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The motives and methods of people smuggling between Syria and Lebanon

  • Mazen Ezzi

    Syrian researcher, Syria Initiative EUI and Editor of the HLP section of The Syria Report

    باحث سوري في مبادرة سوريا ضمن معهد الجامعة الأوروبية ومحرر قسم المساكن والأراضي والمِلكية في موقع سيريا ريبورت.

On the Syria-Lebanon border, the reason why someone requires the help of people smugglers will determine the route – and the price.

There are dozens of illegal crossings along the Syria-Lebanon border, through which hundreds of people cross every day along various smuggling routes. The people smuggling is controlled by local smuggling networks and XCEPT field research indicates that some of these are linked to the Syrian security and military services or to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The methods and routes used by the smugglers depend on the motives of the individuals being transported across the border. 

The majority of people who arrange to be smuggled across the border do so for financial reasons, including Syrians who are unable to secure the costs of entering Lebanon legally; Syrian refugees in Lebanon who are afraid to lose the few advantages that refugee status gives them; and Lebanese border area residents who cross the border daily. 

Smuggling operations for this group of people is concentrated in the countryside of Homs. The roads on these routes are easy, and smugglers use buses or cars, and sometimes motorcycles, to transport people across the border. In these smuggling operations, a group of families is often smuggled together to a specific area within Syrian or Lebanese territory. Travelling on these smuggling routes costs between $100 and $150 per person, depending on the place of origin and destination, while families pay discounted group prices. The security and military forces of the Syrian regime, as well as Hezbollah, often turn a blind eye to this type of smuggling and are satisfied with fees paid to them by the smugglers.

People also arrange to be smuggled across the border for security reasons. This group includes a wide range of political opponents of the Assad regime, armed opposition fighters, persons wanted in criminal cases against whom police search warrants have been issued, as well as deserters from compulsory or reserve military service. This group mostly consists of men between the ages of 18 and 50.

The ‘security’ smuggling routes are more rugged, requiring those crossing the border this way to do so either by walking or riding animals, as well as chaperoning by smugglers or guides. These routes are also more expensive, often costing more than $1,000 per person, and the cost increases depending on two factors: the degree of importance of the person being smuggled to the security and military apparatus of the Syrian regime, and their place of origin and destination.

The most prominent examples of 'security’ smuggling routes are the roads to and from the Lebanese town of Shebaa and the Syrian town of Tufail. The smuggling networks operating on both routes are linked to Hezbollah, transporting people from Shebaa or Tufail to the Lebanese interior. Demand for people smuggling along these routes often increases with the threat of Syrian regime forces carrying out military operations against reconciliation areas in the countryside of Damascus, Daraa and Quneitra. In recent months, the increased possibility of regime forces storming the towns of Kanaker and Zakia in the Damascus countryside, and Tafas in the Daraa countryside, has seen dozens of people who refused reconciliation or who are wanted by the regime make this journey.

A third smuggling route is the ‘military line’, a more expensive and less common form of people smuggling. This is not the military line used by the Syrian forces during the 1976-2005 period of Syrian guardianship over Lebanon, but a description given to a method of people smuggling carried out by Hezbollah members in their cars, through specific illegal crossings. Through these ‘military lines’, passengers are not subjected to any security oversight by any party on either side of the border. The cost of such a smuggling operation between Beirut and Damascus ranges between $3,000 and $10,000. The majority who choose this route are wealthy people, holders of foreign citizenships, or Syrians residing in Europe as refugees and wishing to visit Syria without obtaining official authorization, as that could result in them losing their refugee status.

Arrests or kidnappings are common in some smuggling operations, targeting people who have tried to evade payment or who use smuggling routes that are not appropriate for their case. Most kidnappings take place in Homs, along the easier smuggling routes. In such cases, smugglers often sell people to kidnapping gangs, who negotiate with their relatives to pay the ransom. After ransom is paid, the gang may offer them a choice: return to Syria or continue the process of being smuggled to Lebanon.

The methods used to smuggle someone between Syria and Lebanon will vary depending on the person’s security situation and their financial status. If a person’s security situation becomes more complicated, the smuggling method changes and the price increases. Smuggling networks seem to have a unified price list for the different types of security concerns, from criminal charges to being wanted by the security and military services. For the right price, it seems, anyone can be smuggled across the border, no matter how much they oppose the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, and no matter what crime they have committed.

This article was produced with support from the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) project, funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.