BEIRUT — Images of his countrymen streaming into Europe inspired Bassem al-Alyan to make the journey. But like many other Syrian refugees, he faces a significant obstacle.
Alyan is too poor to go.
Last month, he said, he paid a smuggler $1,500 that he managed to raise by selling his children’s beds, his pregnant wife’s jewelry and their refrigerator. After he and his sickly son reached Germany, the plan was to bring over the rest of the family from a destitute refugee camp in Lebanon’s capital.
But it all fell through after the smuggler disappeared with Alyan’s cash, he said.
“I don’t know what to do. I’ve lost everything,” Alyan, a 30-year-old native of the Syrian city of Daraa, said from Beirut’s Bourj el-Barajneh camp.
Many of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees, who mostly live in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, appear to be joining the exodus to Europe. But many others are unable to leave.
Poverty is a major reason.
After years of rising living costs and falling support in international aid, savings have evaporated. Complicating matters are tightened restrictions on employment and residency permits that have made life even more unbearable.
Nowhere is the effect of this more visible than in Lebanon, a country of 4.2 million people that has taken in more than 1 million Syrians. Most refuse to return to a homeland still convulsed by a four-year-old civil war that has killed 250,000 people. But even as Syrians here scramble to borrow money and sell off belongings, smuggling fees for a Europe-bound trek may still be too pricy, U.N. officials, aid workers and Syrians said.
Some of them, as a result, seem resigned to the misery of life as a refugee.
“Europe? I can’t even feed my children,” said Mohammed Mhana, 48, who moved to one of the many informal refugee encampments in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley area after fleeing Aleppo several years ago. He has more than a dozen children, he said, but receives only about $100 a month in aid from the United Nations.
He and his family struggle to find work as day laborers on nearby vegetable farms to pay the $200 monthly rent for their tin-hut shack, he said.
Others, however, see the coming weeks as a make-or-break moment for leaving, citing concerns about heightened border restrictions in Europe and the onset of winter.
“I have to find a way,” said Khaled al-Sud, 23, who fled Damascus for refuge in the Bekaa Valley four years ago. He fears that his work as a freelance car repairman won’t generate enough money for the thousands of dollars in smuggling fees required to take his wife and two young children to Europe.
“I’m asking my friends and family for money,” he said. “I’ll even go alone, if that is what it takes for us.”
It is unclear how many Syrians have left Lebanon to claim asylum in Europe. U.N. officials and aid workers say anecdotal evidence suggests that many are arriving from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where many refugees initially took shelter after leaving Syria. Others are also thought to be arriving directly from Syria.
About half of the 380,000 migrants and refugees who have claimed asylum in Europe this year are Syrian, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many, if not most, of those trying to leave Lebanon are relatively poor, said Mona Ayoub, a spokeswoman for Lebanese for Refugees, a Beirut-based nongovernmental organization that helps Syrians. Their desperation increasingly exposes them to swindlers and con men who offer smuggling services but instead run off with cash, she said.
Alyan, an unemployed father of four, briefly set sail last month from the northern city of Tripoli in a dinghy packed with dozens of other Syrians. But a Lebanese naval vessel turned their crowded boat back, and the smuggler absconded with the group’s cash.
The smuggler never told the group exactly where they were going, which had made Alyan suspect that he was being scammed.
But it didn’t matter. Alyan said he had to risk the uncertainty because of the deteriorating health of his 3-year-old son, Yazan, who suffers from a blood disorder.
“He’ll die if he doesn’t get help,” he said, holding the listless boy on his lap on a recent afternoon. “I can’t pay his medical costs.”
The run-in with the smuggler forced him to move his family into the cramped, three-bedroom home of a brother who also lives in the camp.
“We have nothing here — no jobs, no money, no schools, no future,” Alyan said.
He and other Syrians fear setting foot outside this camp’s claustrophobic confines because of the new residency and employment rules, which have resulted in an increasing number of detentions, rights groups and aid workers said.
“I know many who are confined to their apartments and camps for the last eight months as if they were in prison,” said Fadi Hallisso, head of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a Lebanon-based organization that helps people affected by the refugee crisis.
Lebanese officials counter that they have opened their country to an overwhelming number of Syrians while the rest of the world, including the West, has done little to help relieve the burden.
The worsening conditions have compelled scores of Syrians in recent weeks to abandon Bourj el-Barajneh, home to about 28,000 people and initially founded for Palestinian refugees. After the start of Syria’s war in 2011, thousands of Syrians had moved into the desperately poor area in southern Beirut.
Faiza Qaja, a 37-year-old mother of six who came to the camp south from the Damascus countryside, said more than 100 of her Syrian neighbors have left for Europe in recent weeks. She also tried to flee, joining Alyan and other neighbors on the failed boat ride last month.
After selling the family belongings, she said, she lost $1,000 to the smuggler. But all was not lost.
Her 15-year-old son, Abdullah, left the camp in mid-August without telling his parents. To their surprise, he called when he reached Germany, she said.
She said Abdullah is trying to find a way to relocate the family there.
“Without him there, we would have lost hope,” she said.