'When I arrived, I discovered half of the people on the boat suffocated to death'

Illegal migration to Europe is shaking the continent’s politics and threatening the cohesion of the European Union. In Part 2 of this special investigation, Al Majalla spoke to those who made the journey, to understand the process.

Eduardo Ramon

'When I arrived, I discovered half of the people on the boat suffocated to death'

In the summer of 2021, desperate to secure a better future for himself and his family, Ahmad decided to up and leave his native city of Tripoli in the north of Lebanon to embark on the path of clandestine migration.

Once an employee at a private company in Beirut earning a reasonable salary, migration now seemed alluring for this 39-year-old. He was not alone.

Youth migration in Lebanon has been described as a wave, with thousands leaving in a bid to escape the country’s political, economic, and financial collapse. Ahmad, a father-of-three, felt compelled to join them.

A friend had successfully reached Italy by boat, along with dozens of other young men. From an Italian refugee camp, he posted pictures that enticed Ahmad.

His friend put him in touch with a contact, an intermediary, who could link him to the smugglers who had helped him reach Italy.

Risk versus cost

When Ahmad met the intermediary in Mina, near Tripoli, he thought he was meeting a seasoned trafficker. Instead, he was surprised to find a small grocery store owner.

“I am not a smuggler,” the shopkeeper said. “I have nothing to do with smuggling. I am only a middleman.” Ahmad found himself faced with two choices.

He could go through a network of seasoned smugglers, which would be costly and risky. The smugglers wanted $7,500 for a spot on a small, overloaded wooden boat that might capsize at sea.

Alternatively, he could chip in with other families, around $5,000 per person, to buy a boat to take them to Italy.

The more passengers, the lesser the financial burden. This was more cost-effective and less risky because the organiser would be onboard.

Youth migration in Lebanon has been a wave. Thousands leave in a bid to escape the country's political, economic, and financial collapse.

Ahmad met a man who was organising an expansive clandestine migration journey for his family and relatives, including his wife, children, father-in-law, and other relatives and friends.

The boat could accommodate around 200 people, which reassured Ahmad. Also, the man wasn't a smuggler driven by profit. It would cost $5,000. Ahmad paid him half upfront, which covered him, his pregnant wife, and their two children.

Most of the subscribers were families, Ahmad says. The media image is of young men, but there were only a few bachelors dreaming of a brighter future in Europe.

Don't forget the toll

The trip organiser repeatedly postponed the journey, citing bad weather and security concerns. When he finally set a date and asked Ahmad for the second instalment, Ahmad sold his house. But the journey was postponed again.

A month passed. Complaints escalated. Finally, those making the journey were brought to the seaside resort of Qalamoun, north of Tripoli, where their phones were collected in preparation for departure.

Syrian migrants board a boat as they attempt to cross the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos from the coast of Ayvacik in Canakkale on 28 February 2016.

Then they waited 24 hours. The group included young men from the impoverished Tripoli neighbourhood of Bab El-Tebbaneh.

In the early hours, a military intelligence patrol raided the resort and told the migrants that they had fallen victim to a scam. The organiser had vanished.

Ahmad's money was gone, as was his house, forcing him and his family into the spare rooms of relatives' homes.

Ahmad says those who were also deceived were educated - chefs, professionals, military officers who had deserted.

In the early hours, military intelligence raided the resort. The migrants had fallen victim to a scam. The organiser had vanished. 

Despite everything, he kept in touch with the organiser, hoping for a new opportunity to leave Lebanon. It was as if he was caught in a spiral or trapped in an addiction.

In retrospect, the organiser missed the memo that security officers need their palms greasing for a smooth experience. Either he didn't know or refused to pay the toll.

Buying the boat

Raed Dandashi, a native of Akkar, north of Tripoli, tried his luck at clandestine migration with the help of professional smugglers.

When the boat got into trouble in Lebanese waters, the coastguard swooped in and returned all passengers to Lebanon. Yet Dandashi was undeterred.

Inspired by the private boat model that appealed to Ahmad, he opted to purchase his own boat to take his wife and children, his brothers, and their families (and other eager co-passengers willing to split the costs) to safer shores.

Syrian migrants attempt to cross the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos from the coast of Ayvacik in Canakkale on 28 February 2016.

Yet greed got the better of Dandashi. By squeezing 100 into a vessel meant for 50, he steered his boat and everyone on it to tragedy.

He knew the trip was on the security service's radar, yet he also refused to cough up and pay them off. It was a decision that would prove tragic.

As his boat left Lebanese waters on a fateful night in April 2022, it collided with a Lebanese army patrol boat that had set off in pursuit. It sank, killing 40 people, including women and children.

He knew the trip was on their radar but refused to pay the security services. It was a decision that would prove tragic. 

Among the victims were Dandashi's wife and three of his children, along with his brother's wife and their two sons.

Lawyer Mohammed Sablouh, founder of the Cedar Centre for Legal Studies, said the officer overseeing the naval patrol involved in the collision was smuggled out of Lebanon for fear of retaliation from the victims' families.

Dandashi's brother admitted in a TV interview that they had refused to pay the bribe, ultimately leading to the tragic outcome.

Greasing the palms

Since 2019, clandestine migration has surged along the shores of Tripoli, Mina, and Qalamoun in northern Lebanon.

Until 2022, Lebanese security forces successfully intercepted several trips either before or shortly after departure, often in collusion with the organisers, who their victims had already paid before tipping off the security forces.

Some managed to elude Lebanese surveillance and reach their destinations, sometimes being intercepted by the Cypriot or Greek coast guards.

But for all the successes and failures, there were still tragedies. In September 2022, an overloaded boat capsized at sea near Arwad Island in Syria, killing around 100.

Lebanese forces intercept the boats often in collusion with the smugglers, who have already been paid by their victims.

Investigations and survivor accounts reveal that a passage toll of around $140,000 had been paid.

Such a substantial amount can only mean that it was paid to a collective of officers overseeing the Lebanese shores, rather than one individual.

In 2022, the number killed on such journeys reached 182. Humanitarian and human rights organisations have lodged complaints against the Lebanese authorities, citing a lack of transparency and commitment in investigating the tragedies.

In an inquiry into the sinking in April 2022 (and a preceding incident where a boat ran out of fuel at-sea in September 2019, with seven killed), it emerged that there was an illicit alliance between fishermen and the operators of tourist boats to three islands off the coast of Tripoli, in the city of Mina.

Eduardo Ramon

Mina is a maritime city, where many residents are engaged in seafaring, yet fishermen there are tight-lipped about smuggling, from which other residents have made a living, especially after the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon in 2011.

Boat launch hotspots

In recent years, a stretch of Lebanon's northern coastline has become a smuggling hotspot. It spans from Batroun through Tripoli, Mina, and Minyeh, all the way to the town of Al-Arida near the Syrian border.

It began in 2011, with the Syrian influx. Ever since, it has evolved and expanded, offering passage to Lebanese youths seeking economic opportunity elsewhere.

Despite heightened surveillance by the Lebanese army along the coast, illegal migration occurs throughout the year, peaking in summer and early autumn, when the sea is calm.

In 2022, there were 182 people killed on crossings. Human rights groups complain that Lebanon is not investigating.

Boat launches are particularly concentrated along the Akkar coast, owing to less surveillance and its proximity to the Syrian border.

Every month, Lebanon's army announces its interception rates. In September, it announced the arrest of two Lebanese smugglers and 48 Syrians, after a raid.

On 23 September, it reported the rescue of a migrant vessel off the Batroun coast carrying 27 Syrians. Authorities want to be seen as being one step ahead.

Smugglers change tack

Yet when the intelligence services told resorts and hotels to disclose any suspicious lodgings, smugglers' tactics shifted. They no longer rent rooms for migrants in resorts. Instead, they disperse them across several homes.

In this deadly game of cat-and-mouse, the smugglers also changed tack on their launches, discreetly transporting several individuals in inconspicuous small boats to a larger migration vessel waiting just beyond Lebanese territorial waters.

Syrian refugees talk to their friends and family across the fence inside the temporary accommodation centre in Kokinotrimithia, 20km outside the Cypriot capital Nicosia on 5 November 2019.

This is what happened when the overloaded boat sank near Arwad Island. It is still not known exactly how many died. Some say it may be more than 200. Most were Syrian, but some were Palestinians living in Lebanon.

Lebanese security sources say the surge in undocumented Syrian entries into Lebanon stems from their pursuit of clandestine migration, facilitated by smuggling networks within the country.

Some cross the border just hours before setting off in boats. There is seldom any thought to them staying and working in Lebanon, because of the scarcity of jobs and a prevailing societal hostility towards them.

In a further shift in tactics, smugglers now orchestrate dual crossings along the same route. If one boat gets stopped by the Lebanese army, the other slips away, to continue its voyage.

Avoiding Cyprus, not Libya

This played out on 11 August 2023, when two boats left together from the shores of Sheikh Zennad in Akkar. Each carried 110 passengers, mostly Syrians and a handful of Lebanese. When the army intercepted one, the other pursued its course.

This joint operation was organised by a family network in Akkar, which has not yet professionalised its operations. To transport that number of refugees, however, suggests that it has links to professional networks.

To avoid the Cypriot and Greek coastguards, the boat that slipped through charted a course to North Africa along the Tunisian shore, before redirecting back towards the coastline of Sicily in Italy.

Unluckily for the smugglers, as it made its way towards Tunisia, the boat was boarded by the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, a unit under the command of Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar tasked with patrolling the Libyan coast.

To avoid Cypriot and Greek coastguards, the boat headed towards North Africa, but was intercepted by a Libyan unit. 

Their activities align with the efforts of forces associated with the government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and funded by the European Union to combat the phenomenon of clandestine maritime migration.

A woman who was onboard the boat told Al Majalla that Lebanese families from the coastal town of Bebnine in Akkar collectively bought the boat after selling their homes and belongings.

She left behind her husband, who was serving in the Lebanese army, and together with her children and relatives, she rented a house in a Libyan area under Haftar's control, to seek a new life and employment.

Illegal immigrants who were rescued by the Lebanese army sitting inside the port of the northern city of Tripoli.

She was adamant that a return to Lebanon was not an option for any of the 110 passengers, who still dream of reaching the Italian coastline.

Their dream would have come true had it not for a coastguard's bullet that left their boat in need of repair. It also left the passengers physically and financially stranded in Libya, with no way of reaching their destination.

My life in your hands

In a Tunisian bus station, Mahmoud bids farewell to loved ones before he embarks on a journey towards the unknown: the Libyan border.

He hoped that this would be the last leg of a winding adventure that had taken him from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, to Beirut, and then to Tunisia.

Vast landscapes stretch down to the south-eastern Tunisian city of Ben Gardane, near the Libyan border.

This final stop is the smugglers' rendezvous point before guiding migrants to the Libyan city of Zuwara, where they cast off into the open sea.

A coastguard's bullet left their boat in need of repair. It also left the passengers physically and financially stranded.

En route to Ben Gardane, Mahmoud sat in the back of an SUV, stripped of all but his name.

His ID papers, money, and personal belongings were handed to a Tunisian smuggler, who would hand them over to a Libyan counterpart at the border.

The Libyan smuggler took Mahmoud and his possessions to the coast, where others were waiting. The boat would either carry them to the southern shores of Europe or else to the bottom of the sea.

There are two ways for illegal immigrants to reach Europe: the boundless sea or the wild and unforgiving labyrinth of land comprising nations, borders, mountains, and forests. Nightmares often haunt survivors.

By sea or land?

The sea route from Libya to Sicily is one of the most treacherous journeys. Monitored by aerial surveillance (managed by the EU's Frontex agency since 2014), the Mediterranean is among the world's deadliest migration routes, with 24,000 deaths.

It tells a harrowing tale of those seeking refuge, as per a report by Katherine Hearst for Middle East Eye.

The land route leading to the Libyan shores from Tunisia and Egypt is no less dangerous. This vast and harsh desert has only one crossing point into Libya: the Amsaad-Salloum border gate.

After successfully entering Libyan territory, migrants often prey on smuggling networks on either side of the border.

Ismail defied the odds to reach the shores of France. His journey, from Darfur in Sudan through to Libya and then Italy, concluded in the south of France, but he was held captive by a Libyan militia en route.

During the funeral of one of the victims who drowned in a migrant boat off the Syrian coast in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

"I became a slave!" he recounts. "This isn't a metaphor or a scene from a historical film about slavery. I was genuinely enslaved in the camp, treated as a commodity for militias seeking fighters or labour."

