Cypriot marine police. Image: Cyprus Mail

Cyprus, until last year known as Lebanon’s number one wedding destination, is now seen as an escape route to Europe after dozens of Lebanese reached the waters off the nearby island over the weekend.

The Cypriot Ministry of Interior is “set to hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss the recent rise in arrivals,” a local paper said.

“A boat with around 60 migrants was spotted off Cape Greco on Monday while authorities are working to send migrants who arrived off Cyprus on two vessels during the weekend back to Lebanon,” the Cyprus Mail reported.

Cyprus, located only 40 minutes from Beirut by plane, has long been the preferred foreign wedding destination, especially civil marriages between religious sects, which are not permitted in Lebanon but are recognized upon return.

More recently, Lebanese property developers have enabled Lebanese with money stuck in the struggling banking sector to buy real estate in Cyprus via check.

The attempted boat landing on Monday followed two crossings over the weekend, believed to have originated from the Tripoli port of Al Mina in north Lebanon.

“Thirty-three migrants who arrived off Limassol on Saturday afternoon were sent early on Sunday back to Lebanon, which is where most of them come from,” the Cyprus Mail reported.

Lebanese youth who fled via the northern port of Al Mina in Tripoli during their journey to Cyprus. Photo: TNN

Cypriot authorities, noting the poor condition of the Lebanese boat, leased a sounder vessel to return the group of 30 Lebanese and three Syrians back to the northern port of Mina (Tripoli), providing food and nurses for the journey back – a testament to the good and historically equal relations between the two countries.

More than half that group were women and children, suggesting the trip was mostly undertaken by families.

“In the meantime, police arrested four men who were among a group of 51 migrants – Syrians and Lebanese – that landed by boat in Kapparis area in Famagusta, also on Saturday,” the newspaper said.

The Cypriot police said in a statement they had found evidence that three Syrians and a Lebanese between the ages of 19 and 31 were that initial boat’s operators, and they are currently under interrogation.

The rest of the group, which included five women and 11 children, were taken to an immigrants’ reception center in Kokkinotrimithia, a police statement said.

The phenomenon of Lebanese attempting to reach Cyprus illegally is not unheard of, but the wave of attempted migration of more than 140 people in the past 72 hours marks a major development.

It is also something which is likely to grab the attention of the European Union, which has sought to discourage migration since more than one million people sought asylum by land and sea in 2015.

A new wave

Unlike past years, when Syrian refugees would attempt to cross the Mediterranean from north Lebanon, this time it appears to be mainly Lebanese attempting to leave their own country, which is facing its biggest financial crisis since the Civil War.

“Lebanese youth heard the words of the President of the Republic and they migrated,” read the headline of an article on the migration attempt published by Tripoli News Network (TNN), a Facebook page focused on the northern Lebanese city.

The article was referring to a statement made by Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the height of anti-government protests last fall. Those who do not approve of the Lebanese leadership, he said at the time, “should leave.”

“Day after day, the harshest economic crisis in the modern history of Lebanon intensifies on various groups of people, especially the youth, who live in difficult circumstances that destroyed their dreams and destroyed their aspirations and future,” TNN said, predicting that the attempts at migration would only increase.

Lebanese anti-government protesters take part in a symbolic funeral for the country in the downtown area of the capital Beirut, on June 13, 2020, on the third consecutive day of demonstrations held in response to a deepening economic crisis. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

Lebanon’s poverty jumped from from 28% in 2019 to 55% in May, according to the Beirut-based United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), while extreme poverty rates skyrocketed from just 8% to nearly a quarter of the population.

Lebanon’s currency peg to the US dollar began unraveling last September and plunged earlier this year, losing more than two thirds of its value and eviscerating confidence in the financial system. Banks are now covered in metal sheeting and people’s savings – more than half of which were in US dollars – are nearly inaccessible.

Prices of even basic foodstuffs have ratcheted up to three and four times their previous cost, making even the basic Lebanese salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and bulgur an expensive item, and putting meat far out of reach for most families.

Since the financial collapse began, Lebanon has seen the number of people living in poverty jump from 1.4 million to 2.7 million, and those in destitution jump from 350,000 to 1.1 million, according to the ESCWA.

This trend was compounded by a two-month Covid-19 shutdown and the August 4 Beirut port explosion that killed nearly 200 people, maimed thousands and wrecked more than a quarter of a million homes and businesses.

It has also been worsened by the apparent unwillingness of the political class and their backers to carry out any meaningful reforms or make way for change that would lessen their grip on power. Lebanon’s top IMF negotiators quit out of frustration in June.

And in a foreboding sign, Lebanon’s middle class has shrunk from nearly two-thirds of the population to less than 40% in the past year, as the nation’s wealth gap widens.

“The real challenge facing Lebanon is that this group, which represents the bulk of the country’s human capital, may shun the uncertain economic opportunities in Lebanon and seek to emigrate,” ESCWA warned.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.