Syrian Palestinian Refugees Risk their Lives to Reach Europe

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Beirut, Lebanon
December 15, 2014

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate as the war there nears its fourth year. Palestinian refugees in Syria fled war and malnutrition in the besieged Yarmouk camp near Damascus and moved to Shatila camp near Beirut. But conditions in their new host country were far from what they had hoped for.

Palestinian refugees whose families arrived to Lebanon in 1948 already struggle with unemployment and poverty and the newcomers did not fare any better.

For many, the only solution was to pay huge amounts of money to smugglers who promise to take them illicitly to Europe by sea or across the African desert. Most of them, however, disappear or get caught by authorities in transit countries.

This video tells the story of people whose family members already took the dangerous road to Europe but did not make it.

The video also features a Skype call between a Palestinian refugee who wishes to travel illicitly to Italy and a people smuggler who says he is based in Sudan. The smuggler gives all the details about going from Lebanon to Sudan, and then across the desert to Libya before being smuggled by sea to Italy.

Shot List

1 M/S and W/S of the streets
2 Various of children
3 Various of woman at home
4 Various of children playing in the street
5 C/S of Yasser Arafat’s photos on camp wall
6 M/S of streets in camps
7 Various of streets

SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Woman), Lama Baqlouni

(00:41) This is my son Mustafa, he is 15 years old. He is imprisoned in Egypt now. And this is my daughter Nisrine, she is also detained with her brother in Egypt (00:57).

(00:58) My children are orphans now, their father died. We need someone to help them get out of prison. It has been two months, they are tired and sick. We need someone to help them move to another country so they can continue their lives as normal people (01:15).

(01:17) We left Lebanon to Homs where I got a smuggler’s number. I called him and he told me to take them to Hama with $250 for each. We went to Hama and paid the amount needed, and then he took them to Turkey, where they stayed in a hotel. We got the contacts of smugglers who will be able to take them to Italy. The fees ranged between $5,000 and $6,000 for each child, depending on the smuggler. We asked people for money – people we knew and others that we did not. They took them to the Turkish coasts to be transported to Italy, and made them wait from 7PM to 1AM (02:15).

(02:18) They were supposed to take them first in a small boat, and then move them to a bigger ship. They were stopped by the coast guards and imprisoned in Turkey for a day, on condition to make them sign a pledge that they will never get out of Turkey again. They were freed the next day. On the same day they got out of jail, the smuggler said they will try to leave Turkey one more time. They got on board on the same day, but the captain kept going in circles in the sea for five days (02:59).

(03:10) They arrived to an island and the captain ordered them to leave the boat. They did not agree at first, but he told them he will get them accommodations in Egypt, and they were threatened by guns and knives. My daughter told me that they got very scared. Everybody started to scream, and they threw four men in the sea (03:27).

(03:35) Syrians were sent back to Turkey but Palestinians were allowed to go there (03: 39).

SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Woman), Siham Jumaa

(04:07) This is my husband’s passport, he sent it to the smuggler to get a visitor’s visa to Sudan (04:16).

(04:32) We lost our house and everything because of the war in Syria. Life is hard here in Lebanon, we should pay a monthly rent for our house and life is expensive. This is the main reason why my husband decided to do this trip, and if I had money, I would do the same thing (04:49).

(04:52) He met a smuggler through Sudan who helped him prepare a visit to Sudan. He booked on a flight (Transit) from Beirut Airport. He travelled to Dubai first and then to Sudan. When he arrived to Sudan he called me to tell me that he is safe, and he is going to Libya after. He arrived safely to Libya after three days in the desert. After that, I got no news from him, and it has been three months now. His plan was to go to Italy after Libya, either from the coasts of Benghazi or Tripoli. He paid $4,000 for the whole trip from Beirut to Italy. But I heard nothing from him since he got to Libya (05:58).

(06:05) I do not have money. I sold all my jewelry and my wedding ring, and I even had to beg for money from people so we can get the 3000USD for his trip. Once he arrived to Libya, his brothers donated 1000USD for his trip. The whole trip cost $4,000 (06:21).

