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Would-be people

The Port of Tripoli, Photo by Valeria Rando / NOWLEBANON)

The Mediterranean route has been declared the deadliest in the world: nevertheless, hundreds of migrants continue to board from the Lebanese coast


It does not matter that it was declared the most dangerous route in the world: the Mediterranean sea, for many, is the only choice possible.

The boat that was rescued by the Lebanese Navy on Friday is just one of the dozens that every year set sail from the northern coast of Lebanon to head towards Cyprus, Greece, and Italy: 51, in 2022 alone, with a total of 4,334 passengers on board.

The difference between the order of tens and thousands – as well as the relationship between the two dimensions: the instrumental one – the boat, and the human one –  the migrants,  will perhaps give an idea of ​​the very harsh travel conditions. 1:84.98 – one boat for almost 85 people. And voluntarily I stress the ‘almost’: anyone who, despite being aware of the danger, still chooses to risk everything and embark, is clearly leaving something behind. A country. A hope. An ambition, a possible future. Even if it were only equivalent to 0.02 percent of oneself.

On last Friday’s boat, which set sail from the coast of Akkar, in northern Lebanon, there were 110 would-be migrants, 108 Syrians and two Lebanese. The former, Syrians, already refugees in a country that does not recognize their right to security, to housing, to work – with the exception of very few sectors: construction, agriculture and cleaning – and therefore to dignity; and who, since January 2023, have been at the centre of a violent campaign of forced deportations towards the border of what, for twelve years now, has been their no-longer-country.

The latter – Lebanese: theoretically able to undertake other routes, as they own the necessary passepartout to legal existence – a valid passport -, in the reality that does not look at either laws or theories, they cannot afford the requested finances. To obtain a visa to access Europe, the Schengen, foreign embassies require a bureaucratic manoeuvre that would prove ‘enough financial means’: that is, the original copies of the bank statements with the transactions of the last three to six months, the account balance and proof of regular income. This, for a country like Lebanon, in which more than 45% of the population lives below the poverty line – that is, they receive less than three dollars a day -, and in which the banks have closed due to lack of liquids, the liquids of the citizens, means: rejected.

In a prestige competition between papers, therefore, money beats documents. And the losers, every time, are the subordinate classes – and within them, without distinction that is not demeaning, the persecuted, the refugees, the exiles: whom, instead of protecting, the world penalises for the audacity of having survived yet another displacement, yet another war, yet another disastrous economic crisis. That is, further hunger, further cold.

2022, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), was the deadliest year for people transiting the Mare Nostrum since 2017: and of the 3,789 deaths in the eastern, central and southern Mediterranean – all direct from the Middle East and North Africa, carrying or not their 0.02 percent of hope, ambition or future – not counting the 2,406 disappearances along the route – about a tenth came from the Lebanese coast.

And if we still want to dissect, divide, categorise, according to the UNHCR, of all the would-be migrants in 2022 who departed from the Lebanese shores – the ones who tried to, but didn’t make it – the 66 % were Syrians, 24% Lebanese, and 10% Palestinians.


Would-be trips

Salim is thirty-two years old, he is Syrian, from Aleppo, and has not seen his family for twelve years. “Many times, in my dreams, but that doesn’t count,” he tells me, chasing away the emotional thought, and avoiding distractions from the data he promised to impart. “It was 2021, I didn’t have any money, and of all the traffickers I happened to meet, one of them, only one, had that bit of humanity to remember me when the opportunity came.” He is keen to repeat it: they were not friends, with such ruthless people it is not conceivable to build a relationship other than pure business. “When it comes to money, there is nothing that can stand in their way. Nothing, not even their own children.” Salim, which in Arabic language means ‘the one who is safe’, speaks to me in a square in the centre of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon: without fearing that passers-by will understand our English. We are sitting on a sidewalk drinking cardamom coffee, ourselves safe, quite far from the southern border under constant Israeli attacks, and far enough from the northern one overlooking Syria, where, if captured, he would probably face death: and the prophecy of his name would be denied.

Like many young Syrians who fled the war, Salim had taken part in the revolutions of 2011: having refused to join the army of the regime he opposed, he became a dissident, therefore wanted – and he fled, one night in 2012, crossing the first border that made him, from once-a-citizen, to irremediably refugee.

In Lebanon, where, depending on the political climate, he lived for years a little hidden, a little out into the open – always cautious not to tell too much about himself: “Syria teaches you not to trust anyone” – after being arrested for an expired residence permit, deprived of his passport, and replaced by a crumpled sheet of paper worth his entire identity, he attempted, more than once, to escape. Having ruled out legal action for obvious reasons, he was left with the Mediterranean option. “Back then I had two problems: that I had no money, and that I didn’t know how to swim.” You don’t really care about the second, because God will protect you, if you have faith. With respect to the first, however, if you are lucky enough to know – even without being friends with him – the only trafficker with that modicum of humanity to remember you, when comes the opportunity of a captain who lacks an assistant, even if you have never seen the open sea, and who offers you a free trip, at the sole price of that responsibility, it’s done. Even in this case, it seems, God took care of it. Ilhamdulillah.

“I know people who sold everything, their car, their jewels, just to be able to afford the trip. At least 5,000 dollars per person for Cyprus, up to 7,000 for Greece and Italy,” he tells me, confessing that he felt like an impostor, for that one stratagem that would have made his departure possible. “But I had nothing, just my cell phone, some certifications, a couple of books, some clothes for a climate I had no idea about, and I didn’t dare check, for fear they wouldn’t be enough.”

Back then, Salim did not leave: a last-minute call, a friend in difficulty that he couldn’t leave behind, the improvised replacement of his role as driving assistant, the unrepeatable price of his ticket, his occasional chance of salvation. Everything vanished.

I asked him, then, about his 0.02 percent. About the part of himself that he would have abandoned, or that was taken from him by force. Whether or not he found it again, going back to the place he is not allowed to call home; or whether it got lost forever. About what he was leaving behind, the things that he chose not to put in the only suitcase allowed on board.

“That one wasn’t the first time I tried to cross a border: when I left Syria, inside me I knew I wouldn’t return. Back then I lost most of my affections, my hopes, my friends, my dreams of the revolution. I was terrified, and when you’re that scared but forced to face your fear, you necessarily lose something. But this time, when I tried to leave Lebanon, I didn’t care about anything. My twenties had already got me used to the lack of identity.” That is: of dignity.

It is clear that it hurts him, intimately. More than not being able to see his family, more than having lost a country and all of the dreams of revolution, more than the dozens of friends killed in the war. “I practically do not exist”: and when you don’t exist, it’s easy – indeed, it’s irrelevant – to take risks, to face death. Salim’s trip, to date, has only been postponed. So, also the fulfilment of the prophecy of his name: his safety, which increasingly seems to coincide with survival.