‘We are dead whether in Lebanon or the ocean’: Palestinian refugees risk everything to escape unliveable lives. Source: THE NEW ARAB. Fred says human beings in search of a “life” encouraged to use “Death Boats”; in another century in Ireland emigrants fled to America and they were called “Coffin Ships”.

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‘We are dead whether in Lebanon or the ocean’: Palestinian refugees risk everything to escape unliveable lives


7 min read

The New Arab (From the Arabic Edition)

26 October, 2022

In September, bodies were spotted off the Syrian coastal town Tartus – victims of the latest in a string of deadly shipwrecks. Many were Palestinian refugees, desperate to escape a country where some see themselves as already dead.


Grief has hung heavy over the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, as well as in the other Palestinian camps since the tragic sinking of a boat smuggling around 160 Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian would-be migrants off the coast of Tartus in Syria last month. Bodies were first spotted drifting close to the shores of Tartus on 22 September. Survivors said the boat had set sail two days earlier.

While the Lebanese army has arrested an individual they believe to be involved in running illicit people smuggling operations via the northern coast of Lebanon (between Arida and Miniyeh), it is widely understood that Lebanon’s economic situation, especially after the collapse of the Lebanese lira, and the cutting off of essential services almost completely, is the main factor pushing families and individuals to attempt to seek a more liveable life – even if via the so-called death boats.

The situation of Palestinian and Syrian refugees is even more desperate than for Lebanese civilians, with their longstanding lack of basic civil rights in the country further hampering their ability to live lives with even a shred of dignity.


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The cost of searching for a better life

Palestinian survivor Mohammed Fares Ismael lost his wife and three children. He is a nurse from Nahr al-Bared, who works in two medical centres. He says: “We set off at 12.30 at night, we were heading for Italy. But when we reached the boat we were shocked at the number of passengers – maybe 160 or 170 – much more than the boat was supposed to hold.

“The captain argued against the number of passengers, but was threatened, and was ordered to set off at 3.30am from Miniyeh village. At 7.30 the boat stalled, but started again. At 9, it completely broke down, and the waves were hugemany people on the lower deck drowned. The captain died, so did his wife and children. My wife, children, nephew and brother-in-law all died.”

Mohammed says he was swimming for 13 hours before he was rescued by a Syrian boat, which took him and a young Syrian who also survived to the hospital, where he lost consciousness. 

Palestinian refugees risk everything to escape Lebanon Mourners pray over the body of one of the victims who drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Tartus, Syria, during his funeral in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on 24 September 2022 [Fathi Al-Masri/AFP via Getty]

On his reasons for trying to leave Lebanon, he says: “My salary used to be equivalent to US$1,000. But after the Lebanese lira collapsed, my salary only equals US$40 – this doesn’t even cover my transport [to work]. So I decided to leave and borrowed money to do this. The smuggler told me the boat was in good shape, and there would be 70 passengers […]. I lost my children and my wife. I have nothing left. I wish I’d died with them. I don’t know how I survived.” He holds the boat’s owner responsible for what happened.

Mourning and rage

Ahmad Ghanoumi, Secretary of the Popular Committees in North Lebanon (concerned with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon), says: “We are devastated. There were 39 Palestinians on that boat, 35 from Nahr al-Bared and four from the  Shatila camp (south Beirut), as well as Lebanese and Syrians. Today the camp is in a state of mourning and rage. The despair people are living through daily is what is pushing them to consider trying to leave via the sea, when they know the chance of them reaching their destination is a hundred to one.

“Lebanon’s economic situation is extremely difficult, and the families in the camps face added crises because huge numbers of university graduates aren’t allowed to use their qualifications to find work. People don’t have options.”

He points out that Palestinians in the camps are deprived of the most basic essentials of life, for which he holds UNRWA responsible – they are reducing their services daily. The Lebanese state also carries responsibility for depriving Palestinians of their right to work, and Palestinian leaders and factions bear some responsibility, he adds.

“Poverty, insecurity, and the lack of a future are behind the attempts to leave, and leading to this situation where people are sacrificing their lives in the hope of being saved. We are dead anyway, whether in Lebanon or the ocean”

Coastguard left families to die

Toddler Samir Maher Abu Satita (3), whose family are Palestinian refugees from Shatila camp, drowned when his family attempted to escape Lebanon in a separate incident earlier in September. The family were seeking a better life. Samir’s mother’s brother, Ahmad Saleh Daoud, also lives in Shatila camp.

“My brother-in-law was suffering. His situation is the same as most young Palestinians here. Life is impossible with the high cost of living, the electricity blackouts, and other worries. He couldn’t bear this life any longer. He works in aluminium. He had one child, Samir, who died during their journey to emigrate. He was a dad trying to travel for a dignified life for his son…but he ended up losing him. He and my sister are still being held in Turkey. We heard they are safe from a friend.”

He continues: “My sister’s husband sold all his furniture to raise money for the smugglers, who coordinated with state agents to facilitate the boat’s departure. There were 50 people on board, it could hold 60. But the engine broke down off the Greek coast. The Greek coastguard came, took their money, clothes and phones, cutting their communication with us, then made them get into a rubber dingy.


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“My sister was wearing a life jacket. Eventually, most people drowned. My sister was in the water until 8 am. In the morning, the Turks rescued them. There is no way to contact them right now, but my sister’s husband managed to contact a friend of his using one of the Turkish soldier’s phones, and it was him who told us the boy had died.”

Cost-of-living literally claiming lives

Rayham Daoud, Samir’s aunt, says: “My sister stayed in Tripoli for around six weeks prior to leaving. The smuggler kept telling them the boat would set off any day now. It finally set off on the 10th of September.”

“My sister’s husband decided to leave as he couldn’t afford the horrific cost of living. His salary wasn’t enough anymore, and their rent had risen to around 7 million lira ($1 equals LBP 37,000 at current black market rates), and added to that were electricity generator fees, food and drink, and other things. He decided to leave for Germany. The trip set off on Saturday 10 September, and my sister called us at midday the next day, saying they had passed Cyprus. In the evening of the same day, she told me they had reached Greece.”

Turkey’s coast guard says five people were found dead on Friday after a migrant boat sank in the Aegean Sea. Further south, the body of another migrant was recovered from the sea near the tourist destination of Bodrum in Mugla province.https://t.co/OLW2Q4sH89


Rayham says that “poverty, insecurity, and the lack of a future are behind the attempts to leave, and leading to this situation where people are sacrificing their lives in the hope of being saved. We are dead anyway, whether in Lebanon or the ocean. Right now, I just want to speak to my sister and know she’s OK. She will certainly be distraught, having lost her son.”

Muhammed Waked, was the friend Samir’s father called: “He called me from a Turkish guard’s phone, and told me Samir had died because of the Greek coastguards who aimed to drown them. As for the second call, it was very short, he reassured me he was safe and ended the call.”

Ahed Bahar, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) political relations officer in Shatila, says: “The emigration issue is old, and it re-emerges whenever there is a new economic crisis in Lebanon which the Palestinians are affected by.

“Because there is no work, the Palestinian youth think about leaving. All Palestinians here say they are already dead, and the risk of death at sea doesn’t put them off if they are trying to seek a better life for themselves and their families.  UNRWA is responsible for what is happening, because it is responsible for the Palestinian people.”

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source’s original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: info@alaraby.co.uk

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