Intercepted at Sea: Anatomy of a Pullback
Editor’s Note: The black dots (●) in the text are clickable to display documents sourced in this article.
Intercepted at SeaThis is Part 2 of a three-part series examining the human cost of border enforcement.
On April 23, 2022, a little before sunset, siblings Hashem and Alaa Methlej boarded “the death boat” together (see Part 1). Minutes before they reached international waters, the Lebanese military intercepted the boat. It sank, killing half the 81 people on board. Hashem's family are adamant that he survived. But ever since that night, Hashem Methlej has been missing.
Where is Hashem?
Abdel Rahman al-Rmeihi, Alaa and Hashem’s maternal uncle, found out about the tragedy when he got a call from a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer. They had Alaa and Louay al-Dandashi, the volunteer said, and asked al-Rmeihi which hospital he wanted the Red Cross to transport them to. “When I got to the hospital, Alaa was crying and breaking down,” al-Rmeihi said.
When the Methlej family and their friends heard about the boat wreck, and learned that survivors were arriving back to the shore, they rushed to the port looking for Hashem and Alaa. From that moment on, their lives became a hellish cycle of sifting through contradictory information, weirdly detailed rumors, and mysterious sightings of Hashem by both strangers and close friends.
When Mos’ab Methlej arrived at the port, he saw some of the survivors who had just made it back to the shore. More than one person assured him that they had seen Hashem alive. One even told him: “He made it out.” (The Public Source was unable to independently verify this claim, as Mos’ab didn’t know the survivors he spoke to that night.)
A neighbor and distant relative of the Methlejs swears that he saw Hashem in the port after the accident. “He was wrapped in a blanket and was taken in the Red Cross vehicle,” he told The Public Source. When asked if he was positive the person he saw was Hashem, he replied: “Of course it was Hashem. I’ve known that boy for a long time.”
Hashem’s parents, his uncle, and his cousin all saw his name on the list. They were relieved: Hashem had made it out. But where was he?After the port, Hashem’s parents and friends rushed to the different hospitals where the Red Cross was taking survivors. When Umm Hashem got to the hospital, she was in such a panic that she pushed Alaa and shouted: “How could you make it out without your brother?”
Compounding the family’s confusion was the unofficial list of survivors, with “H. Methlej” on it, that families were circulating on WhatsApp. Hashem’s parents, his uncle, and his cousin all saw his name on the list. They were relieved: Hashem had made it out. But where was he? (The Public Source attempted to trace the WhatsApp list; as far as we could tell, it seems to have originated with the news website Lebanon24 in the confusion of that night. Reporters at Lebanon24 were unable to confirm the source of the list.)
“Hashem is with the state ... He is good. He was in the governmental hospital, and they took him out the back door. Don’t say I told you anything.” —WhatsApp voice note
Later that night, Abu Hashem posted a picture of Hashem on his Facebook account and asked people to contact him if they had seen Hashem. A stranger forwarded him a voice note from someone who claimed to be a nurse at the governmental hospital in Qobbeh. “Hashem is with the state,” the voice said. “He is good. He was in the governmental hospital, and they took him out the back door. Don’t say I told you anything.”
In recent years, Lebanon’s government has refused to respond to numerous crises, such as the 2020 explosion of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port that killed at least 263 people and left vast swaths of the city in ruins. But there is one area of crisis management where the government excels: the Lebanese military and its Western partners are growing more and more aggressive — and successful — in their efforts to prevent people from leaving Lebanon.
Between 2021 and 2022, the number of migrants fleeing Lebanon by sea almost tripled.Ever since the 2019 financial collapse, more and more people living in Lebanon have become desperate enough to risk the dangerous journey by sea. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of migrants fleeing Lebanon by sea almost tripled, from 1,570 to 4,629, according to data from UNHCR.
