The Beirut-Damascus International Highway cuts through mountainous terrain to the official Masnaa crossing, but it is over the remote passes nearby that smugglers now guide groups of Syrian refugees into Lebanon under cover of darkness. “It is very difficult to limit it,” a General Security source told The Daily Star.
On both the lanes leading in to and out of Syria, there are several weak points exploited by smugglers. One falls to the right of the Damascus-Beirut lane.
There, a garbage mound has become a landmark for smugglers and refugees.
The route The Daily Star was shown followed a sandy road leading up into the rock-strewn mountains. This path is used by smugglers to reach the nearby Zahle district town of Majdal Anjar, according to the source.
Facing the path, to the left of the Damascus-Beirut lane, is another mountain dotted with trees. Trails through this mountain lead to the nearby western Bekaa village of Suweiri, he added.
It takes about an hour and a half to reach Majdal Anjar and around the same time to reach Suweiri, the source said, but more time is needed to traverse routes closer to the Syrian border.
Despite the efforts of General Security, the Lebanese Army and other security services, the topography makes it difficult to prevent the smuggling of refugees.
“Not all of the smugglers are known, but those who are known, the state is catching them,” the source claimed, adding that the Lebanese Army sets regular ambushes in the mountains.
But the infiltration of the porous Lebanese border is a years-old issue, and smugglers are continuously looking for paths that are not monitored by the Army.
How are refugees smuggled in?
According to the General Security source, smugglers target “Syrian refugees who go to the General Security and aren’t allowed in, either because they don’t fit the criteria of entrance or because they are labeled ‘no entry’ and are told to go back to Syria.” In many cases, he added, the refugees have left Syria legally.
The smugglers approach refugees they see waiting in the area, particularly at a nearby rest stop, which itself has become a landmark for refugees, smugglers and drivers who cooperate with them.
“There are people that are like brokers,” the source continued.
He said smugglers ask refugees what they’re doing there and why they weren’t allowed in, and give them a number to call to discuss the process of illegal entry.
“They know that they can now benefit from them financially.”
The source said that many refugees want to enter the country at any expense, especially if their children and families are in Lebanon.
For Umm Omran it was a matter of life or death.
She had to flee with her children, a 16-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, from the destruction and death of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, she told The Daily Star.
Her story of being illegally smuggled into Lebanon largely followed the scenario put forward by General Security.
Following increased shelling, Umm Omran decided to come to Lebanon after determining that fleeing to Turkey was both riskier and more expensive. She also has family in one of the many camps in the Bekaa Valley.
Umm Omran arrived on a bus carrying other refugees in late December. She left Syria legally, but could not get into Lebanon due to the restrictions imposed in Jan. 2015, aimed at curbing the influx of people fleeing the war. There are currently 1.1 million Syrian refugees officially registered in Lebanon, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.
“The bus we came in dropped us next to one of the rest stops, which is known to be attended by people who smuggle in Syrians,” she said.
They were quickly approached by a man offering transit. “At first he asked for $200, but we told him we couldn’t pay that amount,” Umm Omran said. They settled on $150 per person. Some was paid up front, with the rest due when they made it to their destination, Majdal Anjar.
Umm Omran recalled that afterward another person came to the rest stop with a list of names of those wishing to be smuggled in. He told them that once he entered his car and started moving, they should follow him.
The group followed him to where two other men were waiting.
“We were around 20 people,” she said. “There were two masked men, we didn’t see their faces.”
Then, in the dark, they started climbing the mountain.
“One was leading the group and the other was at the back. We didn’t see guns with them,” Umm Omran recalled. “We walked our way through the mountain; it was filled with thorns. It was difficult. It’s okay for the young, but I crossed the road with difficulty.”
The smugglers were not harsh with them, she said, explaining that when they got tired, they were allowed to rest. “We walked through the mountain for seven hours until we reached abandoned farms, there were no animals or people. We continued walking until we reached the main road. We arrived at Majdal Anjar at 4 a.m.”
Umm Omran continued her journey to Chtoura. “I was scared. Are they going to stick to their word?” she wondered of the smugglers. “It was terrifying.” She was picked up from the town by a relative.
Smugglers usually make the crossing at night to avoid detection by the authorities. If there is an Army checkpoint on one of the hilltops, they divert their route so as not to be seen.
The General Security source said that most of the smugglers are Lebanese. She confirmed that the men she paid had Lebanese accents.
Why must refugees resort to smugglers?
“There are a few who [would be] arrested at Syrian government checkpoints or at the Syrian border – they may not have proper papers, they might be afraid of being recruited by the military if they’re young men, they might fear arrest for whatever reason – this is one leading cause,” explained Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, when asked what prompts refugees to seek illicit help.
“The other leading cause is the new measures at the Lebanese border that were introduced in January 2015, which mean that some people would not be able to gain entry [as they do not meet] the conditions,” Houry said.
Maha Yahya, acting director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, concurred. She explained that Syrian refugees are left with no other options given the restrictions imposed on them.
“These are people who want to get out of Syria; they don’t have a safe passage. With all the constraints that the Lebanese authorities have placed on the movement of Syrians in and out of the country ... their only option, even if they want to pass through Lebanon and not to come in and stay, is to resort to informal mechanisms,” she said. “And smuggling is one such informal mechanism.”
Yahya said she believed that the restrictions have driven the expansion of the smuggling business.
“I don’t have statistics, but my sense from speaking to people is that before they put all these restrictions in place and when movement was pretty free, the illegal smuggling networks were much more contained and most likely much smaller in size.”