"Death Boats" take Lives of Palestinians seeking illegal immigration to West
Beirut – Years have passed, but Munther’s grief-stricken mother still sobs every time she looks at the picture of her son who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Greece along with his cousin Wassim while trying to immigrate to Europe illegally.
“He was everything to us. I wish he were still alive, even as a prisoner somewhere,” she says, her voice breaking up and her eyes flooded with tears over the loss of Munther who was supporting the family in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr El-Bared in north Lebanon.
Wassim’s mother, who dreamt of holding her son one more time, or at least of burying him, as a dead person should be, died this year.
Both their families were unable to retrieve the dead bodies from the deep sea water after the boat carrying them capsized.
The two young men left without anyone noticing, towards the end of 2003.
Unlike their grandfathers who ended in Lebanon because of compulsory migration after they lost their homes following the creation of Israel in 1948, both men never got to the final destination of their “voluntary immigration”.
Most young Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon who have tried immigrating illegally have been lost in the Mediterranean sea, or were caught by police and jailed or were deported to Lebanon.
Munther and Wassim decided to leave in search of better jobs and a more settled life, far away from the mud alleys of their impoverished refugee camp. The two men were unemployed, working occasionally, and could not provide sufficient income to feed the family or allow them to form families of their own.
They had no future; especially that legal migration is not open to Palestinian refugees. Illegal immigration was their only chance. But like any smuggling operation, the rules of the game remain in the hands of the brokers.
Munther and Wassim landed into the hands of a brutal broker who kidnapped them in Turkey, demanding more money. After negotiations that lasted for two weeks, he accepted $3600 against releasing them and sending them to Greece. Munther and Wassim were put in a small run down boat with 67 other illegal migrants. The sea turned against them and they drowned, along with their hopes.
A Sample of Dozens
Though the families of Munter and Wassim continue to suffer from their loss, the two young men are but a sample of dozens of young men from the Nahr El-Bared refugee camp (see the box) who attempt to immigrate illegally every year, risking their lives and money. It is true that few of them did make it to their final immigration destination, but many of them failed and returned to their camps after losing thousands of dollars, have lost their lives and sometimes were killed by snipers at country borders.
It may be difficult to talk about a real phenomenon of illegal migration to European countries from Lebanon in general, or from inside Palestinian refugee camps in particular, in the absence of official figures, even at embassies of the most favored destination countries (see the box). But illegal immigration continues, and camp residents continue to suffer from it. The responsibility is shared between families who collect money to help their sons in this type of immigration, instead of investing this money in trade or a small business, the young men who refuse to compromise and the Lebanese government whose strict nationality and labor policies have left these young men with no light at the end of the tunnel
It is almost impossible to reach these young men or the brokers, to entice them to reveal their stories and to expose their documents, except in a few individual cases which contributed to this investigation.
Salman (the name is fictitious), is one of those young men who tried many times to immigrate to Germany, until he became an expert in the meanderings of illegal immigration. He goes to the café every evening to meet his friends, hoping to forget a worry that has consumed him for years. He is 28 years old with no secure job. A number of questions continue to deprive him from sleep: What shall I do tomorrow? How can I find work? Do I beg or steal? How can I get married and start a family when I have nothing?
Rabe’i, the Broker
Salman started searching for a job after finishing secondary school to save money for travel. Despite his diligence and hard work, he could not save enough money, except with the help of his father, and a brother who lives in Germany. He contacted the broker known as Rabe’i, who filled him in on the details of travel and cost and asked for $3,000 to get him to Greece, the first leg of the trip.
In the camps of Nahr El-Bared and Burj Al-Barajneh, it is easy to identify brokers and to access them, although residents prefer not to talk openly about them. They are perceived as “saviors” of young people from unemployment or as “helping” them build a better future. They mention success stories about young men who used their services to migrate and helped improve the fortunes of their families back in the camps.
