desperate that even these latest deaths would not put them off. The scenes from the funerals in Tripoli would break all but the most leaden of hearts. In Lebanon’s second city, the conditions are perhaps at their worst. Many not only have limited access to electricity, but also often do not have access to water.
Tripoli is drowning in poverty, the poorest city in the country. But also, for an elite few, it is drowning in wealth. Some of the country’s richest politicians come from Tripoli. This includes the country’s billionaire Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the fourth-richest man in the Arab world. This wealthy elite is held responsible for many of the country’s failings and nowhere more so than in the north.
Is there much chance of Lebanon recovering in the near future? This seems unlikely. Who knows when the current caretaker government will be replaced by one with electoral legitimacy? Even then, will it be even semi-effective? The country has endured 20 months without a functioning government. Many ask whether anyone in Lebanon will ever be held accountable for this crisis and for the rampant corruption? The international community seems content to just let Lebanon become a failed state.
The Mediterranean has become a death zone. At a wider level, remember that the Eastern Mediterranean is not even the most dangerous sea crossing into Europe. That remains the central one, where migrants’ risks are even greater when making that crossing from Libya to Italy. That route will become even more dangerous once the incoming far-right government in Italy implements its migrant-hating policies as pledged.
Many in the richer world are seemingly anesthetized to major fatality incidents elsewhere in the world.
But in the east, while the crises in Syria and Lebanon may be the proximate cause, the European reaction is also responsible. Instead of establishing safe and secure routes for refugees in conformity with international law, as occurred with Ukrainian refugees this year, those from the Middle East are not wanted. Countries like the UK are trying to send asylum seekers as far away as Rwanda.
This explains why these disasters barely register in the European and American media. It was a nonissue, a nonstory in all bar a few newspapers. Many in the richer world are seemingly anesthetized to major fatality incidents elsewhere in the world. The specter of anti-Arab racism also lurks in the background. Simply put, these fatalities are too often just numbers, not humans.
One thing all Lebanese agree on is that this problem will just get worse. The deaths will not discourage the desperate. However, one does have to wonder just how many corpses it will take to make the rest of the world wake up.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech