Sudanese in Lebanon: A Journey of False Hope

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Many Sudanese’s dreams of finding a good life in Lebanon turn sour soon after their arrival. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Ali Sakka

Published Sunday, April 8, 2012

The lure of the “Switzerland of the Orient” all too often entails a harsh and dangerous trek into a life of exploitation, fear, and racism.

Bashir has been living in Lebanon for three years. He came to the country via a travel agency, one of several that have been highly active in arranging trips between Sudan and Syria lately. These agencies are in fact fronts for human smuggling operations.

To get to Lebanon, a Sudanese would-be migrant must pay US$600 for a passport and ticket, and bring another US$3,000 or so as “show money” to persuade Syrian immigration officers that they’re not intending to cross illegally into Lebanon.

At the airport in Damascus, they are met by another Sudanese person. Normally, this person works for the travel agency, has their photo, and calls for them by name. They are told to hand back the cash given to them by the agency in Sudan and are passed on to another man who will supposedly escort them to Lebanon.

It rarely works out that way. Bashir, speaking from personal experience, says the agencies routinely rip off their customers. They take money from them for the onward journey to Lebanon, and then abandon them in Syria to fend for themselves. This usually means seeking out the services of cross-border smugglers.

“Many of the Sudanese in Lebanon were smuggled into the country,” says Bashir. He eventually managed to resolve his legal status by obtaining residence and work permits – though to get them, he had to get himself smuggled back to Syria so as to re-enter Lebanon legally via the Masnaa border crossing.

Many Sudanese’s dreams of finding a good life in Lebanon turn sour soon after their arrival. Part of the problem lies in the fact that migrants returning from Lebanon help paint a rosy picture as they are often reluctant to admit to their families and friends in Sudan that they were exploited and demeaned.

Tayyeb (not his real name) anticipated that the earnings of a Sudanese worker would be low, “but not to such an extent.” When he arrived to work in Lebanon, he found the US$700 salary he had been led to expect magically shrunk to US$300. Tayyeb never intended to stay in Lebanon anyway. He dreamed of working in Lebanon for a year or two and then making his way to Europe.

Things did not work out that way. He flew to Syria with a friend, but once there found out they did not have enough to pay a smuggler to sneak them into Lebanese territory. They found work for three months at a farm in Syria for US$100 a month but were unable to save any money. Another smuggler offered to take them to Lebanon on the condition that they work at a farm in the Wadi Khaled area until they paid him back his fee, but that was not feasible. Eventually, they struck a deal with another man, who agreed to escort them over the border on the condition that he held onto their passports until they could pay him.

When Tayyeb came to Lebanon, smugglers used to charge US$200 per person. The price had increased to US$300 by the time Bashir arrived. Both found crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border to be a harrowing experience.

“If you try it once, you will not do it again” states Tayyeb. “Whenever I advise a Sudanese who wants to come to Lebanon to get a visa, they think I don’t want them to come here and make a living. But it’s because I don’t want them to suffer like I did.”

Tayyeb could easily have been killed when a Syrian border patrol opened fire on the group of people he was walking with along a smugglers’ route in the dark. “We crossed the borders into Lebanese territory after walking for seven hours on foot. They shot at us, it wasn’t a risk worth taking,” he says.

The smuggler took Tayyeb and his friend to the Sudanese Cultural Club in Beirut, where many in similar circumstances gather. They are often offered help by compatriots, in form of both material assistance and advice.

“A Sudanese family hosted us but we lived in a climate of fear. They advised me not to go out at night, and to avoid police patrols.” Tayyeb’s daily movements are still governed by this fear, which haunts all Sudanese who reside illegally in Lebanon.

Tayyeb worked in hotels, restaurants, and for cleaning companies. In addition to the racism he encountered from them all, his employers used to pay him in installments to ensure he would not leave.

“I’ve suffered in Lebanon. There is a lot of racism in this country. I quit my job at many places because of it. But after all these years, I no longer care, because my family needs me.” Tayyeb only earns US$330 per month. He has not been able to renew his residence permit for the past four years due to a lack of money. Avoiding police checkpoints has become second nature. “I walk in the shadows because I cannot take risks,” he explains.

Many Sudanese who have been unable to tolerate this racism have left. According to Tayyeb, Sudanese migrants have also learned to avoid working for local visa sponsors if at all possible – they would rather pay about US$1,800 to cover their own visa fees than place themselves at their mercy. Some Lebanese sponsors exploit their workers horrifically, making them work 18 or 20 hours a day while paying them on the basis of eight working hours. That was what happened with Bashir when he worked at a gas station.

The Sudanese Embassy has requested that the Lebanese government exempt illegal Sudanese migrants from paying a fine if they apply for voluntary repatriation. Even so, they still have to wait at least four months to be deported. In the meantime, they have to find whatever work they can in order to save money for the ticket.

Death in the Mountain Passes

Usama al-Qadiri

Hardly a week goes by without the body of a smuggled migrant being found on the outskirts of the Bekaa villages of Aita al-Fikhar and Manara, near the illegal crossing-points into Syria. The dead are often Sudanese, Egyptians, Pakistanis, or other foreign nationals who were evidently attempting to enter Lebanon surreptitiously to seek work.

They are lured by middlemen working for the smuggling networks into believing that they are coming to the “Switzerland of the Orient.” But they encounter nothing of the like after they make the long, cold trek over the rugged snow-covered mountains.

Some never make it. They may be arrested, imprisoned, and deported. Others are returned to their families in coffins, when it is possible to identify them. When it is not, their bodies are kept refrigerated indefinitely at the morgue of Baabda public hospital.

Coroner Ali Suleiman, who examines most of the corpses, says the majority of the migrants who die while crossing the border appear to have been completely unprepared for the conditions.

“It seems they are unadjusted to the cold mountain weather. Most of them also go hungry before traveling long and debilitating distances. In most cases, they are dressed in light clothes, which confirms that whoever transfers them does not inform them about the nature of the climate and the fatigue that they will suffer from.”

He says he has never seen signs of violence or bruises on the corpses found. The cause of death is usually cold and exhaustion.

One Lebanese security source says that smuggled migrants – either those who are arrested or whose bodies are found – rarely carry any identification papers.

“There are brokers in Sudan and Egypt who trick those young men into believing that there are job opportunities in Lebanon, without explaining to them the dangers of the journey, and the effort and difficulty that they will face in order to cross the mountain passes that they are not prepared for,” the source adds.

“Also, according to what detainees say, they are kept for days at farms in Syria near the borders until they are smuggled. So they spend days without water or food, which is often the reason why some of the die.”

The source adds: “All the smuggler cares about is making money from transferring them across the Syrian-Lebanese border.” It is often the smugglers themselves, however, who call the security forces to inform them of the presence of dead bodies in remote mountainous areas, “using anonymous numbers.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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