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A photo shows the Mediterranean Sea from Lebanon's coast in Byblos (Rashid Khreiss via Unsplash)

Cyprus Pushbacks Fail to Deter Refugee Boats from Lebanon

… but they have made the migrant journey more dangerous.

Words: Hanna Davis
Pictures: Rashid Khreiss, Hanna Davis

On Tuesday, April 16, five small fishing boats carrying nearly 500 Syrian refugees set off from Lebanese shores and approached Cyprus. Before they could make it to the island, Cypriot authorities intercepted the boats and pushed them back to the country they had only just fled.

Basil Ali al-Sheyoukh, a 33-year-old father of six, was one among the passengers aboard the refugee boats that day. He had paid $350 to anonymous man using a Syrian phone number, just a portion of the total $2,650 fee charged for the quick boat ride to Cyprus.

Shortly after midnight, Basil’s boat crept away from Lebanon’s northern shores, he later recounted. The Lebanese coastguard briefly stopped the boats and warned the passengers of the dangers ahead, Basil said, but then let them continue into the dark waters.

Cyprus is the closest European Union (EU) member state to Syria and Lebanon. This year, the number of Syrians arriving to the island by boat has spiked. Throughout the first four months of 2024, at least 50 boats reached Cyprus, compared to just 10 during the same period last year, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Cyprus. In response, Cyprus stopped reviewing Syrian asylum applications and has ramped up its policing of the seas.

“Screaming in Fear”

After about 10 hours — when the boats were roughly halfway between Cyprus and Lebanon — two Cypriot ship sped toward Basil and the other passengers. The vessels began to circle around them, creating forceful waves that rocked the small fishing boats back and forth.

Fearful that the waves could knock them into the rough waters, Basil said, he and the others aboard held on for their lives. “Everyone was screaming in fear,” Basil recalled. “We all were clinging to the boat, but they started hitting our hands with their batons. They shot guns [into the air] and shouted at us to return to Lebanon. We were so afraid.”

Basil also said that a woman went into labor and without proper medical attention, she and her baby passed away during childbirth.

We all were clinging to the boat, but they started hitting our hands with their batons.

– Basil Ali al-Sheyoukh

Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to the EU, reported that the Cypriot police refused to give those aboard assistance and threatened them with guns and violence, echoing Basil’s testimony.

After hours of desperation stuck at sea, early Wednesday morning the boats had no other option but to turn back.

‘Inhumane’ Pushbacks

Rights groups have criticized Cyprus for failing to protect asylum seekers and migrants at sea. Cyprus is required to honor its international obligations to search and rescue shipwrecked persons, as well as to not hinder access to asylum and protection from refoulement, or forcible return.

“Pushing back vulnerable populations who are fleeing by sea is inhumane and denies those seeking refuge their most basic rights,” said Jesse Marks, the senior Middle East advocate for Refugees International, an independent humanitarian organization.

“Coordination between Cyprus and Lebanon has translated into the forced return of Syrian refugees captured or apprehended at sea back to Lebanon,” Marks explained. “Many of them are then deported back to Syria, where they initially fled and still face severe risks.”

“Nearsighted Policy”

Four of the boats, including Basil’s, returned to Lebanon’s northern coastal city of Tripoli on Wednesday afternoon, April 17. The fifth boat returned to the Syrian coastal city of Tartus, Muhammad Sablouh, a human rights lawyer in Lebanon, recently said in an interview with Syria Direct.

The Lebanese army intercepted one of the boats before it touched down. Sablouh has been in touch with the Lebanese army. Because seven or eight of the passengers did not have residency documents and had not registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, he said, the army deported them to Syria.

Basil at his home outside of Beirut, Lebanon (Hanna Davis)
Basil at his home outside of Beirut, Lebanon (Hanna Davis)

Marks said, “The nearsightedness of Cyprus’ policy of pushing back refugees is not actually having an effect on the numbers of refugees pursuing the dangerous maritime journey — which has reached unprecedented levels.”

The terrors Basil faced from Cypriot authorities have not deterred him from attempting to reach Europe again by sea. “I will try a second and a third and a fourth time,” he said, “Not for me, for my children, so they can have a better life. Life here [in Lebanon] is over, it’s very hard.”

“Inability to Survive”

Basil is one of thousands of Syrians who have left Lebanon this year. Between January and April 17, UNHCR verified 59 boats with a total of 3,191 passengers that departed from Lebanon’s shores. During the same period last year, only three boats with 54 passengers left Lebanon — reflecting a nearly 60-fold increase this year, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled said.