As people grow more and more desperate to leave, the Lebanese government and its international donors are working harder and harder to prevent them. Since 2012, the European Union has funded a €19 million project to beef up Lebanon’s border management in order to "fight against terrorism and serious cross-border crimes" and manage “any additional influx of refugees.” In 2020, as more people fled Lebanon’s crisis, the Cypriot and Lebanese governments signed an agreement to intercept migrants and refugees fleeing by boat and return them to Lebanese authorities. [note:1]
As people in Lebanon grow more and more desperate to leave, Lebanon’s government and its international donors are working harder and harder to prevent them.
Lebanon’s government has so far refused to publicly disclose the agreement’s implementation protocols. But both countries have already returned people to Lebanon on many occasions — including many who had successfully reached Cyprus and attempted to claim asylum. “We know that Lebanon and Cyprus have updated this agreement to basically help each other out in terms of not having individuals exercise their right to leave and claim asylum elsewhere,” said Nadia Hardman, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights.
The secret agreement also led to an increase in the number of unlawful pushbacks from Cyprus to Lebanon. A “pushback” is the act of pushing refugees or migrants back across a border, usually just after they crossed it, and before they can exercise their legal right to seek asylum. Pushbacks violate the 1951 Geneva Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees, as well as human rights law and customary international law. They also systematically violate international prohibitions on collective expulsion, pointed out Emilie McDonnell, UK advocacy and communications coordinator at Human Rights Watch.
Nonetheless, pushbacks are common practice in EU countries: last year, a Guardian analysis found that illegal pushbacks by EU member states had killed at least 2,000 migrants since the beginning of the pandemic, when the number of pushbacks increased dramatically.
The secret agreement also led to an increase in the number of unlawful pushbacks from Cyprus to Lebanon.
As pushbacks between Lebanon and Cyprus increased in the wake of the bilateral agreement, people trying to leave Lebanon by boat increasingly tried to circumvent them. Many of them did this by attempting the longer and far more dangerous route to Italy — the same journey that Hashem and Alaa were trying to make in April. A consortium of Lebanese and European human rights groups estimates that at least 182 people died trying to leave Lebanon in 2022 alone.
But pushbacks aren’t the only way to keep migrants from reaching Europe. In recent years, countries in the global north have increasingly begun outsourcing migration control to so-called “departure states” like Moldova, Mexico, Libya, and Lebanon. Instead of carrying out pushbacks themselves, higher-income countries are now relying more and more on so-called “mobility partnerships” with “third countries” politely referred to as “countries of transit or origin” for migrants.
In these bilateral agreements, high-income countries promise to give their lower-income partner states funding, training and equipment for border control. Depending on the country, they might also dangle development assistance, trade agreements or temporary labor migration. For upper-middle-income countries, like Turkey, the EU will lavish billions of Euros for migration control; for majority-white countries like Moldova, they might even offer visa waivers. Countries that don’t cooperate, said McDonnell, might be threatened with cuts to development aid. The agreement between Lebanon and Cyprus is part of this larger trend.
In recent years, countries in the global north have increasingly begun outsourcing migration control to so-called “departure states” like Moldova, Mexico, Libya, and Lebanon.
In exchange, departure states agree to prevent migrants from leaving in the first place. Often this “departure prevention” can take the form of pullbacks: when a country forcibly prevents people — including, sometimes, its own citizens — from leaving. Often carried out just inside or outside the departure country’s borders, pullbacks violate fundamental human rights. “What we see is systematic violations of the right to leave, and the right to seek asylum, of individuals who are trying to flee,” said McDonnell.
It’s not clear what Lebanon is getting in exchange for preventing migrants from leaving. But in July 2021, as Lebanon’s people faced an unprecedented crisis in food and fuel, the government announced that it was negotiating a $488 million loan from France in order to purchase four 65-meter offshore patrol vessels. And in February 2022, U.S. Coast Guard ships visited Beirut’s naval base in order to train Lebanon’s navy for three 25-meter Protector-class coastal patrol boats that the US pledged to donate.
As Lebanon’s people faced an unprecedented crisis in food and fuel, the government announced that it was negotiating a $488 million loan from France to purchase four 65-meter offshore patrol vessels.
