Cyprus offers safe haven for 'second wave' of Lebanese fleeing crisis

As tensions flare and living conditions worsen in Lebanon, could the recent surge of economic migrants turn into the next wave of asylum seekers?

A Lebanese family arrives at Larnaca International Airport in September ahead of the start of the school year as fears that increasing fuel shortages and electricity black-outs in Lebanon spurred many to seek a more stable education for their children elsewhere. AFP
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Walk around Larnaca and you could be forgiven for thinking it was “little Lebanon”, although the Cypriot city has a telltale lack of long queues at petrol stations and boasts a steady supply from the electricity grid.

A large Lebanese Maronite Church sits in the heart of the city centre of Finikoudes where Lebanese-accented Arabic can be heard on every corner and where there are seven different Lebanese eateries in a one-mile radius. Half of them have opened in the last 18 months during the “second wave” of migration from Lebanon into the Mediterranean island; the other half came with the “first wave” that took place during the country’s ruinous Civil War from 1975 to 1990.

An estimated 100,000 Lebanese took refuge on the Mediterranean island during their country's protracted Civil War. The war lasted 15 years, divided the capital city of Beirut along murderous sectarian lines and claimed an estimated 120,000 lives. Many Lebanese say their country’s catastrophic collapse over the last two years is just as bad as those dark days.

At least six people were killed and dozens injured in armed clashes in Beirut last week, in a dreaded foreshadowing of a possible return to all-out war.

“You waste so much time just being in survival mode. I just wanted to have a normal life where I don’t have to worry about whether there is electricity, or gas or internet,” Carine, 43, an architect from Beirut who moved alone to Larnaca this summer, told The National.

Home to Cyprus’ main airport, the coastal city is a 25-minute plane ride from Beirut and therefore a popular destination for newly arrived Lebanese emigres.

Carine, who prefers not to use her full name, is only one of thousands of Lebanese who have made a safe haven for themselves on the island 230 kilometres west of their country. Official numbers are scant but the Lebanese ambassador to Cyprus, Claude el Hajj, estimates more than 500 family files — approximately 3,000 people — have been opened at the embassy in the past two years, “especially after the October 2019 revolution, but the big rush started after the [Beirut port] explosion”, she told The National.

The numbers are likely to be much higher, however, as many in Lebanon hold another nationality or have sought assistance through other avenues, most notably the well-established Christian Maronite community in Cyprus.

Father Akl Abou Nader is the parish priest of the St Joseph Maronite Church in Larnaca. It caters to a predominantly Lebanese flock, with sermons given in Arabic and a congregation that extends from the city of Limassol in western Cyprus to Protoras at its far eastern point. He said that 600 Lebanese families, many of whom have sought assistance or guidance from his parish, had arrived in August this year alone.

Lebanon’s already dire crisis has worsened in recent months after fuel shortages which last week plunged the entire country into darkness as the state-powered electricity supply ran out.

The World Bank has ranked Lebanon in the top three most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century, with its currency losing more than 90 per cent of its value since October 2019.

For parents, the lack of a safe learning environment for their children has hastened their decision to relocate and schools in Cyprus have been faced with a significant influx of pupils.

The head teacher at Pascal Primary School in Larnaca told The National that there had been an “overwhelming flood” of registrations from Lebanese families in recent months, with extra classes and staff hired to cope with the unexpected demand.

“Many reported that the instability in Lebanon forced them to seek alternative options despite their love of their homeland and having to leave family and work behind,” says Denise Michael.

When the French-Cypriot school in Nicosia reopened after the summer holidays to 400 new applications from Lebanese students, Ambassador El Hajj co-ordinated with the Ministry of Education to provide the school with temporary prefabricated buildings that could accommodate half that number.

Cyprus safe haven: history repeating itself

Cyprus is of course no stranger to sheltering the Lebanese. About 100,000 Lebanese sought refuge on the small island between 1975 and 1990, many of whom eventually returned when the Civil War ended. Several thousand fled to Cyprus again to escape Israeli air and artillery fire during the 2006 Lebanon war.

“I have a high intolerance for war … I grew up in red zones during the Civil War. But what pushed us to leave was being trapped in Beirut if there was a war. It was a nightmare I wanted to avoid for my kids. I didn’t want them to live what I lived,” says Jennifer Saliba, a motivational coach who now lives in Limassol, Cyprus’s second-most populous city.

She left Lebanon with her husband and two sons, aged 11 and 16, in March 2020 after losing faith that the popular protest movement would bring about any meaningful reform.

Since then, the currency collapse, Covid-19 and the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port have all but decimated the country and pushed the last vestiges of hope, along with many of its citizens, out of Lebanon.

“We were all waiting for the revolution but … eventually it became OK for me to declare defeat, to not fight for a cause I am not going to win … I’m not political but it’s a vicious cycle where they are feeding you junk every day,” she said.

Sitting in her quiet garden in Limassol, she now radiates calm and happiness. She admits to missing home sometimes, but the handful of times she has visited since moving have reassured her that she made the right choice.

“Those who can leave are leaving, it’s a very sad statement but it’s true.”

An economic boon for Cyprus?

Mrs Saliba’s husband, an insurance broker, transferred his business operations to the island, a move aided by the recent Fast Track Business Activation Mechanism, a programme launched by Cyprus's Ministry of Energy Commerce and Industry in September last year. It offers faster procedures for foreign companies that fulfil certain criteria and can make “a positive contribution to the country’s economic growth” to set up in Cyprus.

