The submarine Pisces VI struggles to find the wreckage of the "Ship of Death", one of the country's worst illegal migration tragedies in 2022. Meanwhile, the total collapse of the north side of the Beirut port silo is reported

Lebanese exodus continues amid worst economic crisis in decades

AFP/ JOSEPH EID - Lebanon, a country of some six million people, is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale normally associated with wars. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said at least 1,570 people, including 186 Lebanese, most hoping to reach EU member Cyprus

Lebanon, the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' and once an exotic legend that fascinated the world from end to end, is now mired in the worst economic crisis its citizens have faced in decades. A collapse that, day by day, is pushing not only Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in the country - since the complicated situations in their countries of origin forced them to flee to Lebanese territory - but also Lebanese citizens themselves, to join a wave of migration that continues to grow. 

According to data published by the United Nations, which states that 8 out of 10 Lebanese live below the poverty line, in 2020 more than 1,500 Lebanese - Palestinians or Syrians - tried to leave the country in precarious boats. But about 75 per cent of these migrants were intercepted by the authorities, or returned to land. And since then, the situation has only worsened, with the number of illegal boats seeking Cypriot shores soaring worryingly. 


"I can't feed my family. My salary is barely enough for a few weeks (...) and to see one of my sons wandering around the neighbourhood diving in the rubbish dumps, looking for cans and plastic to sell, breaks my heart", is the testimony of Abu Abdullah, a delivery man from Tripoli, to the Arab News. One testimony among hundreds, evidencing the social consequences of a hyperinflation that exceeds double figures, a currency devaluation of more than 90% since 2019, and the repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis, the Beirut port explosion and the Russia-Ukraine war. 

"I would rather risk my life at sea than listen to the cries of my children when they are hungry," Abdullah concluded. Also because of the economic collapse, the astronomical sums smugglers demand to take people out of the country by air (via three different airports before entering European territory) are leading more and more people to risk their lives in precarious boats that are expected to be used to cross the Mediterranean Sea. 


However, according to analysts consulted by Arab News, the rate of illegal migration is currently in decline due to rising smugglers' fees, which would put even the dangerous sea routes beyond the financial reach of many Lebanese. This is something that not all specialists agree with, who, in addition to maintaining that migration flows have not stopped growing, warn especially about the exodus of young, educated Lebanese, who are key to the country's future recovery. 

This situation is even more complicated for the millions of refugees from Syria and Palestine, who have been treated for years as second-class citizens. In addition to having suffered, in many cases, numerous displacements, these groups had little access to the right to own homes or property, to work in liberal professions or to exercise many social or political rights. 

In search of the "Ship of Death"

In this scenario, the sinking of a boat carrying 84 migrants - mostly Lebanese, but also Palestinians and Syrians - on 23 April has become an event of international importance. Although rescue teams were able to save the lives of some 45 people and recover at least a dozen bodies in the days following the tragedy, the disappearance of at least 33 passengers more than four months after the sinking sparked the solidarity of AusRelief, an Australian NGO chaired by Tom Zreika, a Lebanese expatriate who coordinates the 'Children of Lebanon' initiative. 

The remains of the missing, recovered to give the families the opportunity to give them "a proper burial", as well as objects of interest for the development of the investigation, will be collected by the submarine Pisces VI (which has sailed from the Spanish island of Tenerife) in an operation that has been financed by donations from dozens of Lebanese expatriates, private organisations and many other individuals, and which will coordinate the work of the Lebanese Army and the crew of the submersible.


To date, it is still not known whether the reason for the sinking was an overload on the "Ship of Death" - as it has been christened - or whether it was deliberately rammed by the Lebanese navy during a night-time operation. This version is supported by several of the survivors of the shipwreck. 

However, the tragedy of the "Ship of Death" does not seem to have persuaded the hundreds of migrants who continue to risk their lives every day to reach European shores. This is evidenced by the departure of three fishing boats - according to sources - ill-equipped with around 200 migrants, which left Lebanese shores this weekend.

Farewell to the symbol of the Beirut explosion

Meanwhile, the port of Beirut, the scene of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, witnessed on Tuesday the total collapse of the north side of the silos. Symbolic of the accident that took place in 2020 and which claimed the lives of more than 200 people, leaving more than 6,500 injured and a great deal of destruction in the Lebanese capital. 

Throughout the summer months, what was once the country's largest grain storage infrastructure has been suffering major partial collapses due to an ongoing fire from the fermentation of the wheat and corn trapped inside. And on Tuesday, the ruins of the north side finally collapsed, reducing the chances of the hundreds of victims' relatives of finding new evidence for an investigation - aimed at determining responsibility - marked by continual stalemates and political and judicial obstacles. 

A rampant and unrestrained crisis

Since 2020, when the Lebanese crisis that began a year earlier worsened, the country's currency has lost almost 95% of its value, the percentage of citizens living below the poverty line has risen to 80% and the population is facing electricity and water shortages, as well as shortages of the most basic goods

The outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war has not improved the situation either. The small Mediterranean country used to import more than 60 per cent of its grain needs from the European country, and after the destruction of the silos in the port of Beirut and the interruption of Ukrainian supplies, Lebanon is barely able to finance subsidies for pita bread, which it has had to ration. And, looking ahead, political paralysis and increasing internal and external obstacles do not seem to bode well for the economic and social situation of Lebanese citizens.