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Covid-19 travel restrictions revive smuggling activity from Syria to Lebanon

Covid-19 travel restrictions revive smuggling activity from Syria to Lebanon

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Tuesday 9 November 202105:30 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

"لم أجد حلاً سوى الدخول خلسةً"... إجراءات كورونا تنعش تهريب السوريين إلى لبنان

Before 2011, it was normal for any Syrian family carrying only their identification cards to take a taxi, reach Lebanon within a couple of hours, and visit the neighboring country without any restrictions. Beirut, Tripoli, and many other Lebanese city, are not much farther from Damascus or Homs than they would be to other Syrian cities.

But in 2011, the instability in Syria changed its relationship with Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Syrians saw this neighboring country as their primary refuge and first exit to escape the horrors of war, whether through the regular borders, or through sneaking across, individually or in groups. Over the years, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon continued to rise, reaching nearly one and a half million, according to the latest UN statistics.

This increase in numbers has been accompanied by a gradual increase in the difficulty in transit procedures within the borders between Syria and Lebanon. For example, in 2018, the Lebanese General Security announced a number of new conditions for Syrians to be able to enter Lebanon. They were classified into six categories, including those entering for tourism - on the condition of having hotel reservations and a specified amount of money - those entering to study, those arriving to travel through the airport, those wishing to receive medical treatment, those coming to visit a foreign embassy, and those arriving to enter under a pre-existing commitment.

With the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, and countries taking precautionary and preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus, the General Directorate of Lebanese Security in September 2020 set every Wednesday of the week as the only day Syrians can enter Lebanon - for those who either have valid residency in Lebanon, or for students pursuing their studies in Lebanese universities - with the condition of taking a PCR test administred by the Ministry of Health at border posts. It also allowed entry on all days of the week for Syrians entering to visit foreign embassies, for medical treatment, and for those wishing to transit through the airport.

Such difficult and complicated procedures have driven many Syrians to illegally sneak across into Lebanon, especially in the past year. Some of them enter for a temporary period of time and then return, while others settle in the country without having any legal papers. Today, overall numbers indicate that more than 70 percent of Syrians do not have legal status in Lebanon.

Expired Residency

The reasons for entry, its details, and the illegal ways to enter Lebanon vary. Meanwhile, the new, difficult and complicated procedures that do not allow entry for everyone prompted some Syrians to resort to smuggling themselves across the border.

K. S., 28, works in the hairdressing business. He tells Raseef22, “My residency in Lebanon expired some time ago, and I could not renew it, because my personal sponsor - the owner of the hairdressing salon where I work - refused because of a dispute that happened between us at work, and asked for a large sum in dollars. My financial situation is below average, and the Lebanese General Security stopped all personal sponsorships around two years ago.”

The young man tried to find a way to renew his stay, but he could not, and this situation forced him to sneak into Syria. And when he wanted to return to Lebanon to continue work, he had no choice but to smuggle himself across the border.

I went to Harasta Highway east of Damascus, where dozens wishing to enter Lebanon gather. We took a car north and waited in a deserted area. We were treated like cattle.

“I contacted many of the people that work in smuggling Syrians to Lebanon. Some of them asked for an amount of money in dollars, while others accepted Lebanese or Syrian pounds. As for how, I was supposed to be directly taken to Beirut by car, but they made me wait for many hours in an uninhabited area inside Syria, along with a number of families, and children, who they dealt with in a cruel and humiliating manner. Then, cars with black tinted windows came to take us to another area, and from there to the border using different cars. We felt that they were treating us like cattle, and they would threaten whoever objects with taking him back to Syria,” the young man explains to Raseef22.

The situation in Syria is grim

Several months ago, N. M., who works in selling handicrafts, secretly sneaked into Lebanon, because “the situation in Syria has become grim, and we have had enough of the services, electricity, fuel, water, the lack of job opportunities, and the high prices there, so it was necessary to leave in search of a new future,” she says.

As for how, the 27 year-old young lady went to Harasta Highway east of Damascus, where dozens of people wishing to enter Lebanon gather. “There, I took a car to Homs, and waited in a square that has deserted bathrooms, and we had young children with us, including those whose parents were waiting for them to come to Beirut after the school year ended. We waited for a long time in several places, without any food or drink. As for the treatment, it was bad overall.”

From the al-Qusayr region in Homs, N. traveled along with others to the Hermel region of Lebanon in cars that resembled army cars. “It was impossible for us to even move inside the car, because there were so many people. We waited in Hermel for about four hours, and then moved to another area with nightfall, and then a bus came and transported every person to their destination. The cost of this operation totaled about $150. All this would not have happened if the old conditions for Syrians to enter Lebanon were still in force.”

I left before I was driven to military service

23-year-old university student H. A. had a different experience, as he revealed while speaking to Raseef22, “I graduated from university at the end of last year, and the suspension of my compulsory military service due to academic studies was set to end at that time. I had to leave the country before I was driven there, and the borders were closed because of Coronavirus. I tried to enter through a fake embassy appointment, or a doctor’s appointment, but it didn’t work, and I did not have the time to wait.”