This lasted for two years. Eventually, Ismail says: "I seized the opportunity to escape towards the coast, where I, like countless others, boarded a boat, sailing across the sea to Italy and from there heading to France."

A floating coffin

On the Libyan coastline, a motley crew of desperate souls assemble. Among them are Syrians, Moroccans, Sudanese, and Egyptians, whose fates entwined ahead of their treacherous journey to the shores of Italy.

Mahmoud arrived in Zuwara under the cloak of night, guided by a smuggler to an assembly of prospective migrants near the shoreline. "There were migrants of various nationalities," he recalls. "An aura of anticipation filled the air."

Ismail reached France only after he had been enslaved to a Libyan militia for two years. "This isn't a metaphor or a scene from a film," he says.

In the early hours of dawn, a few days after he arrived, he says a smuggler beckoned them onto the rubber boat that would take them out to a wooden vessel.

"He instructed us to cast aside all possessions, retaining only our identity papers and a crucial water bottle."

Scores of women, children, and men from diverse backgrounds crammed onto the rubber dinghy before ascending to a 25-meter-long weathered wooden boat.

"We were packed like sardines," he says. "We clung together on the lower and upper decks. The air was scarce and darkness enveloped us. Time crept by slowly.

"I don't remember how we reached safety after an Italian patrol boat rescued us. I awoke to an Italian official asking me how the 46 people aboard the boat died.

"I couldn't fathom what had happened. Then I learned that over half of those surrounding me in the boat had suffocated to death. The boat became a coffin."

From Turkey to Greece

From Turkey, migrants go one of two ways: by sea to the Greek islands, or over land to the Eastern Balkans via Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary, and beyond. For many, the ultimate destination is Germany.

On the Mediterranean shores of western Turkey, a diverse group of escapees huddle. They are leaving the trials of their homeland behind, as they wait for an inflatable dinghy to take them to the nearest Greek island.

I didn't know what happened. Then, I learned that over half of those in the boat had suffocated to death. The boat became a coffin.

Mahmoud, migrant

The passage costs up to EUR 1,500 per person. Deposit are paid into an Istanbul insurance office. A secret code is then handed to the smuggler after a successful voyage for the final payment.

When migrants reach Greece, they are sent to refugee camps. Their fingerprints are taken, and they are given deportation papers. Once released, smugglers transport them to Western Europe. As they leave, Greek authorities look the other way.

Ayman, a spirited Iraqi-Kurd who left Iraq for Turkey, contacted a Syrian smuggler from a network stretching from Damascus to Berlin.

Soon, Ayman found himself among a group of other would-be travellers on Turkey's western shore. The smuggler tossed them life jackets, tokens of false security.

As they set off in the rubber dinghy, the smuggler started at Ayman and shouted: "You! You will steer the boat. I'll deduct a portion of your fee for the journey."

He handed him a knife and told him to puncture the dinghy as they approached the Greek shoreline. He warned everyone onboard that if they were caught by the coastguard, and if the boat was in good condition, they would be returned to Turkey.

Hiking for a beating

Alongside the sea route, there is the over-land option, from Greece to Germany, which involves around 150 hours' of walking. For this, smugglers charge EUR 3,000.

Through rugged terrain, dense forest, and coursing rivers, they navigate cautiously, avoiding towns and villages, danger lurking behind every corner.

Ayman tried to side-step this over-land route by seeking forged passports or safer alternatives for crossing to reach Western Europe.

The smuggler gave him a knife and told him to puncture the dinghy as they approached the Greek shoreline.

When this failed, he had to go over-land, together with other migrants he met in the camp in Greece.

They left at dawn, carrying meagre provisions and a determination to defy the weather, with a cold more sinister than Ayman had ever known.

Some were women and children, which slowed their pace. Three days later, tragedy struck. A woman from the group fractured her leg. Desperate, the guide sought help from the Serbian Red Cross, who arrived with the police.

The officers took no mercy on the group and gave the migrants an unforgiving beating before arresting them and forcibly returning them to Greece. Meanwhile, the guide managed to slip away.

Undeterred, Ayman tried again, wizened by his last venture. This time, he managed to reach Germany. From there, he headed to France.

