Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon – The once-bustling main street of Lebanon’s most over-populated Palestinian refugee camp is noticeably empty.
Storefronts, where dozens of chain-smoking young men perched on plastic chairs used to hold court, are now shuttered as talk of emigrating dominates the narrow alleyways snaking through the camp.
“Everyone is leaving; the streets are empty,” Hussam, who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera.
He is a 36-year-old Palestinian refugee who lives in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp – a 1,500-square-metre piece of land home to more than 100,000 predominantly Palestinian refugees. The camp is one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Sitting in front of his bakery overlooking the pot-holed street, he shrugged his shoulders. “If you asked me six months ago if I would ever leave, I would’ve said no. Now, I’m looking for a way out, and I’m not alone. All you smell here is death and despair.”
More than 845,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. As the influx continues, much of the focus has been on Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war.
|We are hearing many stories of people selling off their businesses and their assets, which suggests a more permanent decision to leave.|
But many Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon have also decided to head for Europe, citing what they describe as dire living conditions.
Some take a boat from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli to Turkey, and from there cross by land or sea into Europe.
Others fly from Beirut to Turkey, and still others travel through Syria and then cross into Turkey by land. The final destination varies: Many have ended up in Germany, but others travel to Russia, Belgium, Sweden or Norway.
In recent years, Lebanon has witnessed a slow deterioration of public services amid an ongoing political crisis. Its government is deadlocked, leaving the country without a president for more than a year-and-a-half.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s infrastructure is under pressure from the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees and around 500,000 Palestinian refugees, in a country home to just four million Lebanese citizens.
“The access to job opportunities in the country, for Lebanese and non-Lebanese, is really not good because of the Syrian crisis,” explained Fawzi Zioud, head of the International Organization for Migration’s mission in Lebanon.” And on top of that, the Lebanese diaspora abroad is huge, so they can easily absorb their relatives and friends to work there.
While there are no official figures on the number of Lebanese and Palestinians leaving for Europe, several sources on the ground have said that thousands are emigrating, both legally and illegally.
According to one humanitarian official, approximately 83,000 people, mostly Syrians, have left from Lebanon this year. The sources could not speak to Al Jazeera on the record because they did not have official data.