TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrians gather at dusk for a passenger ferry from Lebanon’s northern port of Tripoli to Turkey, the next step on their long trek toward what they hope will be a better, safer life in western Europe.
For more than four years, Lebanon has drawn refugees fleeing Syria but in the past three months it has increasingly become a 24-hour transit point for mainly middle class Syrians who can afford to take the onward trip by boat and plane.
Their destination, the European Union, is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East, Asia and Africa. On Tuesday EU interior ministers voted to redistribute 120,000 asylum-seekers around the bloc.
But the waves of Syrians still passing through Tripoli suggest Europe will have to cope with many more on their way.
“Syria is finished, there is nothing there. No work, no life, nothing but weapons,” said a 35-year-old man who gave his name as Ahmed. He whispered that he had fled Zabadani, the Syrian border town where Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Syrian army have been fighting a fierce battle with insurgents.
Around 28,000 mainly Syrian passengers left Tripoli this August by passenger ferry compared to 16,000 people in the same month a year ago, port manager Ahmed Tamer said.
“The capacity of Tripoli port is only 300 a day. We have 1,000 now and it is very difficult,” he said as pickup trucks crammed with people and suitcases whizzed toward the port.
The number of passengers has been so large that the port has expanded the meeting area and renovated the overflowing toilets. Up to four ferries are now carrying mainly Syrian passengers with mostly one-way tickets each day, he said.
Other sources at the port estimated that as many as 90,000 people had left in a two-month period over the summer.
Lebanon is home to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, an influx which has put a burden on its shaky infrastructure and stirred concerns about the effect on its delicate sectarian balance.
However, the recent outflow of people has not come from Lebanon’s refugee settlements but directly from Syria, including government-held areas, passengers and port authorities said.
Lebanon has been allowing Syrians with tickets for onward travel to pass through its three land crossings with Syria toward Tripoli port or Beirut airport on 24-hour transit visas. Some of the Syrians at the port said they had paid $1,000 each on the Lebanese side to be allowed through.
They came from across western Syria - the government coastal stronghold of Latakia, Damascus, Hama and Zabadani.
“I am going on this journey for a better future,” said 23-year-old teacher Abdelaziz Rayhoun from Damascus, who is keen to reach Germany with his five family members and leave Syria’s four-and-a-half year conflict behind.
“Sure, life is relatively good in Damascus but there are still mortar bombs falling on the city and you don’t know where they could fall next.”
Although the journey ahead worries him - he has heard the stories of people perishing at sea after taking overcrowded boats toward Greece - the risk is worth it for a safer life in the future, he says.
In the passenger lounge, men smoking cigarettes paced around piles of bulging suitcases and plastic bags. Parents comforted crying babies with milk bottles or songs as the engine of the docked ferry burred in the distance.
“I left to avoid military service,” said Ahmed, 25, a mathematics teacher from Hama city who wants to reach Germany or France. “It will be much better there, there will be work, a life,” he said. “Getting here from Syria was hard, you need to pay to cross through every point.”
“There are many more Syrians that want to leave but they don’t have the papers, you need a valid passport and exit papers and this is difficult.”
He came from the border to Tripoli in a taxi with his friend Obaida, a 24-year-old vet, who was also escaping military service with the dream of studying in the Netherlands.
“The journey there will be very hard and I don’t really know which way to take,” he said.
Groups of men gathered to discuss the best way toward Germany and Austria. Were the Hungarian police as bad as they had heard? Was Macedonia a good route? What about traveling through Serbia? Were the Germans still welcoming refugees?
This week the Hungarian government took out full page advertisements in several Lebanese newspapers in English and Arabic warning of the “strongest possible action” against people who try to enter the country illegally.
Mohamed Yousef, head of the Lebanese ferry group Med Star, said the number of Syrians crossing may start to fall because there were reports that it was becoming more difficult for people to exit Syria.
His company takes passengers on the 11-hour journey to Turkey for $160 per person or more if they want a cabin in the VIP section. Ninety-five percent of his passengers are Syrian.
His company has been taking around 800 people a day in the past two months compared to 700 a week previously.
At Beirut airport, buses from Damascus are lined up. One driver quoted $350 per person for a trip on his 50-seater bus the next day from the Syrian capital - at least twice the price usually charged for a whole carload of passengers.
Syria’s Tourism Minister told Reuters that Damascus wanted to tackle travel companies that bent the rules.
“In the recent period a large number of private traders actively exploited the needs of Syrians to leave in the light of deterioration of some services,” Bishr Yazigi said. “Today it is our duty, as the government of Syria... to hold all illegal operations to account.”
Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq in Tripoli and Kinda Makieh in Damascus