Dozens of Lebanese from Tripoli and Akkar gathered near the Australian Embassy Tuesday in downtown Beirut to protest the country’s recent refugee policy which aims at preventing new asylum-seekers from arriving at its shores.
Scores of Lebanese from the north of the country have been travelling to Indonesia, boarding fishing boats that carry asylum-seekers into Australian waters. But under the new law signed on July 19, unauthorized arrivals will be sent instead to Papua New Guinea for assessment and if found to be refugees, will be settled there, and if not, they will be sent back home.
On July 25, about 40 Lebanese arrived at the Christmas Island located about 500 kilometers south of Jakarta, Indonesia. The island is a common destination for asylum-seekers, who crowd into boats at Indonesian ports and pay smugglers to ferry them to Australian shores. These young men, however, were unaware that they would never be settled in Australia.
“We are asking the Australian authorities to have mercy on our loved one[s],” said Mohammad Khaldi, who spoke on behalf of those present. “These young men sought Australia because they have friends and family there, and in Papua New Guinea they know no one – they are on their own.”
Khaldi justifies the illegal means through which residents have resorted in order to seek asylum. “These young men have been faced with the decision of carrying arms and have thus chosen not to by seeking asylum, it makes no sense that they be punished for making such a choice given the means they have.”
The demonstrations have raised awareness about the issue of smuggling Lebanese into Australia, which NOW learned has been occurring for months. “Leaving Lebanon is the hardest decisions I was forced to make,” said Fathi Bashir, who contacted NOW from the Christmas Island where he now awaits deportation. “But I could no longer endure the continuous fighting [in northern Lebanon], the sectarian rhetoric, and the mushrooming militias who seize control over every aspect of one’s daily life.”
Bashir knows this only too well. As a young child growing up in Tripoli, he lost both his uncles during clashes between the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods. Bashir, now in his mid-twenties, has become the sole provider for his mother and two younger sisters. He inherited his father’s mechanic business in the heart of the city’s battleground on Syria Street, which was frequently targeted during recent clashes. With his cousins and friends, Bashir departed for distant Indonesia and eventually found himself among many other Lebanese crammed into a tiny fishing boat heading to Australia.
Fear and uncertainty in Tripoli has driven many like Bashir to seek asylum in Australia. He tells NOW that hundreds of young men have paid tens of thousands of dollars to leave Lebanon, often via boat from Indonesia.
Ahmad, whose name was changed due to security concerns, is a Lebanese-Australian smuggler. He helps refugees enter Australia illegally via air and boat. While his clientele traditionally varied between Syrian, Palestinian, and Iraqi nationals, many Lebanese have been coming more recently.
Ahmad told NOW that he charges $9000 USD per person for a spot on a wooden boat, $2000 of which is paid in advance. “I need the down-payment to take care of the paper work that is required – such as the banking statements, employer’s certificate, a visa to Indonesia, and the plane ticket.” The rest of the amount, he explained, is for “expenses incurred [while] in Indonesia.”
For Lebanese asylum-seekers, the process begins after flying to Jakarta on a tourist visa. They are then bundled into a black van and whisked away to an isolated house in the town of Bogor, some three hours away from Jakarta. Their mobile phones are confiscated, and they are forced to hand over up to $4000 USD for the last leg of the trip.
Wassim learned of the trip details only one hour prior to his departure. Married and with two children, Wassim, who preferred not to reveal his real name, told NOW that he had spent 20 years working in a bakery in Tripoli. Desperately seeking a better future and adequate protection, he sold his only property and arrived in Jakarta two days later.
“It was in Indonesia,” Wassim explains, “that I discovered I was being taken advantage of by people smugglers.”
Once Wassim arrived in Jakarta, local authorities demanded extra payment for entry. Wassim was later detained by an Iraqi mob, which held him ransom and demanded even more money. “I called my facilitator and asked him to intervene on my behalf, but he offered no help whatsoever.” He added, “I paid my life savings worth to people smugglers who [took] advantage of [me].”
When Wassim finally arrived at the dock, the sea was rough and the boat was flimsy. Lebanese mothers were cradling their children, and almost 40 people had crowded onto the small vessel bound for Australia. It was only then that Wassim decided to head back to Lebanon.
Australia is trying to discourage risky journeys like Wassim’s. Last month, the government announced it would no longer accept asylum-seekers who arrived by boat. The government claims that the new policy will break the smuggling industry and put an end to the practice.
NOW spoke with Lou-Ellen Martin, the deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Beirut. She confirmed that the transfer of a group of 40 asylum-seekers to Papua New Guinea would be subject to the new arrangement. According to an official statement from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the group of 40 adult males – consisting of 37 Iranians and three Lebanese – departed Christmas Island and landed in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Province on August 16.
For the remaining young men on Christmas Island, Bashir tells NOW that returning to north Lebanon means to “hold arms or else die.”
“So far I preferred to risk my life than to [take] up arms,” he said. “But if I am deported back to Lebanon than this means the world is forcing us to take up arms, and [it] wants to watch us as we kill one another.”
Read this article in Arabic