Those brokers (Palestinians and Lebanese), scattered throughout the camp, represent an initial link in a long and complicated chain. They deliver the illegal migrants to other smugglers and brokers in Syria and Turkey, who in turn transport them to Greece. Brokers know nothing except a cell phone number that changes in most cases.
The illegal migrants normally rely on smugglers of goods and consumer commodities such as cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, fuel, livestock, drugs and weapons.
Malek (a fictitious name), for example, owns as “general trade” store with branches inside and outside Nahr El-Bared camp, near the border with Syria. Malek crosses the border every now and then, and sometimes reaches Turkey to buy wholesale goods. He met smugglers and brokers there after obtaining the phone number of one of them from a young man who tried to migrate before. Malek started to help the young men exit their camp to the wider world admitting that he had “helped seven young men leave the camp in two groups.”
He explains: “The first time was by obtaining legal visas to Turkey. At that time, entering Turkey required a visa. I used to take them to Istanbul and from there to Greece through another smuggler. The second time was with a group of four young men whom I helped reach Turkey through Syria overland.”
Malek explains the difference between a smuggler, a broker and an intermediary. The smuggler is the person who undertakes the process of crossing the border areas. His primary job is to smuggle goods, and he normally takes no responsibility for any losses or damage that migrants may suffer from. The intermediary is the contact person between the smuggler and the broker. He transports the young men within the same country. He gets paid by the broker. The broker, who benefits first and foremost, is the primary person with whom the prospective migrants communicate. He shows them the way, and introduces them to the intermediaries and smugglers. Brokers normally do not leave their place of residence, living either in Lebanon, where they deal directly with the young men, or at the last point of smuggling (Istanbul or Izmir). They are the senior and key smugglers. In most cases, a special and close relationship connects brokers with security authorities in each country, to ensure they are not caught. They even coordinate with security men at all stations, against paybacks and gifts.
After meeting Rabe’i (his real name), Salman came back to his father asking to borrow $1,500 to pay the broker. It never occurred to him that he would be paying many times the same amount of money to save his life and return to the camp in the summer of 2007. Salman says: “The broker did not explain to us the dangers we would be facing across the borders, the possibility of being killed by snipers at the border or even drowning. He misled us by making us believe that the road is safe and easy, and that all it takes is a little bit of courage.”
Salman and his friends did not drown, but “saw death with their own eyes in Turkey and close to Greece,” as they recall. Reaching Turkey half way through as the migrant can neither turn back or to move ahead on his own, the smuggler started to blackmail him. Salman says that the broker in Istanbul, named Yahia delivered the group to smugglers who put them on board an aging boat with 64 other migrants from different nationalities after keeping them in a flat for 6 days. The old boat left the port of Izmir at night, but soon it broke down because it was carrying more than its capacity of 40 passengers, and its engine was old. The young men drifted along, trying to fix the engine until they were helped by fishermen to return to the Izmir shores.
Salman called Yahia enquiring about why he is sending them in a small boat and how they can proceed with the trip. Yahia claimed that the first broker, Rabe’i paid him $450 of the total amount of $2,000 dollars, and hence, he needs another $500 from each migrant to send them safely to Greece through Edirne. There, Yahia’s men put them in a car and handed them over to Turkish police, after taking their money and realizing they had no money to be taken from.
Salman decided to try to migrate for a second and a third time.
Surrendering these young men to the police is often repeated. It happened again with young men from Nahr El-Bared, who embarked on the trip in Edirne. Khaled, 24, tried to immigrate in 2006 using the method Salman did. He says: “I arrived in Istanbul, and paid a broker called ‘Sirdab’ after I felt he was sincere, because he smuggled me from Syria without using a broker from Lebanon. I called my family and asked them to transfer $3,500”. After receiving the money, smugglers put him on a small bus to Ederne. But after 15 minutes, the driver stopped in a small village, and locked the passengers inside the bus until the police came and apprehended them. Khaled remained in jail for 4 months until he was returned by the Turkish authorities to Syria, and then to his camp.
