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At risk in Lebanon, Syrians gamble on smuggling routes to Idlib

As hate speech and violence against Syrians in Lebanon intensifies, risky smuggling operations to opposition-held parts of northwestern Syria are on the rise.

IDLIB — Around two months ago, Ali Samer (a pseudonym) returned to Syria from Lebanon, making his way to Idlib city in the opposition-controlled northwest. The 18-year-old, who is originally from Homs province, paid smugglers $800 to ferry him on a four-day journey along what is locally known as the “military route,” involving coordination with regime-affiliated checkpoints and personnel. 

Facing hate speech, deportations, evictions and street violence in Lebanon, many Syrians are searching for a way out. Some look west, risking treacherous sea journeys to Cyprus. But increasing numbers are looking east, where reverse smuggling operations to opposition-held northwestern Syria are on the rise. 

Returnees pay high costs and traverse dangerous routes between the two countries, moving by car and motorcycle, hiding among goods in shipping trucks and walking on foot before reaching northern Syria, as several sources who undertook the journey recounted to Syria Direct.

Dozens of travel offices on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border work with smuggling networks, which in turn coordinate with figures in the Syrian government and security forces to facilitate the process in return for bribes, sources said. 

No official statistics on how many Syrians are returning from Lebanon in this manner are available. However, Abu Abdo, who owns a travel office in Idlib, estimated that around 200 people a week journey from Lebanon to regime-controlled Aleppo city through his office. The trip costs $350 per person, and the same amount for every three children, he said. This price and route is for “those not wanted by the regime,” he explained to Syria Direct

For those who are wanted by Syrian security services, or who have not completed their compulsory military service, the trip costs between $600 and $800, “depending on the nature of the security issue and the middleman,” he said. 

Risky routes

For Syrians who are not wanted, the process of returning is more straightforward, as they can enter through official border crossings. Once in regime territory, some choose to continue onward, coordinating with smugglers to enter Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-held areas in the northeast or opposition-controlled areas in the northwest.

Abu Abdo’s office runs trips from several Syrian provinces to the opposition-held northwest for $250 per person, he told Syria Direct.

Meanwhile, those taking the “military route,” who are wanted by the regime, rely from departure to arrival on the help of “military personnel from both countries”—Lebanon and Syria—in exchange for an agreed-upon sum, Abu Abdo said. 

Samer set off with other returnees earlier this year from Lebanon’s northeastern Wadi Khaled area. They took motorcycles to a point near the border, and crossed on foot to a border village in Syria’s Homs province that he declined to name. The group spent two days there, before a vehicle belonging to the Syrian army’s 4th Division came to ferry them to the northern Homs countryside city of Rastan.

From Rastan, they set off again by motorcycle, riding through the mountains for half an hour before reaching the Damascus-Aleppo international highway, the M5. There, “members of Lebanese Hezbollah accompanied us to an area close to the al-Tayha crossing” linking regime and SDF territories in the Manbij area of northeastern Aleppo. 

Near the al-Tayha crossing, travelers bide their time in small rooms, locally called al-mattabat, until the time comes for another crossing: this time from SDF areas to opposition-controlled parts of northwestern Syria. 

At the crossing, Samer and those he was with put on military uniforms at the request of a member of the smuggling network before crossing the line of contact—at times riding in military vehicles and at times walking on foot. Once inside territory controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA), “opposition forces received us and arranged our transportation to Idlib,” he said. 

It is unlikely that Samer, and others like him, would travel this distance and risk their lives along the way if not for the increasing threats and restrictions facing Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

In the past few months alone, Syrian business have been shut down and discriminatory curfews have been imposed in several cities, alongside physical attacks and kidnapping. While anti-Syrian sentiment has been steadily rising for years, violence spiked this past April following the killing of Pascal Sleiman, a member of a right-wing Christian political party. In an effort to stay safe, some Syrians confine themselves at home. 

Read more: Fear grips Syrian communities as violence surges in Lebanon

Still, Syrians were returning from Lebanon even before the latest upswing in violence. Shaher Kamal (a pseudonym), returned to his hometown in Idlib with his wife and children in mid-2023. The smuggler he worked with promised a swift journey “without hardship or difficulties,” but the trip took two weeks, the 47-year-old told Syria Direct

Kamal is not wanted by the regime, and his family entered Syria through the Masnaa border crossing “without any harassment,” he said. The problem was getting into opposition territory. He and his family stayed at the waiting area near the al-Tayha crossing for two weeks due to a “dispute between the smugglers,” he said. He expected it was “extortion, with the aim of getting more money.” 

The reality was “more dangerous than that,” Kamal said. He eventually received a text message from the smuggler he contracted in Lebanon telling him he “needed to escape, because I was essentially kidnapped,” he said. 

The family managed to get out, using the excuse of “my eight-year-old daughter’s illness,” he said. “She became unwell from the high temperatures and filth of where we were staying.” Instead of entering opposition territory, the family headed to the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo city, where Kamal found another smuggler to take them to Idlib.

