Desperate Syrians pay ultimate price in bid to reach Lebanon
Forced to attempt mountain smuggling route to reach safety, 16 Syrian men, women and children freeze to death after being caught in a heavy storm.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Ahmed* put his 70-year-old mother on his back and started out across the snow-covered slopes. But the smuggler who was leading them over the mountains from Syria into Lebanon was going too fast, and despite Ahmed’s desperate pleas, they became separated in a heavy storm.
The smugglers had told Ahmed that it would take half an hour to cross into Lebanon via the mountain paths. After spending seven hours wandering lost at night in the storm, six of his family members froze to death, including his wife, daughter and mother.
Lying on a foam mattress in a bare room on the third floor of an unfinished building in north Lebanon, the 43-year-old from a town near Syria’s eastern border with Iraq is still in a state of shock. “Life has no meaning for me anymore,” he said. “I wish I could be with them.”
A total of 16 people lost their lives attempting the crossing that January 18 night, according to the Lebanese Civil Defense directorate.
“This tragedy reveals the desperate lengths that Syrians must now go to escape the conflict and reach safety, given the closed borders all around Syria,” said UNHCR Representative in Lebanon Mireille Girard.
“This tragedy reveals the desperate lengths that Syrians must now go to escape the conflict and reach safety.”
Among the dead that night were also some who had been living as refugees in Lebanon for several years, but who risked crossing back into Syria to access free medical treatment not accessible to them in exile. While attempting to return to Lebanon, they paid the ultimate price.
“The smuggler said it would be easier to cross in the middle of the storm, because there would be no Lebanese patrols,” said Ahmed. “The snow was slippery, it was hard to walk, and we lost our way,” said Ahmed’s daughter Amira, 19, holding her daughter, Fatima, whose face is still burnt by frostbite. “I think we lost consciousness; when I woke up, it was dawn, I tried to wake up my mother and sister, but they wouldn’t move.”
Out of the group of 14, six died: Ahmed’s wife, mother, 14-year-old daughter, a grandson, and his brother’s wife and four-year-old daughter.
“The smuggler said it would be easier to cross in the middle of the storm, because there would be no Lebanese patrols.”
The mountain smuggling routes are used by those on both sides of the border – Syrians attempting to flee the nearly seven-year-old conflict, as well as refugees already living in Lebanon who find themselves forced to return to the war-torn country out of desperation.
Around 1 million refugees are registered in Lebanon. Of these, around three quarters live in poverty, many are unable to afford the cost of public healthcare. Those with valid IDs sometimes opt to go back to Syria to access free public healthcare before returning to Lebanon, irregularly via the smuggling routes.
* Names and locations have been changed for protection purposes
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. UNHCR leads international action to protect people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. UNHCR delivers life-saving assistance like shelter, food and water, helps safeguard fundamental human rights, and develops solutions that ensure people have a safe place to call home where they can build a better future. UNHCR also works to ensure that stateless people are granted a nationality. UNHCR’s dedicated teams are on the ground in some 130 countries across the world, working in partnership with governments, NGOs, the private sector, community groups, host communities as well as refugees.