The young man’s experience is not a rare occurrence, since many young men who are called up for military service prefer to evade the draft fearing for their lives. Because there is no law for paying a financial allowance on the inside, many of them resort to traveling outside the country for several years in order to pay the allowance in US dollars.

H. A. continues his story, “When I decided to sneak across, I was afraid at first. Perhaps I would have been able to travel from Lebanon to another country, so I went ahead and decided to leave.”

The young man chose to sneak across through Homs, and agreed on the details with one of the smugglers, “I waited at the house of a relative of mine. I packed my things before the smuggler came in his car, and he first took me to his village, which is a border village that doesn’t allow people to enter for fear that they might sneak into Lebanon. But by making prior arrangements with the checkpoint, they let me in, and when we got there, he changed the car to one with a Lebanese license plate, gave me a fake Lebanese ID card, and asked me to memorize all the information written on it. We  traveled on rugged terrain and rough roads, and then crossed over a small river. We passed through many areas, including Baalbek. We waited a long time in Dahr al-Baydar, and five hours later I arrived in Beirut. Despite the presence of Lebanese army checkpoints, we were not stopped.”

The young man paid $400 at the time, and says it has gone up to $600 today. He tells us that he refused to walk across the border, despite the lower cost, “because this way is safer”.

A smuggler sneaking someone from Syria to Lebanon first takes him as a relative to his Syrian village, then exchanges cars for a Lebanese plate, gives him a fake Lebanese ID in case of checkpoints, and enters Lebanon heading to Beirut

Human Smuggling Has Become a Profession

Smuggling people and goods due to rampant insecurity, chaos and lack of border control, has become a profession for some people who are taking advantage of this situation, and taking advantage of people’s needs in order to make hundreds of dollars.

On how the smuggling takes place, F. S., a smuggler in his thirties, tells Raseef22, “Many of the people of my border village work in smuggling due to the ease of entry into Lebanon, especially since most of them own cars with Lebanese license plates. Some of them even have residency permits and Lebanese nationalities, while I have a discretionary residency because my mother is Lebanese.”

When the smuggler sneaks a person from Syria to Lebanon, he first takes him as his relative to his village in a Syrian car, then exchanges it for a Lebanese car, enters Lebanon, and gives him a fake Lebanese ID as a precaution in case he’s stopped at a checkpoint, then drives him to the intended destination.

He continues, “Apart from human smuggling, I sometimes smuggle goods like fuel, money, and some food supplies to people who ask me to deliver them, sometimes even official papers. I get paid a sum of money in return, but of course the amount is less than that of when I smuggle people. Smuggling is a mutual act between the two countries, thus many people from Lebanon sneak across into Syrian territory with goods, weapons, and other things in their possession, meaning that smuggling does not only happen from the Syrian side.”

Where is the law on the matter?

Speaking on entry procedures and the legal aspect of the matter in his interview with Raseef22, Lebanese lawyer Nael Kaedbey points out that it is important to clarify that the legal material related to the issue of border control, the procedures followed when it comes to accepting or rejecting the entry of foreigners, and the consequent penalties, are entrusted to the General Directorate of the Lebanese General Security. The legislation in force has not been amended since 2011, but the General Security issued several decisions and circulars that amended the conditions and requirements of border access.

As for the legal status of Syrians who sneak across the border, the lawyer states that if a Syrian person is found in Lebanon without identification papers, his situation is dealt with in one of two ways: either he is referred to the judiciary which may decide to deport him, or his status is settled in accordance with procedures that are periodically authorized by the Lebanese General Security. In earlier stages, and given the stance of the Lebanese government, which had refused any kind of communication with the Syrian government, it was impossible to implement the penalty of deportation, given that it requires communication with the country of the deportee, and of course these measures are discretionary, meaning that the General Security may not carry them out.

Here we see the role of associations, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations in addressing several issues to settle a person’s status. For example, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can proclaim that a person is registered with it, and thus his presence becomes legal. In the event that any person who sneaked across the border wishes to travel to another country, he cannot do so before settling his legal status, and he may also be prevented from entering Lebanon for a certain period of time as a punitive measure for his illegal entry. The General Security can implement what it deems appropriate if it sees that the person’s departure is better than him remaining on Lebanese soil, which is also a discretionary measure.

Between the laws and their implementation on the ground, thousands of Syrians are lost. They are demanding the legalization of entry and exit, since a person who sneaked across the border, or even the driver who helped, should not be judged alone. Rather, one must first search for the reasons that made the citizens of both countries embark on these twisted paths, feeling like what they are doing is normal under regulations that do not suggest to them any different, since they do not provide them with any other solutions.

Disclaimer: The initials of names were solely used in order to preserve people’s privacy and to not expose or subject them to any harm.

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