Pullbacks can be just as deadly as pushbacks. But because higher-income countries have outsourced migration control to lower-income countries, these destination countries can wash their hands of responsibility for migrants who are killed outside the reach of their own jurisdiction. As a result, pullbacks tend to get less media coverage and legal scrutiny than pushbacks. “In the context of Lebanon, these kinds of pullbacks have not been subjected to enough investigation and analysis,” Hardman told The Public Source. “They take place in areas which are not well patrolled by human rights documenters.”
The April boat tragedy could be considered a pullback, said McDonnell, if the Lebanese navy engaged in dangerous maneuvers — like destabilizing the migrant boat, or ramming into it, as survivors say — and if the migrants were returned to an unsafe place on land, where they faced detention and human rights abuses. Despite the lack of scrutiny, Hardman pointed out, the Lebanese state still has the duty to investigate the wreck and the events of that night in a transparent manner.
Three months after the April boat tragedy that killed 41 people, Dinnawi boasted that Lebanon's navy "showed unparalleled productivity in the process of border control."
But instead of giving Lebanon’s border enforcement critical oversight, government and security officials speak of it as a great success. Three months after the April boat tragedy that killed 41 people, Dinnawi boasted to a defense industry website that Lebanon’s navy “showed unparalleled productivity in the process of border control, through the results achieved that began to appear from 2019 to date.”
This kind of congratulatory language is not unusual. “What we see with cases of pullbacks is governments sometimes dressing up interceptions of boats at sea as saving lives,” said McDonnell. “But in reality, what they're doing, and the maneuvers they're doing, are endangering life. And they're often accompanied with lots of other human rights violations.”
Lebanon’s partner states also speak of its border control as a glowing success. In December 2022, eight months after the sinking of vessel J-1580, the EU’s Integrated Border Management program held a celebration at the Mövenpick in Beirut to mark 10 years of cooperation on migration control.
The EU’s border cooperation with Lebanon “not only embodies our core values and security objective in supporting our host-country,” said the the Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation, Alessandra Viezzer, “but it also serves to make Lebanese feel safe and secure, knowing that we have a solid presence in this country and we care.”
The Public Source reached out to Viezzer for comment on the April boat tragedy via email. “On the below, kindly note that before the completion of the investigation into the tragedy, we will refrain from commenting on the matter,” responded a press officer at the EU delegation.
Who Saw Hashem?
After the message from the anonymous nurse, claiming that Hashem had been spirited out of the hospital and into detention, Hashem’s uncle, al-Rmeihi, went to the hospital and asked to see the security footage from the night of the accident. They showed him footage from the hallways and the entrance to the ER. But he couldn’t tell if Hashem had been brought in or not. The Public Source called the governmental hospital on at least five occasions, using different listed numbers, but they never responded.
The day after the shipwreck, the army announced that it had rescued 48 survivors. The army also announced that it had arrested one citizen, with the initials R.M.A., on suspicion of people smuggling. Later estimates would revise the number of survivors downward to 40. Nothing more was heard of the mysterious arrestee. These and other small but strange inconsistencies are enough to give the Methlej family hope: Could Hashem still be alive, perhaps in detention for some reason?
Small but strange inconsistencies are enough to give the Methlej family hope: could Hashem still be alive, perhaps in detention for some reason? About three months after the tragedy, Tripolitan lawyer Mohamad Sablouh and a group of colleagues asked the United Nations to look into the April boat chase and collision. On September 21st, United Nations rapporteurs on migration, torture, detention, and other human rights issues wrote to the Lebanese government to bring attention to “the absence of effective and independent investigations to identify deceased or disappeared persons and to clarify the causes and circumstances of their death following the shipwreck off the coast of Tripoli on 23 April 2022.”
The UN rapporteurs also pointed out that the lack of will to investigate the deaths falls in a larger context of “endemic impunity for ship accidents involving displaced persons, including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.”
