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.
In late October, a boat carrying Lebanese and Palestinians tried to cross the sea illegally from the southern town of Sarafand.
A report published by local Lebanese daily, Al Akhbar, focused on Lebanese and Palestinians stranded and seeking asylum in Cyprus.
Then there was the tragic story of the Safwan family, whose 12 members left their home in Ouzai, one of Lebanon’s poorest slums, only to have eight of them perish after their boat capsized on its way to Greece.
Others are trying to emigrate through legal channels. “I applied to go to Germany because I know life is better there, but I got rejected,” said 24-year-old Abdallah Khaled, a Lebanese citizen from Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“They’re only taking in Syrians. I already have relatives over there, so they would’ve helped me get on my feet. I would’ve learned the language and started working. Of course it’s better than staying here.”
Aware that European countries are more likely to accept Syrian refugees, some Lebanese are now obtaining forged Syrian passports before embarking on their trip.
According to several sources, the cost of a forged document can range between $300 and $1,000, depending on whether the buyer wants an ID card, a travel document or a passport.
For some Palestinian refugees, who have been residing as second-class citizens in Lebanon for more than 60 years, the situation has become unbearable. Many are now packing up, willing to let go of their dream to return to their homeland in exchange for a better life in Europe.
“We are hearing many stories of people selling off their businesses and their assets, which suggests a more permanent decision to leave,” said Zizette Darkazally, public information officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Lebanon.
“This phenomena is taking place between both Palestinians and Palestinian-Syrians who have been here for 60 years and more.”
In Ain el-Hilweh, many residents have had enough. According to party activists and community leaders in the camp, at least 4,000 people have left in recent months. Most are Palestinian refugees, as opposed to Syrian or Syrian-Palestinian refugees.
Twenty-year-old Marwan Ali, who dropped out of high school and now works on and off as a car mechanic, plans to emigrate once he can scrape enough money together. Twelve of his friends arrived in Germany a few days ago, after flying to Turkey and taking a boat across the rough seas to Greece.
“Between all of them, the trip cost around $25,000,” he said. “They sold their valuables, borrowed from relatives – whatever was necessary to get the money together. I’m going to do it. I don’t care about the rough seas; I would rather die trying to get there than die here. What am I staying here for? There’s no hope. If I go to Europe, I can eventually get the passport and that way I can go to Palestine.”
Visibly frustrated, Hussam asked: “What use are we here to the Palestinian cause if we are struggling to survive and feed our children every day? These Palestinian factions here who keep preaching about the right of return – their children are now in Europe, but they want us to stay for that right? Let them practice what they preach!”
The security situation in Ain el-Hilweh has been a tipping point for those undecided about whether to emigrate. In August, deadly clashes in the camp killed five people and wounded around 30 others – the fiercest round of fighting in the camp in a long time.
The clashes were between Fatah members and the Muslim Youth group, a collective of extremist factions with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“Daesh [ISIL] is here and it is growing,” said Ali. “They have money, and they can convince the boys, who have nothing to do, to join them. They’re getting guys who are my age. It’s not about religion; it’s about money.”