Refugees

Illegal border crossings raise concern in Lebanon

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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Syrian refugees traverse an illegal crossing that brings them to the Lebanese village of al-Suwairi on foot. [Al-Mashareq]

In years past, cattle farmer Jamil Amer used to graze his herd in the outlying areas of the Lebanese border village of al-Suwairi without concern for his safety.

These days, he told Al-Mashareq, he lives in fear of being shot by smugglers guiding Syrian refugees across the border via an illegal crossing that passes close to his land.

At its highest point, Amer's farm, located on rugged dusty land in the outlying areas of al-Suwairi, lies on the border with Syria, just opposite the Jdaidet Yabous crossing.

"By virtue of the location of my farm on agricultural land [near] an illegal mountain crossing, I see the smuggling of Syrians ongoing day and night along a dirt road adjacent to my farm," he said.

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Lebanese forces patrol the rugged area along the Syrian border. Some Syrians who have been denied access to Lebanon at official crossings make their way into the country via footpaths. [Al-Mashareq]

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Syrians wait for the arrival of a convoy carrying their relatives near al-Masnaa border crossing on December 28th. [Hasan Jarrah/AFP]

Each day, between 50 and 200 people, including women, children and youth, escape Syria via the mountain pass, he said, "and very few of them are armed".

The smuggling route is not safe, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that the corpse of someone who had been murdered was found on the mountain, and a number of girls were raped, as their mothers watched, powerless to help, along the route.

"The smuggling activity has increased multifold recently," he said. "I tried to stop them from passing through my property, but individuals came to the farm one night and sprayed it with bullets."

Since this incident, he said, he has tried to stay out of the way of the smugglers in order to avoid putting three of his sons who are in the army, at risk.

The mountainous cross-border smuggling routes have been in use since before the outbreak of the Syrian war, Amer said, when they were used to smuggle fuel oil and food between the two countries.

Unmonitored mountain passes

Despite the best efforts of security forces to control these crossings, some remain largely unmonitored due to the rugged and forested terrain, as is the case with the illegal al-Thalath crossing in al-Suwairi and the Majdal Anjar crossing.

In an effort to clamp down on illegal crossings, the army has been conducting patrols along the roads of those two towns to respond to any suspicious activity.

According to local residents, most smuggling activity is carried out by Syrian smugglers, assisted by a number of youth from the Lebanese border towns, who actively facilitate the process.

One of them, a young man in his late 20s, spoke to Al-Mashareq about his work as a facilitator on condition of anonymity, using the pseudonym Mohammed.

"I have not had a job in two years and cannot find work that provides me with a steady income," he said. "So when I was offered a job as a facilitator of the smuggling of Syrians whose identification documents are unacceptable for entry into Lebanon, I accepted."

He is not alone in this work, he said.

"I receive between $200 and $1,000, depending on the number of people being smuggled," he said. "All I do is make sure the route the smugglers use is safe, then meet them at a certain location on the Lebanese side and take them to the main road, where a taxi driver, most often a Syrian, will be waiting."

Syrians who are refused entry at the official al-Masnaa crossing often walk back about 200 metres and take rugged mountain roads that enter Lebanon near al-Suwairi, and sometimes Majdal Anjar, he said.

Refugees who enter Lebanon via these routes "are from all parts of Syria, however, currently, the majority of them are from Deir Ezzor and al-Raqa, despite the distance", he said.

Mohammed said he knows that what he is doing "makes me subject to prosecution by security authorities", and hopes to eventually find work that will spare him this risk.

A spike in human smuggling

While Lebanese forces are conducting patrols inside the town to detect and stop any smuggling activity, al-Suwairi municipal chief Hussein Ali Amer said most refugees slip in to the area via the town’s illegal crossings.

"The smuggled individuals are Syrians who have their identification documents stamped at the General Security checkpoint in Jdaidet Yabous upon leaving Syria, but are refused entry into Lebanon at al-Masnaa crossing," he told Al-Mashareq.

In some of these cases, Syrian smugglers sneak them into Lebanon via three illegal rugged dirt side-roads and agricultural lands, he said.

These crossings were used before the outbreak of the war in Syria to smuggle fuel oil, he said, adding that "it is impossible to shut them down because they are mountainous dirt paths that are traveled on foot only".

"We used to hear of dozens being smuggled in via those crossings every day in the past period," Amer said. "However, that number has recently risen, amid reports of anticipated security developments in Syria, and that number on many days is in the hundreds, and they come in waves."

Amer noted that the distance between Jdaidet Yabous checkpoint on the Syrian side and the Lebanese town of al-Suwairi is only 40 minutes on foot.

The smugglers "know the area in detail and draw maps for the [refugees] to follow and provide them with phone numbers of taxi drivers and smugglers who will be waiting to transport them to the international highway or to their destination in Lebanon, in exchange for a previously agreed-upon cash fee," he said.

"Although the army is patrolling the town, it is difficult to curb smuggling because our mountainous terrain is wide open," he said.

Smuggling activity in Majdal Anjar

The illegal crossing of Syrians into Lebanon is not confined to al-Suwairi, as the border town of Majdal Anjar also is witnessing smuggling activity, albeit at a slower pace.

To curtail this activity, the Lebanese army's 4th Intervention Regiment has set up fortifications, said Majdal Anjar municipal chief Saeed Hussein Yassin.

"Despite these fortifications, we are still witnessing and hearing of smuggling of [refugees] by Syrian smugglers and some youth in the region," he told Al-Mashareq.

The residents of Majdal Anjar and al-Suwairi "are not happy with the illegal smuggling of Syrians via our dirt roads, because this harms our reputation, bearing in mind that we have hosted refugees from the outset of the Syrian crisis," Yassin said.

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