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Mass Exodus Of Syrians From Lebanon Prompted By Crackdown On Refugees

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Many of the Syrian refugees going to Europe are not coming directly from Syria. They've already spent years languishing in neighboring countries, including Lebanon. We wanted to know why there's been such a steep increase now in the number of Syrians leaving Lebanon. NPR's Alison Meuse put that question to refugees in Beirut.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: In a rough neighborhood of South Beirut, five Syrian girlfriends reunite. They sit on floor mats, sharing the latest gossip. But the hottest topic is escape to Europe. Everyone is on the move these days. Wissam al-Sukkari's husband is already in Germany. She says it was this summer they got fed up with life on the margins.

WISSAM AL-SUKKARI: (Through interpreter) We've been living here three years in terrible conditions - no work, low on money. After everything ran out, we started to think of the way out, and of course, that means being smuggled.

MEUSE: Sukkari gives an example of the daily hardships. She had to pass through army checkpoints on the way to visit her friends today. Lebanon tightened the residency requirements for refugees earlier this year, and she doesn't have legal papers.

AL-SUKKARI: (Through interpreter) Any officer can stop us and interrogate us, ask us for our ID. They can say, you're here illegally; you have to go back to Syria.

MEUSE: When Sukkari's husband tried to legalize his stay, he was told he had 48 hours to leave Lebanon. He was born in Syria, but he's Palestinian, so he couldn't get a passport to travel abroad by sea or air. He decided to risk taking a route through war-ravaged Syria to reach Turkey.

AL-SUKKARI: (Through interpreter) Within those 48 hours, he went to Syria. He stayed there one day and then took the smugglers' route up to the Turkish border.

MEUSE: From there, he took a boat to Greece and walked 12 days to Germany. Sukkari says that all of the men in her neighborhood are gone, all smuggled out.

AL-SUKKARI: (Through interpreter) When we want to bring a canister of cooking gas up three flights of stairs, there's no young guys left to do it.

MEUSE: Now Sukkari is hoping for legal permission to join her husband in Germany. Thousands of others are doing the same. The International Organization for Migration has been tracking the number of people leaving by ferries from the Lebanese port city of Tripoli. They say the numbers have tripled in the past few weeks with a thousand people making the trip each day to Turkey where they get smuggled onto Greece. The U.N. says the failure to fully fund refugee programs in Lebanon is driving them to Europe.

In the kitchen, Mona Fattalleh is cooking for the group of women. She says her U.N. aid has been cut from $27 to $13 per month per person. She's not sure how long she can last in Lebanon. She thinks Europe might be the place she can find stability.

MONA FATTALLEH: (Through interpreter) I just want a safe place where I know I'll stay the rest of my life. I'll raise my kids here. This is the street they'll grow up on. This is the school they'll go to. Here, I know that any day, they could say we have to leave.

MEUSE: Fattalleh says she cried all night after seeing the now-famous photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on a Turkish shore. She worries she might have to take her own two children on that same dangerous trip.

FATTALLEH: (Singing in Arabic).

MEUSE: For now, she and her friends sing a parting song in what could be one of their last gatherings before going separate ways. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.