“Everyone says this route is a piece of cake, that you won’t walk on foot,” he said. Instead, deceived and swindled by smugglers, he described it as “like a crossing to hell, not to the homeland.”

Late last year, Samah, a 32-year-old mother of three daughters, also journeyed to Idlib from Lebanon. Her husband and son stayed behind to join them later, as he is wanted by the Syrian regime and needs to coordinate with a smuggler to reenter the country. 

Samah’s journey was “fraught with danger,” she said, as they were shot at and had their personal belongings and money stolen. Samah was also summoned to a regime security branch, where she was interrogated and “subjected to abusive language” before finally reaching her destination. 

Samah entered Syria with her daughters through an official crossing, and continued to Aleppo city. There, she found a smuggler who agreed to take her to Idlib through the al-Tayha crossing. 

When they arrived at the small waiting rooms near al-Tayha, they handed over their luggage and phones to the smugglers before boarding a vehicle “with the understanding that they would return them to us on the other side” once they reached opposition territory, Samah said. 

But while trying to leave regime territory by night, the group was fired upon and stopped. Most of the passengers, including Samah and her daughters, were taken to a security branch in Aleppo. After claiming she had been trying to visit her sister in SDF-held Manbij and “vowing not to take this route again,” she was released. 

On her second attempt, Samah succeeded. She and her daughters made it through al-Tayha, traveled from there to SNA-held Jarablus and al-Bab in northern Aleppo, and onward to Idlib city for a cost of $1,100. 

While they finally reached their destination, Samah’s mobile phone, handbag and suitcase filled with new clothes for her daughters was stolen. Still, “I praise God that I escaped detention and harassment safely with my daughters, especially since I belong to a family in Idlib that is well-known for opposing the regime,” she said. 

Why return? 

Since Lebanon descended into economic crisis in 2019, the country has grown increasingly unwelcoming for Syrians, as their living conditions deteriorate and xenophobia intensifies. 

Samah’s husband lost his job, and they reached the point that “he could no longer pay rent,” she said. This, on top of increasing restrictions on Syrians and the difficulty of renewing their residency permits, pushed the family to consider returning to Syria. 

Kamal returned for the same reasons. He had worked as a carpenter in Lebanon since 2008, years before the Syrian revolution and ensuing war. Still, “with increased security harassment and delays in renewing my family’s residency cards, and my children consequently being deprived of an education, I decided to return,” he said. 

Read more: Snowball effects of Lebanon’s economic crisis fall hard on Syrian children

More than 80 percent of Syrians in Lebanon do not hold legal residency, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as most cannot meet stringent requirements or pay renewal fees, leaving the vast majority at risk of deportation and arrest. 

The reasons for Lebanese General Security delaying residency renewals and sponsorship processes for Syrians is “arbitrary in most cases,” Lebanese lawyer Diala Chehade said. Delays may be for “bureaucratic reasons aimed at kicking Syrians out of Lebanon, or because of the high demand for residency renewals for foreigners of various nationalities.” 

Despite warnings from human rights bodies and international organizations of the danger of deportation, namely arrests and prosecution, Beirut continues to deport hundreds of Syrians and encourage repatriation under the guise of “voluntary return.” 

Thousands of Syrians have fled Lebanon, taking to the Mediterranean in the hopes of a better life in Europe, only to run up against tightened asylum measures in Cyprus, a European Union member state. 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented the arrest of at least 126 Syrian refugees after their deportation from Lebanon in the first half of 2024. Most were arrested by Syrian military intelligence at the Masnaa border crossing. Multiple deportees have reportedly died as a result of torture in regime custody.

Of 1,100 refugees who “voluntarily” returned to Syria earlier this year, the majority were sent back to Lebanon “by an official decision from the regime” after they were designated “undesirable and posing a security and demographic threat,” while only 400 were accepted, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported in June, citing a Lebanese parliamentary source. 

Chehade noted that it is legal for Syrians who are wanted by the regime or fleeing in fear of persecution or conscription to stay in Lebanon under international human rights law and laws combatting torture and enforced disappearance. “They can stand before the Lebanese judiciary to explain the reasons for remaining, and therefore Lebanon is obligated to protect them,” she said. 

A pledge made by Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to a delegation of sheikhs in Tripoli in June, stating that the country would not hand over Syrians held in Lebanese prisons who are wanted for political or security charges to the regime, was a response in line with Lebanon’s obligation to protect refugees, she added. 

“Staying in Lebanon is like taking your life into your own hands,” Kamal said. Before returning to Syria last year, he sold the contents of his house in Burj Hammoud, a town just east of Beirut, for “dirt cheap.” With the profits, he financed the return trip: $2,000 for five people. 

Samer did not have the money to pay smugglers to take him back into Syria. But as his family back in Syria grew more and more concerned, “the fear of me being hurt in Lebanon drove them to send me the money to return,” he said. 

This report was produced as part of Syria Direct’s Sawtna Training Program for women journalists across areas of control in Syria. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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