Other young men from Nahr El-Bared and Burj Al-Barajneh camps fell into the hands of the police because of disagreements over money between “border” smugglers and “in-land smugglers” in Turkey and in Syria. These are called “intermediaries” because they deliver the migrants to the senior brokers. What happens is that sometimes these intermediaries disclose the whereabouts of the illegal immigrants or drive them directly to police stations, claiming that they had apprehended them.
After being released from jail, Salman saved money and tried to immigrate for a third time relying on a different broker from Nahr El-Bared, who is known for his long experience and his professional skills in smuggling young Palestinian men. But the third attempt was not more successful. Crossing the river separating Lebanon from Syria in the north he felt that there was a disagreement among smugglers on both sides, and understood from the Syrians that they wanted an additional amount of money, which the others refused to pay. When he arrived at the other river bank, he was kidnapped by the smugglers, who took the amount of $2,000 dollars and handed him over to the Syrian authorities.
Brokers use fictitious names to identify themselves. Yahia is considered the most prominent among the young men who immigrated from Lebanon. He lives in Istanbul, and collaborates with smugglers who transport migrants from Syria to Turkey. And he, in turn, hands them over to other smugglers who transport them to Greece by sea or via the Edirne River. Yahia speaks both Arabic and Turkish. It is believed that he is originally Turkish, but nobody knows for sure. There is another broker in Turkey, named Fawzi. He is originally Tunisian and has assistants from his country, including a woman in her thirties, named Huda. Her job is to smuggle migrants from Syria to Istanbul with her colleagues, through Antioch.
Fawzi (his real name) and his assistants are illegal immigrants from Tunisia, who failed to reach Europe, and found in smuggling other people a good source of income, after perfecting the “secrets of the trade”. Among them is Nader Al-Tarabulsi (his real name).
The case of Tunisian illegal immigrants resembles the case of Palestinians from Lebanon and Gaza. In Izmir, for example, there is a Palestinian broker, known as Abu Nasser Al-Falastini, whose reputation reached the alleys of Nahr El-Bared. From the camps of Lebanon, Rabe’i undertook brokerage as a profession during his stay in Turkey. He went on to Sweden. Others reached Germany or Denmark.
Brokers of a different type are now active in the camp. They are “legitimate” expatriates who come to Lebanon to visit family, and offer help in immigration matters to those who, they feel, wish to travel. Travel is on a forged or stolen passport from Germany or Denmark, or through a Shengen visa from countries neighboring Germany (especially Poland or Ukraine), through their embassies in Lebanon, against an amount of money ranging from $6,000 to $8,000. The immigrant can enter Germany overland, since both countries belong to the European Union.
This method is attractive to young people despite its high cost, because it is less dangerous, although it is less of a guarantee too. In early 2011, the Polish authorities returned Wissam (fictitious name) after arriving at Warsaw airport and acting suspiciously, pretending he was a tourist. The authorities did not fall for the trick, and deported him. This was not his first attempt. In 2005, Wissam tried to travel through Turkey, and like Salman, he reached the Greek coast, where the he was arrested and dropped near a Turkish border crossing. He was detained for 47 days, returned to Syria and then to Lebanon. Wissam says: “I lost about $13,000 in my second attempt. I paid $8,000 for the visa to Poland, and $3000 in my first trip.”
After the Syrian authorities beat and insulted Salman for 20 days they released him and sent him back to Lebanon, where he went through months of depression. He had lost his money and failed to find a better future. Salman says: “I cannot pursue brokers legally. The first broker, Rabe’i, migrated to Sweden after collecting a lot of money from smuggling young men. I cannot prove that the others’ will take my money and give me guarantees for safe arrival. We committed illegal acts.”
This report was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and under the supervision of Bissan El-Cheikh.