On November 9, the Ministry of Social Affairs responded. The Ministry’s response listed the number of survivors and dead or missing people from the April boat collision by their nationalities: 26 Lebanese, 12 Syrians and 2 Palestinians survived, a total of 40; 25 Lebanese, 11 Syrians and 5 Palestinians died or disappeared, a total of 41. According to the Ministry’s response, the Lebanese Red Cross presented the numbers to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Tripoli Municipality, UNHCR, IOM, and UNICEF. [note:2]
If the Ministry of Social Affairs is aware of the nationalities of the dead and the survivors, it presumably knows their identities. But the Ministry has so far refused to release any list of names that would tell families who was drowned and who was saved. “As to the circumstances of the sinking and the investigations aimed at identifying the deceased or missing persons,” wrote the Ministry, “these are matters that do not fall within the purview of the functions and responsibilities of the Ministry of Social Affairs.”
The Lebanese Red Cross was unable to comment on the identities of survivors and referred The Public Source to the Lebanese Armed Forces, who have not responded to date. (The Public Source filed a request to release the list of survivors to the Directorate of Orientation, the military prosecutor’s office, and the Civil Defense. None of them responded to the request.) But The Public Source spoke with several LRC employees off the record. One of the LRC employees told The Public Source that Hashem’s name is not in their databases.
Any phone call or message is enough to rekindle a wild, desperate hope in the Methlej family: could this be news of Hashem?
Because Lebanon’s government has so far refused to release any official list of survivors, any phone call or message is enough to rekindle a wild, desperate hope in the Methlej family: could this be news of Hashem?
A few months after the tragedy, a neighbor told Abu Hashem and al-Rmeihi that he had news about Hashem. The neighbor had an acquaintance who had been arrested by General Security. After the acquaintance was released, he told Abu Hashem’s neighbor that he had seen and spoken to Hashem in Tripoli's Palace of Justice.
According to Abu Hashem and al-Rmeihi, the neighbor’s acquaintance described Hashem’s phone and tattoo — details only his family would recognize. The acquaintance said that Hashem told him: “Tell my parents that I am detained in the army intelligence’s remand prison as an undocumented person. They don’t believe that I am Hashem and they are not allowing me to call my parents to bring my documents.” The acquaintance told Abu Hashem’s neighbor that he would record his testimony and send it to Hashem’s family.
But like all the other sightings of Hashem, the mysterious stranger dissolved into mist. But like all the other sightings of Hashem, the mysterious stranger dissolved into mist. According to Abu Hashem, he sent them a voice note saying: “I am traveling and I don’t want to get into trouble with General Security. I didn’t see anyone or speak with anyone.” They never heard from him again.
It’s common for families of missing people to receive these kinds of contradictory accounts about the fate of their loved ones, said Carmen Hassoun Abou Jaoudé, a member of the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared in Lebanon. (Disclosure: this reporter also works with Abou Jaoudé on a project with Act for the Disappeared, a non-governmental human rights organization that works on disappearances from the Lebanese Civil War.)
Abou Jaoudé spent decades working with the families of the missing from the Lebanese Civil War. Over the years, she saw many cases of unresolved sightings of missing people, especially those who had disappeared into Syrian detention centers. A former detainee would approach a missing person’s family and tell them he saw their loved one — even though the government had announced the person’s death.
Once again, al-Rmeihi tried to follow up on the new lead: after hearing the former detainee’s story, he went to the General Security office in Tripoli. They told him they didn’t have Hashem. But al-Rmeihi and Abu Hashem still suspect that the army intelligence could be detaining Hashem.
Survived and Arrested
Hashem’s family’s theory of detention is not entirely far-fetched: the Lebanese Army’s Intelligence Branch did arrest and detain at least one survivor from the April boat tragedy.
On Sunday, April 24, the day after the boat tragedy, Ibrahim al-Jondi heard that he was wanted by army intelligence. In order to avoid further trouble, he turned himself in at Tripoli’s port branch. His mother Bari’a went with him.
