Death is everywhere in the impoverished, violent corners of Lebanon — but refugees who try to seek a better life in Europe often find themselves robbed blind or facing death at sea.
AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon — Zeinab doesn’t look like a refugee smuggler.
“The people in this camp are living like dogs,” says the petite, hijab-clad woman, whose name has been changed. “They want to leave because of the situation here, the killings and the conditions. They’d rather die at sea than at the hands of their fellow Muslims.”
Zeinab does business out of a small clothing store in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh. The camp, which lies at the heart of the southern Lebanese city of Saida, was established in 1948 following the mass exodus of Palestinians after the establishment of the state of Israel. It’s an extremely violent place: The most recent clashes in August between the Palestinian faction Fatah and rival Islamists, led by the militant group Jund al-Sham, left at least three dead. The fierce fighting, sparked by an assassination attempt on a Fatah leader, forced dozens of families to flee the area. The Islamic State also has a presence in Ain al-Hilweh, and the group’s notorious black banner adorns some streets in the camp.
Before the Syrian civil war began, there were 70,000 Palestinians living in Ain al-Hilweh, which occupies less than one square mile of land. But the devastating conflict has prompted another flood of Syrians and Palestinians living in Syria: The camp’s population is now estimated to have ballooned by another 10,000 people. Given the brutal conditions there, many of its residents are seizing the opportunity to hire people like Zeinab to provide them with passage to Europe. As the influx of refugees seeking asylum in Europe grows, so does the refugee smuggling industry, now said to be a $26 billion per year business. Over 300,000 migrants are reported to have crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, and the number keeps growing.
It’s a trip taken at great financial cost and risk to their lives, given the dangers faced on most water and land routes.
“I used to send [the refugees] from here to Sudan, then into Libya and from there by boat to Italy,” Zeinab says. “But the mafia closed the route to Italy, so now I talk to someone who gets them a visa to Turkey. After that, it’s not my problem.”
Zeinab eyes the door as she speaks — she’s expecting customers any minute. Her all-inclusive fee to be smuggled to Europe is $4,000 per person, as astronomical sum for most refugees.
“If you have a son, you sell everything to put him in this danger, because there’s no hope here,” she said. “Some of them sell their houses to pay me, but they do it because they don’t have any choice. I’m not doing this for the money, though. I’m doing it to help people.”
But others say all the refugee smugglers in the camp, including Zeinab, are ruthless criminals who often take their customers’ fees without delivering their end of the bargain. In a yard outside a center operated by Jund al-Sham (“Soldiers of the Levant”), one of their leaders, who goes by Mohammed, explains how the Islamists have helped refugees from Syria.
“The Palestinians are an orphaned people,” he says somberly, sipping tea. In his twenties, he has a quick smile and the long beard typically worn by Salafist Muslims. “Now the Syrians are the same.”
Many Syrians rely on Jund al-Sham’s center for displaced people in the camp, Mohammed says. He points to a tall, thin man sitting across the courtyard. “He tried to pay a smuggler to take him to Europe. Tell her what happened.”
“I wanted to leave,” the man says quietly. “[The smugglers] charged $6,500 to take me on the route, but they took my money and left me. I spent everything I had.”
Why did he take such a risk?
“I used to work in construction when I lived in Syria,” he responds. “I lost the planks I was building with. I have nothing left to lose.”
Some leaders in the camp view the departure of refugees to Europe warily. In another part of the camp, Mounir Maqdah, leader of Jund al-Sham’s rival, Fatah, relaxes in his beautifully appointed home. Shiny black SUVs are parked in the compound outside. Fatah is the largest armed faction associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the best-funded of all Palestinian political groups, so its leaders tend to live comfortably. Maqdah reclines in an antique chair, smoking an imported cigarette.
“The Zionists are attacking the Palestinian people on a daily basis,” he said. “They want us to leave this land. And we will not leave. We see Ain al-Hilweh as a small Palestine. From this small Palestine we hope to go to the real Palestine, despite the ships of death that carry people into the sea via smugglers. No matter how many of us decide to travel somewhere else illegally, there will still be more.”
While many Palestinians are joining the migration of refugees into the West, European countries have been much less willing to welcome them. A video of German chancellor Angela Merkel awkwardly explaining to a sobbing Palestinian teenager why her family faces the threat of deportation went viral in July.
As dangerous as it is to be smuggled to Europe, given the number of casualties associated with the trip, for some the cost of staying in Ain-al-Hilweh is just as high. Yasser Dawoud, executive director of Nabaa, an NGO that does humanitarian work in Ain al-Hilweh, explains that the status quo for maintaining security in the camp is flawed and unsustainable.
“Try to imagine that 70,000 people live with 24 armed factions in a space less than one kilometer,” says Dawoud. “We have no statistics, but I think there must be hundreds of people in Ain al-Hilweh who are wanted by the Lebanese government. The possibility of having violent clashes on a monthly basis is very high.”
The looming threat of violence has made less fortunate residents of the camp desperate to leave as soon as possible. Fatima, whose name has been changed, lost her husband during the most recent conflict between Fatah and Jund al-Sham. His photograph is mounted on the wall of her grimy little apartment, where she, her sister, and two daughters huddle together, dressed in full-length, black niqabs.
“We were at home,” Fatima explains. “We had dinner. My husband went to walk his sister home, because there were clashes. Usually when clashes happen, people go to the Fatah office, and he was a member. When he was on his way to the office, people assassinated him. We heard shooting. The young men immediately took his body. They didn’t show it to us until it was in its coffin, but his guts were out and his bones were smashed.”
In the aftermath of the murder, both daughters are eager to leave the camp — if only they can find the money to pay for their travel. “Not only is the camp a large prison, but neighborhoods are prisons too,” one daughter says. “You cannot leave your territory.”
Dawn Chatty, professor of anthropology and forced migration at Oxford University, says this kind of gamble is a result of the appalling conditions experienced by Syrian and Palestinian refugees, not just in Ain al-Hilweh but across the Middle East.
“Sometimes [the smugglers] come back and actually take the person and put them on a boat or whatever it is,” Chatty continues. “Sometimes they don’t come back, and these people have lost both their money and their passports. So they have to then find a way of making a lot more money in order to have fake passports, because you’re not going to get anywhere without having one of these documents. The power differential is totally in the hands of the smugglers, who see a way of making money, and so they’re going to do it.”
Some refugees pay the ultimate price in their gamble to find a better life overseas. Hiba is an elderly woman who fled Syria after the Yarmouk camp near Damascus was all but destroyed. Her eyes gleam with tears; it’s clear she’s been crying for days.
“My daughter Ghada and her sons, their wives and children took a boat to Europe last month,” she says. “It’s not that we do not know how they died, we do not know where they are. They disappeared; we are considering them disappeared. But we know they’re probably gone.”
Her cousin interjects heatedly. “The smugglers are vampires,” he says. “Do I want to risk the lives of my children? Of course not. But I’ll probably do it because I don’t have any other choice…. Here, as Palestinians, we cannot even work as trash collectors. It is forbidden.”
Ahmed, a 27-year-old man who lost one of his arms and the use of both his eyes in a clash last year, knows the dangers of camp life all too well. One eye socket is shrunken and empty, but the other eye is milky-white and seems to be fixed on a point far in the distance. He was injured, he says, while trying to protect a friend from assassination by Islamists — an attempt that failed, as his friend was gunned down.
“I don’t want to travel [to Europe], but there is no one in the camp that can take care of me,” he says. “Either I arrive and I live, or I do not arrive and I die. Here I am dead and in the sea I am dead, it is the same.”
Image credit: MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images