“Refugees in Lebanon have cited their inability to survive due to the dire socio-economic situation and their lack of access to essential services,” Khaled added. “Some have also cited the rise in social tensions and restrictive measures, as well as their fear of being deported among the reasons for embarking on these desperate journeys.”

Refugees in Lebanon have cited their inability to survive due to the dire socio-economic situation and their lack of access to essential services.

– Lisa Abou Khaled

Lebanon has stepped up its repression of Syrians in recent months, carrying out arbitrary detentions, torturing Syrians, and forcibly returning them to Syria, the watchdog Human Rights Watch recently noted.

Meanwhile, violence against Syrians has spiked in Lebanon following the killing of Pascal Sleiman, a senior official with the Lebanese Forces (LF), a right-wing Christian party. The Lebanese army said assailants abducted and killed Sleiman during an attempted carjacking on April 7, blaming Syrian gang members.

“Terror, Fear, and Anxiety”

In Lebanon, Basil said, “there is so much terror, fear, and anxiety.” He fled to Lebanon from Idlib, in northwestern Syria, in 2014, but he explained that life in Lebanon has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

Since about 2019, Basil said he has been unable to renew his residency documents. “Every time I go to renew my papers, they refuse me and give me a deportation order to Syria,” he said. The vast majority of Syrians in Lebanon do not have formal residency, in part due to stringent renewal procedures.

The Lebanese government’s crackdown on Syrians has terrified Basil, who worries that his lack of legal residency could result in his return to the country he fled. “I am scared to leave the house because I might get deported,” he said.

At the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Basil said he spoke out frequently against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on social media, which puts him at risk of imprisonment, or worse, if he returned. “I am wanted in Syria, and if I return, they will kill me,” he said. 

EU Aid No “Silver Bullet”

On May 2, the EU offered Lebanon a financial aid package of 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) over three years to support its struggling economy and security forces. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — speaking alongside Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides — said the Lebanese army and other security agencies would be provided with resources to improve border control and counter the smuggling industry.

Marks, from Refugees International, expressed concern that funneling funding to Lebanese security agencies to stymie migration will only reinforce the insecurities refugees already face.

“EU migration deals with refugee host countries are not a silver bullet,” Marks said. “Any deal which bolsters the capacity of Lebanese authorities to deliver on threats for the refoulement of Syrian refugees will only push refugees into a more desperate position, which is only likely to spur more to flee,” he added, noting that Lebanese authorities have already made the country “a deeply inhospitable environment for Syrian refugees.”

Marks added that the deal could have the “reverse effect of its intended purpose.”

“Human Rights Violations”

Marks also called for safeguards for turning off assistance to Lebanon when it violates international law: “Any financing for the Lebanese authorities under a deal must come with clear preconditions preventing the arrest and refoulement of Syrians refugees and other human rights violations.”

During the meeting, European Council President von der Leyen also brought up “exploring how to work on a more structured approach to voluntary returns to Syria.”

Cyprus has launched an EU proposal to designate specific areas in Syria “safe zones” so it can legally repatriate Syrian nationals. In March, the Cypriot interior minister said it was “gaining ground” in the European Parliament.

Pournara reception center on the outskirts of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, where migrants are transferred once they arrive to the island (Hanna Davis)
Pournara reception center on the outskirts of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, where migrants are transferred once they arrive on the island (Hanna Davis)

On April 10, the EU approved a sweeping reform on Europe’s asylum and migration laws, known as the Pact on Migration and Asylum. Rights groups have denounced the reform package over some of its parts, saying that it will lead to more human rights violations against refugees.

On the return of Syrians, Marks said that “labeling parts of Syria as ‘safe’ is not as easy as ink on a page”. He added, “The realities on the ground in Syria have been reinforced by the testimonies of Syrian refugees deported to Syria, subsequently tortured, then later escaped back into Lebanon.”

Eyes on Italy

Basil is now searching for trips to Italy, after Cyprus stopped accepting Syrians. “If they told me there was one tomorrow, I’d go,” he said. In January 2023, Basil found a smuggler who could take him by boat to Italy but decided not to board at the last minute, scared off by the rough seas, he said.

Basil said he hopes to apply for asylum in a European country and then bring his wife and six children. His 21-year-old brother left Lebanon by boat in 2022 and then after over a year in Cyprus, the UN transferred him to Belgium, where he has been for the past four months. “He has residency and they [the UN] gave him a nice house,” he said. “He’s happy there.”

Although the sea journey to Italy will cost at least double the trip to Cyprus, Basil said it is worth it. “I am leaving for my kids, so they can have a better life, so they can be educated,” Basil added. “Maybe it won’t work, or maybe it will … but it’s worth the risk.” 

Hanna Davis

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

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