Poverty in Lebanon’s ‘Billionaire City’ leads to deadly migration

  • The tragedy on a migrant boat sheds light on poverty in the north
  • At least 94 die in an ill-fated voyage
  • Further attempts at sailing indicate growing desperation
  • The tragedy underscores the increasing poverty in northern Lebanon

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, September 25 (Reuters) – In the city where Lebanon’s wealthiest politicians hail from, the poorest residents are once again mourning their dead.

Among them Mustafa Misto, a taxi driver in the city of Tripoli, and his three young children, whose bodies were found off the Syrian coast on Thursday after leaving Lebanon on a migrant boat carrying more than 100 people.

With 94 bodies recovered, dozens of whom are believed to be children, it is the deadliest voyage of its kind to date from Lebanon, where growing desperation is forcing more and more people to make the perilous journey on rickety and overcrowded boats in search of a better life in Europe to search.

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Before embarking on the ill-fated journey, Misto was heavily in debt, had sold his car and his mother’s gold to support his family, but still could not afford simple things like cheese for his children’s sandwiches, relatives and Neighbors.

“Everyone knows they could die, but they say, ‘Maybe I’ll get somewhere, maybe there’s hope,'” said Rawane El Maneh, 24, a cousin. “They left… not to die, but to renew their lives. Now they are in a new life. I hope it’s much better than this one.”

The tragedy has underscored rising poverty in northern Lebanon, and Tripoli in particular, which is driving more and more people to resort to desperate measures three years after the country’s devastating financial collapse.

It has also brought into focus stark inequalities that are particularly acute in the north: Tripoli is home to a number of ultra-wealthy politicians but has enjoyed little development or investment.

While many of Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have spent money in their communities to bolster political support, Tripoli residents say their area has been neglected despite the wealth of its politicians.

As mourners gathered to pay their respects in Tripoli’s impoverished Bab al-Ramel neighborhood, many voiced their anger at the city’s politicians, including Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s billionaire prime minister.

“We are in a country where politicians just suck money, talk and don’t care about what people need,” said El Maneh.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city with around half a million people, was already Lebanon’s poorest city before the country plunged into a financial crisis, the result of decades of corruption and poor governance overseen by the ruling elites.

Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said Tripoli has not seen any major development efforts since the 1975-90 civil war, despite the political rise of wealthy businessmen from the city. This “was similar to the growing inequality and income inequality in the country,” he said.


Mikati has made much of his fortune in telecommunications and is ranked the fourth richest man in the Arab world by Forbes in 2022.

Mikati’s office said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday that through his charitable foundations he has been the “biggest contributor to Tripoli’s socio-economic development” for more than 40 years.

He also understands “the anguish that the people of Lebanon in general and Tripoli in particular are going through” due to the crisis, she added.

Mikati’s seafront villa on the outskirts of town, known to locals as “Mikati’s Palace,” has been a rallying point in protests against government corruption and economic desperation in recent years.

A Lebanese prosecutor in October 2019 accused Mikati of illegal enrichment for using funds earmarked for a subsidized home loan scheme for poor families – allegations he denied.

His office said the charges were “politically motivated to tarnish his reputation,” noting another judge dropped the case earlier this year.


Showing a disconnect between the people of Tripoli and politicians and the belief that nothing will change, only three in ten people in the city voted in May’s parliamentary elections.

The north has been one of Lebanon’s crisis regions since the end of the civil war. The city and its environs were fertile recruiting ground for young Sunni Muslim jihadists.

Most recently, Tripoli has been a focus of a deteriorating security situation linked to the financial collapse.

Home Secretary Bassam Mawlawi has announced a new security plan that has followed a rise in crime and violence.

According to camp residents, several dozen of the people on the migrant boat were from the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. There were also many Syrians, around 1 million of whom are living in Lebanon as refugees.

The economic crisis has fueled poverty, with 80% of the population of around 6.5 million people living in poverty, according to the United Nations. The government has done little to address the crisis, which the World Bank has described as a deliberate depression “managed” by the elite through their exploitative access to resources.

Several other boats attempted the journey from Lebanon last week: Cyprus rescued 477 people from two ships leaving Lebanon.

According to the UN refugee agency, 3,460 people have left or attempted to leave Lebanon by sea this year, more than double the number for all of 2021.

Also among the dead on the boat carrying Misto was a woman and her four children from the northern Akkar region. The father is one of the few survivors, said Yahya Rifai, the mayor of her city. He said the crisis was worse than the civil war.

“I don’t know what’s going on with these politicians,” he said. “They will have to answer for that.”

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Reporting by Timour Azhari in Tripoli and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Edited by Tom Perry, Samia Nakhoul and Susan Fenton

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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