A 20-year-old impoverished father whose three-year-old son died in a first unsuccessful attempt to migrate from Lebanon to Cyprus via the Mediterranean Sea is willing to retry migrating to escape the economically battered Lebanon, which he described as ‘hellish,’ in an interview with Al Arabiya English on Friday.
On September 7, a penniless and jobless citizen from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, Mohammad Sufian Mohammad, was on a small escape boat with his pregnant wife, relatives and nearly 50 fellow travelers trying to make their way to Cyprus in a desperate bid to get out of Lebanon where economic collapse has made life for many unbearable.
But the boat didn’t make it to Cyprus, and after floating on the high sea for around a week, those aboard found themselves docking in the Port of Beirut after being rescued by a UN team.
The smuggler they paid to deliver them to the Cypriot shore reportedly took their money and left them on a small boat in international waters where Mohammad’s three-year-old son Sufian and a second cousin’s two-year-old son, Mohammad Naseer Mohammad, died aboard the dinghy.
Weeping bitterly over the phone, the distressed father said: “My son Sufian died of hunger and thirst … and of course because of our corrupt, dishonest and incompetent rulers, who coerced us to jump into a small boat in an attempt to migrate to Cyprus seeking a better future. We left Sufian’s bloated body in the sea as we couldn’t provide him with a decent burial.”
Mohammed told Al Arabiya English that he sold his furniture for nearly 5 million Lebanese pounds to pay the person who tried to sail them to Cyprus.
Lebanon’s economic downfall has accelerated in recent months and has left many out of work, and those who still have jobs have seen their salaries slashed. Inflation has meant the prices of basic goods, like food, have skyrocketed.
“My pregnant wife and I are willing to retake the same risk and migrate again because Lebanon is hell on earth to live in. It is a place where we have been left to die on our own slowly,” Mohammad said.
More than half of Lebanon’s population has been driven below the poverty line, even before the deadly explosion at the Port of Beirut that destroyed entire sections of the capital. Tripoli, long considered one of the most impoverished cities on the Mediterranean has been especially hard hit by the economic downfall.
Now, more and more Lebanese and Syrian refugees – which number more than 1 million in the country – are increasingly desperate and seeking a way out.
“My son and the other boy suffered without water and food. There were times when Sufian drank from the seawater. After the boys died, I tore my clothes and wrapped Sufian’s body … we kept their bodies roped to the boat’s sides. Within two days, their bodies got bloated and we had to leave them in the sea under God’s mercy,” said the 20-year-old father.
When asked if they had packed food and water for their trip, Mohammad replied by saying “they took away from them all the supplies,” but he did not specify who took their things.
‘Lebanon is hell’
Defending his decision to embark on the risky journey to seek a better future, Mohammad said that having not attended school, he has survived on begging in the streets and borrowing bread and money.
Mohammad got married at the age of 17 and his wife, who is two years older than him, gave birth to Sufian in 2017.
“I was an orphan and lived poorly and spent my life begging in streets. I was seeking a better future for my family. Sufian died but thank God my wife is pregnant. We are back to level zero in this hellish country. I am willing to retry and migrate … I want to and it is my right to provide my upcoming child with proper education and a decent living,” said Mohammed.
“Lebanon is hell,” he said.
Dozens of Lebanese and Syrians have in recent weeks attempted to take the seaway journey to the closest European country, which happens to be Cyprus some 160 kilometers off Lebanon’s shore.
Cyprus has an agreement with Lebanon on the matter of returns, but details of the agreement remain vague.
Cyprus has said it will not allow the entry of any person to the island without necessary permission from the authorities However, the UN refugee agency has urged Cyprus not to return migrants to the sea, as they should be permitted to seek asylum under EU and international law. The European Court of Human Rights has also questioned Cyprus’s recent actions.
Mohammed said that they remained without food and water for over a week across the Mediterranean Sea before a United Nations peacekeeping ship that was part of UNIFIL’s task force rescued them and told them that their boat had drifted into Israeli territorial waters.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English 57-year-old Khaldoun Mohammad, who did not attempt the voyage, said: “Above all our tragedy, my 27-year-old son Mohammad Khaldoun, who was with the 47 passengers on that boat, has been missing since that ill-fated ferry sailed on September 7.”
“What we have come to know so far is that after the boys’ demise and the boat drifting without food and water, my son told the other passengers that he will swim to the nearest land to bring help,” said Khaldoun Mohammad, who is the uncle of the two-year-old Mohammad Naseer Mohammad, the second child to die aboard the boat.
Khaldoun called on the UN peacekeeping forces and the Cypriot and Lebanese authorities to find out what happened to his missing son.
The 57-year-old heartbroken father said his unaccounted-for son had worked in a shop that filled fire extinguishers with foam, but had lost his job in 2017.
“Mohammad, a bachelor, has been unemployed ever since. We knew what happened from news bulletins. We rushed to Beirut port to pick up whoever had survived from our family and relatives … a UNIFIL vessel saved their drifting boat. I was told that my son dived into the water to swim and seek help,” said Khaldoun, who said UNIFIL told them that passengers could’ve died within three hours had they not been picked up.
“It’s been nearly two weeks now since he’s gone missing along with seven others. My two cousins had also died.”