But like newcomers to this black market, Lebanese have encountered a terrible learning curve. Some boats are lost or caught in storms, which requires rescue at sea. The frantic families had no news of sons and husbands leaving the rocky shores of Lebanon, leaving relatives to accept the worst. Even in the most painful cases, the Lebanese are easy prey for smugglers who take their money and let them die.
Lishin and dozens of others had been sailing on his boat for more than a week after a promised meeting with a boatman who was supposed to be full of provisions never materialized. He watched helplessly as despair and death gripped his companions, beginning with a small child who had died in his father̵
“They are aware of the terrible situation in Lebanon at the moment,” Lechin told the smugglers. “People are just desperate and use this to their advantage.”
Lechin returned to his neighborhood in Tripoli, his face and hands covered in bites and abrasions from three days he said he spent sailing in the sea before a UN patrol boat picked him up. He had let the boat sail for help.
“I’m dead here or at sea,” he said.
Difficulties are nothing new in Lebanon, a country rocked by decades of conflict. But even troubled Lebanese are shocked that conditions have become so hopeless that their fellow citizens are joining the insidious migration across the Mediterranean, which is usually associated with refugees from failed countries in the region.
The Lebanese pound had already lost nearly 80 percent of its value when 2,750 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut on August 4, killing at least 200 people, overthrowing the government and plunging the country deeper into crisis.
Hopelessness is nowhere more felt than in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and sandy enclave, where up to 80 percent of families live in poverty. Those who decided to escape have turned the city’s coastline into a new starting point.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the increase in attempts to reach Cyprus began in late August, with at least 18 boats potentially transporting hundreds of people at sea from Lebanon. That’s one ship more than any migrant boat known to have left Lebanon last year, the agency said, and they were almost entirely full of Syrian refugees.
The agency has stepped up its efforts to spread information in Tripoli’s poor communities about the dangers of travel. And while the departures came to a halt after the unfortunate experience of Lishin’s group, dubbed the “death boat” by local media, officials did not expect a lull to continue.
“As we have seen in other countries, conditions in Lebanon probably mean that we will see other attempts,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abu Khaled.
Arafat Khalid Yassin, a 25-year-old from Tripoli, tried twice to move to Cyprus, most recently earlier this month. One of his friends died in Lischin’s boat and another disappeared. But Yassin plans to try again; his mother forbade him to take his 20-month-old daughter.
“It is better to die at sea trying to leave than to live a life of poverty and hunger in Lebanon,” he said.
Several boats were reportedly stopped by Lebanese or Cypriot naval patrols, with passengers returning before their potential asylum applications were considered. A group of migrants who arrived in Cyprus told reporters that they had been promised to be taken to Italy only to be returned to the quay in front of Beirut.
“We are concerned about reports that a number of boats trying to reach Cyprus have been pushed back to Lebanon and that some newcomers have been denied access to asylum procedures,” said Shabia Mantu of UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. “We have raised our concerns with the Cypriot authorities.”
An official at the Cypriot embassy in Lebanon asked the Foreign Ministry of Cyprus, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Lechin hadn’t thought much about what awaited him in Cyprus, where the Lebanese who had set him up had set up WhatsApp groups to help newcomers find housing and jobs. Nor did he know how dangerous the crossing could be when an acquaintance of his connected him with two Lebanese who had promised to take him on a boat.
He sold his refrigerator, sofa and dishes to scrape together the £ 5 million fee (about $ 3,300 at the official exchange rate or about $ 675 on the black market) and met several of his neighbors at the docks. It is not clear how many people ended up on board the small ship, but Lishin said he counted 47, half of them Lebanese and half Syrian.
The smugglers collected the passenger bags with clothes, food, water and telephones and said that everything would be transferred to a second vessel, which would meet them a few miles from the shore. A second boat never appeared. For hours and then days, they drifted without fuel in the scorching sun.
Mohammad Sofian, 21, was on board with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son. Without water, his wife eventually failed to breastfeed the boy. After painful days, he was given sea water to drink. He died on the fourth day.
“I wrapped him in clothes,” said Sofian, who has now returned to Tripoli with his wife. “I put it aside a few days later.”
All the while, the smugglers sent messages to the families of the passengers in Tripoli, assuring them that the trip was going well, and sharing images of Google Earth, allegedly showing the location of the boat.
“They lied to our parents while we were dying at sea,” Sofian said.
Several men, including the boat operator, crossed to the side, hoping to swim for help. The boat operator has not been seen since and it remains unclear whether he was aware of the smugglers’ plans. Lischin swam and swam for days, stung by jellyfish, bitten by unknown sea creatures. Twice, he said, he tried to let himself be forgotten, only to find himself floating again.
On September 14, a Turkish frigate patrolling as part of the Lebanese United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL spotted the boat about 23 miles off the Lebanese coast. There were 36 people on board, including a dead woman and a child in critical condition, according to UNIFIL spokeswoman Andrea Tenenti.
The crew of a second UN ship, an Indonesian frigate sent to the area, noticed Lishin sailing unconscious.
As the ships sailed back to Beirut, Sofian said he had asked his rescuers to take them into custody anywhere but the approaching shoreline.
“I asked them to take me to prison,” he said. “Just don’t take me back to Lebanon.”
Susan Hydamus of Washington contributed to this report.