Senior Industrial and Commercial Officer Constantinos Karageorgis told The National that nine out of the 30 applications received since the new programme launched in September last year are Lebanese-owned companies with eight of them already accepted. Facilitated residence and employment permits for third country nationals are an additional perk of the scheme.

Joseph Kalaydijan, founder of Lebanese property management company Cheezhospitality, travelled to Cyprus this summer to scope out the opportunities for his own business. Though international expansion was always part of his plans, he says the crisis at home removed the “luxury of time.”

“Cyprus is super close and we already have clients with properties there and others who are now buying … it’s also much easier to set up than I thought,” says Mr Kalaydijan.

Founder of his eponymous boutique law firm, Panagiotis Toulouras said his team had seen a “steady increase in Lebanese clients” in the last few months, “either relocating their families or business, in many cases both.”

Rentals and purchases of property on the island are further testament to how Lebanon’s losses are becoming Cyprus’s gains, with agents busily attending to surging Lebanese demand.

“I sold nearly 400 apartments to Lebanese between 2016 and 2021 … including a hundred in the past six months,” reported one Lebanese owner of dozens of real estate projects in Cyprus in September.

Nadine El Hakim, 49, was one of those who entered the market early. A successful executive at a paramedical supplies company in Lebanon, she had a high-paying salary and a comfortable life in Beirut, where she was used to “all sorts of crises” and lived throughout the Civil War.

But after feeling a “shift in atmosphere” in the country from 2015, she decided to withdraw the savings she and her parents had amassed to buy a house in Limassol as a “backup plan” in 2017. At the time, Lebanese banks were offering exorbitantly high interest rates on deposits, which, given the subsequent capital controls on withdrawals and sharp currency devaluation, have been described by some economists as a national Ponzi scheme.

“When I first bought the house everyone in Lebanon thought I was crazy to use all our savings on it but now they say it was an excellent decision,” she says.

Even after buying the house, she “refused to leave Lebanon”, and when the protests began she was “on the streets every day for three months”, until she too succumbed to the mass flight out of Lebanon. Having lost her job, and hope, she packed her bags and moved permanently with her parents to what had meant to be their “summer” house in December last year.

Thanks to her foresight, she and her family have a roof over their head and have not, like millions of people in Lebanon, lost their life savings. Nevertheless, like many of her compatriots, they rely on remittances, in her case from a sister in Saudi Arabia, for day-to-day expenses. Despite her impressive CV and extensive experience, finding a job has been a struggle, and making friends has not been easy.

“Starting life all over again at 50 is not easy to do but there is no Lebanon for another five years at least — forget about it,” she tells me over the phone.

“I’m not happy that I left but at least I have peace of mind.”

Could Lebanon’s ‘economic migrants’ become the next asylum seekers?

The economic benefits Cyprus has derived from this fresh wave of monied immigrants may yet mask the pressing needs of another, less financially secure, cohort.

A historically warm relationship between the two countries means that, for the moment, tourist visas have been relatively easy to obtain. How they support themselves once they arrive on the island is another matter.

Father Akl Abou Nader has been acting as an informal NGO worker, helping many of the Lebanese who he says are “coming blind” to Cyprus.

“There are families knocking on our doors saying they don’t have food, they don’t have furniture … and we haven’t even got to winter yet,” he tells me in the back room of his church.

“Some people just have enough money for schooling but not much extra so we help to direct them to the cheapest options … and many don’t really know anything here and need help to find doctors, to find Arabic supermarkets, to find places to stay.”

He and the Lebanese Ambassador have been co-ordinating with the ministries of education and health in Cyprus to help where they can, but he fears the problems are only set to increase as conditions in Lebanon worsen.

“We need a lot, the needs are big and increasing, from furniture to health care. So long as the needs increase in Lebanon, they will increase here,” says the priest.

Classified as economic migrants, most of the Lebanese who have journeyed to Cyprus recently would not qualify for the sort of aid or asylum protections afforded to those fleeing war, like Syrians in the last 10 years. But while those in Lebanon are not running from a raging battlefield, “if you don’t have water, electricity, schooling, fuel, heating, medicine, then what is that?” asks Father Akl.

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, applications for asylum from Lebanese nationals are still small in number, with only 60 currently being processed, compared to 20,000 Syrian applications, for example, but their offices in Cyprus say they are “observing the situation.” There has been a surge of boats making their way from the shores of Lebanon, which is already home to millions of refugees.

“The reason for departure is survival, which applies to Lebanese but even more so for the Syrians and Palestinians,” says Emilia Strovolidou, at the UNHCR’s information office in Cyprus. “We don’t know if there will be any special status granted to Lebanese — as happened during the Civil War period — but anyone has the right to seek asylum and it depends on whether they fit the criteria of fleeing generalised violence or fear of persecution.”

Compared to the rampant violence in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon’s crisis is unlikely to qualify, however a generalised situation that makes “life intolerable” could allow people to qualify for subsidiary protection status in Cyprus, says Ms Strovolidou.

But avenues to protect the most vulnerable are diminishing. Last year Cyprus, which according to officials has the highest per capita number of asylum claims in Europe, signed an agreement with Lebanon to push back anyone trying to reach the island by boat. The move has been heavily criticised by human rights groups for violating international law and leaving migrants with little chance of applying for asylum.

The most recent reported pushback took place this August when 88 Syrian migrants were sent back to Lebanon after being stopped by Cypriot marine police vessels 15 kilometres from the coast. Lebanon, in turn, has also expelled some returning Syrian refugees.

Still, the perils of pushbacks at sea may not deter those who see life in Lebanon as any less life-threatening.

Updated: October 19, 2021, 9:33 AM