Lebanon is suffering from one of the worst economic crises the world has ever witnessed, forcing many of its citizens to seek a better life abroad. Some are joining other migrants to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Lebanon is currently in the throes of a brutal economic crisis, with over half of the population living in poverty. The crisis has particularly hit the country's poor, the United Nations estimates that three out of 10 children are going to bed hungry every night.
That is why Lebanon is no longer just a launchpad for Syrian refugees and other foreign migrants hoping to make it to Europe; more and more Lebanese citizens are also seeking to leave the country.
The news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) spoke to Ibrahim, a smuggler who helps to traffick irregular migrants to Europe by sea. He states that if he was not earning good money from his work, he himself might have joined the growing exodus from crisis-hit Lebanon.
"If I didn't work in this profession, I would have left, just like so many other people," said the 42-year-old trafficker, who asked to use a pseudonym when he spoke to AFP in the northern city of Tripoli.
"There are many Lebanese who want to leave... They are ready to sell their houses, sell their cars, sell everything, just to make it out," he said.
Lebanese citizens join migrant flow to Europe
Lebanon's citizens now also risk drowning in the Mediterranean in their quest for a better life.
Ibrahim argues that, while having smuggled around 100 Lebanese nationals to Europe since 2019 makes him no angel, there is virtue in helping his compatriots.
"I get them out of here, out of this beggar's life," he said. "At least if they are put in a camp, they can eat and drink with dignity."
Ibrahim, a former school bus driver, said he took pride in giving preference to Lebanese nationals on his boats, and only taking those who can produce civil registry documents.
"I get requests from Palestinians and Syrians but I am responsible only for my own countrymen," he said.
Debilitating economic crisis
Lebanon, with a population of around six million people, is like a sinking ship, grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale usually associated with wars. The currency has crashed, people's purchasing power has plummeted and the monthly minimum wage is now worth $22.
The country's economic crisis began in 2019, and was caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement by the Lebanese political elite. While the international community has demanded economic reforms in order to release billions of dollars of investments, infighting by rival groups continues to prevent these from being implemented.
AP reported on Wednesday, January 12, that the Austrian foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg has stated that the European Union is willing to help Lebanon tackle its economic meltdown. However, any assistance would require the country to move forward with the investigation into the August 2020 port blast and restructure the hard-hit banking sector.
More Lebanese passengers embarking on Illicit sea journeys
The UN's refugee agency UNHCR said at least 1,570 individuals, including 186 Lebanese nationals, had embarked, or tried to embark, on illicit sea journeys from Lebanon between January and November 2021.
Most were hoping to reach European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometres (109 miles) away.
This is up from 270 passengers, including 40 Lebanese in 2019, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told AFP.
"In previous years, the vast majority of passengers were Syrians, while in 2020 and 2021, a notable number of Lebanese joined these movements," she said.
Lives have been lost, including those of two little children, during attempted crossings over the past two years, though there is little data and no exact toll.
Increase in smuggling activity
The Lebanese army said it is diligently monitoring the 225 kilometer coastline with radar systems and patrol boats.
A joint maritime operations room facilitates coordination between naval forces and other security agencies as well authorities in Cyprus.
"In 2020, the navy succeeded in seizing about 20 boats and detaining 596 people," the army said.
The army said that "Lebanese nationals who know their way around the country's coastline" are the most common smuggling culprits.
They include Ibrahim who said he organized an illicit sea crossing to Europe in 2019 for a Lebanese family of five now residing in Germany.
Since then, he said he has organized nine others, including his latest in September which saw 25 Lebanese nationals arrive in Italy.
With prices ranging from $2,500 per person for a trip to Cyprus to up to $7,000 to get to Italy, Ibrahim said he can make up to $5,000 profit from a single boat journey.
"We used to have to advertize our trips," he said. "Now people come running to us."