Inside the networks

Most of the undocumented migrants on the Western Balkan route or navigating the high seas to reach Europe come from countries grappling with severe conditions. For them, migrating to the unknown is their only means of escape.

Sabr Darwish, a key contributor to this investigation from France, closely shadowed a European probe into individuals who were accused of war crimes in their homelands before arriving in Europe.

The investigation exposed their entanglement in human trafficking networks and the heinous crimes that come with it, such as extortion, theft, or even murder.

Darwish delved into the workings of one such network, a web that extends from the heart of Syria to central Europe.

Its key players are predominantly young smugglers, formerly implicated in suppressing and even killing Syrian dissidents during the 2011 uprising, otherwise known to Syrians as the "shabbiha."

Diving into this underworld of smuggling, we shine a light on the workings of this network inside Syria. A young man told us how the network got him to Europe.

Weaving a migrant web

According to him, the network spans a vast area, from government-controlled Syria, through northern regions under the control of militias, to Turkey, Greece, and onward to Europe, where smugglers wait at the final destination.

From the Syrian city of departure to the Turkish border, he encountered numerous military checkpoints controlled by either the Syrian army or by warring militias.

The smuggling network has woven a web of mafia-like connections, including Syrian army officers in coordination with armed gangs.

The key players are smugglers who were once implicated in suppressing and even killing Syrian dissidents during the 2011 uprising.

"I left my city in central Syria towards a northern border area under the control of various military forces," he recalls.

"We smoothly passed through Syrian army checkpoints, where it was clear they already knew the car and its occupants. Our smuggler kept reassuring us that we would be fine. He had paid the officer in charge of those checkpoints."

After crossing the last government-controlled checkpoint, another young man took charge of the caravan, guiding it through dozens of checkpoints towards the Turkish border. He then handed the migrants to another smuggler on Turkish soil.

Once in Turkey, a new smuggler contacted them a few days later. Interestingly, all the smugglers were Syrians who were once part of the shabbiha, he says.

After a rubber dinghy from Turkey to Greece, migrants wait for another smuggler tasked with receiving them and securing their path to Europe.

On the Western Balkans route, it is entirely young men. A week later, they arrived in Germany.


It was evident, he says, that the Syrian smugglers who facilitated their journey had an extensive network of connections in multiple countries.

In Germany, the young man connected with the final link in the smuggling network. This smuggler offered him a day's stay for EUR 400, then a ride to the man's final destination in the smuggler's car.

The smuggler then asked for an additional EUR 500, despite the refugee having already paid EUR 5,000, which was supposed to have covered everything.

Emerging from failed states

This testimony helps to reveal the inner workings (and thinking) of smuggling groups. All of them were war criminals in Syria and are currently being investigated in Europe for their war crimes, as well as for kidnapping, extortion, and even murder.

Many were already involved in dubious activities before the 2011 uprising, using their connections to the Syrian intelligence services.

When the conflict began, they exploited the turmoil and transformed their militias into trafficking networks from Syria to the depths of Europe.

These smuggling networks are just a tiny cog in a bigger wheel pushing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children into harrowing experiences.

Although they share responsibility, the networks only invest in the chaos and the collapse of social systems in conflict-ridden countries hit by economic crises. Those countries now export illegal immigrants.

Willing to die for it

According to Hearst, 20% of those who cross the Mediterranean are Egyptian. Roughly one in three Egyptians live in poverty. They have a lack of prospects and no social safety net.

Smuggling networks only invest in the chaos and the collapse of social systems in conflict-ridden countries hit by economic crises.

Migration from Turkey tells a similar tale. Most who leave from there come from war-ravaged lands like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Again, these countries offer few prospects. Poverty and oppression are the norm. It is no surprise that people flee.

Their experiences can be told when and if they reach their final landing ground. Survivors recall miles of razor wire in Hungary, police dogs biting at their heels, violence and captivity, even sinking boats in the open sea.

No force seems capable of halting the relentless influx of migrants toward Europe. The only way to turn the tide is if there are radical shifts in global policies.

This would require a broader collective awareness that humanity shares this one world and that everyone in it has a right to life, dignity, stability, and security. Everyone deserves the chance to thrive, free from the shackles of exile.

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