SOUNDBITE (Arabic) Skype conversion between Ibrahim al-Khatib and smuggler based in Sudan

(07:18) Ibrahim al-Khatib: I want to travel. Smuggler: Welcome, I will help you
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Can I please know what the process is? I am a Syrian Palestinian, and I am in Lebanon.
Smugglers: Where would you like to go?
Ibrahim al-Khatib: I want to go to Europe; I want to know the procedures, and how much it costs. This is the most important thing. We have no money and I have to borrow money if I want to travel. You have to give me discount and help me, please.
Smuggler: The person who told you about me, did he not tell you where I can take you?
Ibrahim al-Khatib: The person who told me about you went to Sudan. He went from Sudan to Libya and then to Italy.
Smuggler: Are you seriously intending to do it?
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Yes, I am, I am asking about the expenses because I have a wife and children and I want to know [how much money] I should leave for them and how much to take with me, I want to know about the road, if it is safe, or not, and how this whole thing is going to be arranged. I want to know how I am going to give you the money, or my passport. Will I receive a visa, or not? I do not want to go without knowing anything.
Smuggler: We have the path of Sudan, a bit cheap, but dangerous. You will go from [Lebanon] to Sudan - the road is easy - but from Sudan to Libya, we have five days in the desert. You have to think of all the odds, the desert is more dangerous than the sea. The sea is also unstable, but we can go across it and count on God to help us.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: What is your name?
Smuggler: I am Abu Yehya.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: What I want to know is that, if I decide to go to Sudan, how will you get me the visa? Is it an invitation, or a visa, how can I guarantee that the process will go as agreed?
Smuggler: You will get a regular visa, and you should not be concerned with how you receive it – you will have it.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: I heard that some people are being fooled and they are getting visas that do not work. Is that true of is it lying? Can I be sure that it will work?
Smuggler: It is not true, the trip to Sudan is fully legitimate, and you can make sure yourself.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: What about the cost?
Smuggler: Concerning the cost, the visa alone will cost you $1,500 and you have to pay for the plane ticket. From Sudan to Libya it will cost you $1,800. The trip from Sudan to Italy will cost you $3,200.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: I heard that from Libya to Italy, it costs $2,200, why do you charge $3,200? Is it more expensive now?
Smuggler: We charge $3,200 for the trip from Sudan all the way to Italy.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Alright, now I understand. Will I have to cross the desert from Sudan to Libya?
Smuggler: Yes, the only road we have is through the desert. You have to spend five to seven days in the desert and face many risks. You might face kidnappers or robbers. We cannot control these things; this is a matter of destiny. You will have to count on God if you want to take that road. In all cases, there isn’t any other road.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: What about Turkey, do you know anyone there?
Smuggler: Yes, I do. Syrian-Palestinians are not allowed to travel to Turkey, but we can arrange something. However, the trip to Turkey will cost you 10,000 euros.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: What is the process?
Smuggler: We can travel by sea, on plane or by bus.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Is there a way to go to Turkey from Lebanon, through the sea?

Smuggler: No, not at all, everyone used to say that they can go from Lebanon, but it is not possible. And I am not even in Lebanon, I am in Sudan.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Yes, I can see that you have a Sudanese number.

Smuggler: Yes, that is right, and I heard about many people who got caught while being smuggled out of Lebanon. If you are determined to go, send me a copy of your passport and $1,000 and you will give me the rest of the money when you get there.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Since I do not know you and you do not know me, how can I guarantee that you will not take the money and disappear? I want some sort of a guarantee.
Smuggler: I might send people to meet you, but at the end this is your choice; this how it is done, you chose either to do it or not. Many others have done it and if someone is afraid, then it would be better he did not do it.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: I wanted to ask about the procedure, and I am intending to go, I just have to figure out how to get the money, because it is available.
Smuggler: You can contact me if you want and we will make an agreement.
Ibrahim al-Khatib: Some people are getting caught in Turkey. They are reaching an area in the middle of the sea, and then they are being handed over to the Egyptian police. We heard about a few Syrian-Palestinians who are now imprisoned in Egypt.

You said that through the desert, whatever happens, you cannot be held responsible. But what about going by the sea? How can you be sure about what might happen? Smugglers themselves handed people over to the Egyptian police.
Smuggler: You have to consider the fact that you are going to be smuggled, and you are not traveling legally. You have to keep in mind all the troubles that can happen. You are not going legally, we are smuggling you. I am not trying to scare you, most of the people that we smuggled have made it there, unless if the person was unlucky – this is something else.

Ibrahim al-Khatib: Just as you are telling me that some people reached safely, I heard of other who drowned, women and children died.
Smuggler: Are you interrogating me or what?

Ibrahim al-Khatib: No, I am not interrogating you; do not get me wrong, but I am paying money and I am traveling with my family. I want to guarantee my safety.
Smuggler: Let me tell you something; if you want to leave, count on God, and leave. But if you keep telling me that this happened to those people and you will keep thinking of that, you will never travel. If you will keep thinking in a negative way, stay in Lebanon.

Ibrahim al-Khatib: My whole point is that I am going with my family, if something happens to me, it will be fine, I will manage, but my wife and children would not be able to survive.
Smuggler: count on God, God will have mercy on them.

Ibrahim al-Khatib: Alright, I will contact you again when I get the money, and think more about it. I am sorry for taking too much of your time. Thank you
Smuggler: No problem, you are welcome.