The Lebanese Army’s Intelligence Branch did arrest and detain at least one survivor from the April boat tragedy. At the port, army intelligence officers told Bari’a that they would be interrogating her son for a short while. Hours passed as she waited inside the port. Friends joined her to keep her company. At around 2 a.m., she went home. The next morning, she went back to the port to ask about her son. She told The Public Source the officers told her that al-Jondi was no longer there.
Al-Jondi said that officers first took him to an army intelligence office in Qobbeh before transferring him to the Ministry of Defense in Yarzeh, Baabda. A major offered to call his mother to inform her that they were moving him. But al-Jondi didn’t have his phone on him, and he was so shaken by the trauma of the previous night that he couldn’t remember her number. The major assured him that the interrogation would only last a couple of hours, and then he could go home.
The move to frame one of the migrants as a people smuggler is not unusual.
The officers interrogating him at the Ministry of Defense treated him well, al-Jondi told The Public Source. They even offered him cigarettes. They asked him to tell them everything that happened, from the moment the boat left the shore to the moment he was rescued. He and his mother believe they were trying to frame him as one of the smugglers who organized the trip.
The move to frame one of the migrants as a people smuggler is not unusual. In 2021, Alarm Phone and ARCI Porco Rosso, two European human rights watchdogs, analyzed hundreds of cases in which authorities across the Mediterranean detained people on false charges of being human traffickers. They found that in many cases, the so-called smugglers were migrants who had been pressed into steering, especially if they happened to have some previous knowledge of sailing. Some of them had actually saved the lives of their fellow migrants by taking the helm in emergencies. As a boat mechanic, al-Jondi was an easy target.
While al-Jondi was in detention, a few days after the boat sinking, the Directorate of Orientation of the Army Command announced that the government’s investigation of the wreck would fall under the army’s Intelligence Directorate. The investigation would take place in a military court, a court system under the jurisdiction of the Minister of National Defense. The Lebanese military, in other words, would be investigating itself.
Internationally, legal experts increasingly agree that military courts should not have jurisdiction over members of the military who are accused of human rights violations or crimes against civilians. In 2018, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) found that the Lebanese Code of Military Justice and its system are inconsistent with international standards.
The Public Source filed an access to information request to the army’s Directorate of Orientation, asking for the results of the investigation. The Directorate of Orientation responded that it had no jurisdiction over the investigation, and pointed to the military prosecutor's office. The Public Source filed the request to the military prosecutor’s office. As of press time, we have received no response.
After the wreck, Lana, a self-described "social democratic" party organized meetings with survivors and families of the victims in Tripoli. A group of lawyers from the party volunteered to represent survivors and families. Other lawyers soon joined, and formed a committee within Tripoli’s lawyers’ syndicate.
Today, almost nine months later, Abu Hashem is tormented by maybes.
Bari’a Safwan heard through a friend about Diala Chehade, one of the volunteer lawyers. She reached out to Chehade and told her about al-Jondi’s arrest a few days earlier. After the lawyers filed a forced disappearance complaint to the military prosecution, army intelligence informed Chehade of al-Jondi’s whereabouts. In the end, the Ministry of Defense did not release al-Jondi until April 30, a week after the boat sinking.
Abu Hashem believes his own son might have been detained too, just as al-Jondi was. Today, almost nine months later, he is tormented by maybes. Maybe Hashem had an altercation with soldiers. Maybe Hashem filmed the whole accident, and they killed him and threw him in the water. Maybe they detained him, hoping they could blame him for the accident, and they are holding him, alive, to this day.
“Maybe they want to accuse him of terrorism to justify what they did,” he said. “We know how they treat the people of the north. If they are guilty, they accuse us of terrorism to hush everything.”
“We know how they treat the people of the north. If they are guilty, they accuse us of terrorism to hush everything.” —Abu Hashem, father of missing migrant
Deep down, he feels his son is alive. In another interview with The Public Source, two weeks later, Abu Hashem repeated his theory that the military could be framing Hashem of terrorism to justify the boat chase. “‘You didn’t stop when we asked, so we had to ram into you,’” he imagined the army saying to the survivors and families. “‘We didn’t mean to kill you.’”