One of the deadliest shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean claimed the lives of at least 77 migrants after a boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off Syria’s coast.
With its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees in clamoring to leave their homelands, Lebanon, which has been ravaged by a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launchpad for illegal migration.
The small boat that went down off the Syrian city of Tartus Thursday was carrying around 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians.
Syria’s Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash told state television that 77 people had died. Twenty survivors, including eight in critical condition, were being treated at Al-Basel hospital in Tartus, he said.
Tartus lies some 50 kilometers north of Tripoli, the northern Lebanese port city where the migrants had boarded, and is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports.
“We are dealing with one of our largest rescue operations ever,” Sleiman Khalil, Syria’s transport ministry official, told AFP.
“We are covering a large area that extends along the entire Syrian coast,” he said, adding high waves hindered their efforts.
According to Syrian authorities, Russian ships assisted in search operations.
Identified bodies will be brought to a border crossing and handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross, according to Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
“Some relatives of the victims came from Lebanon… to identify the dead,” said Ahmed Ammar, a health official in Tartus.
Tripoli, among other impoverished northern regions of Lebanon, is the home of many of the boat’s Lebanese passengers.
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles tweeted on Friday, “Remember these people had families and dreams they wanted to fulfill.”
Most migrant boats leave the city’s shores on their way to other countries illegally.
An AFP reporter spoke to Wissam al-Talawi’s brother Ahmad, a Tripoli resident being treated in a hospital.
Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, were buried in Lebanon early Friday, Ahmad said.
“They left two days ago,” he added.
He said “(my brother) couldn’t afford his daily expenses, or enroll his children in school. Wissam’s wife and two sons are still missing.”
On its Facebook page, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent posted images of volunteers carrying corpses in bags into ambulances. A second video appeared to show volunteers pulling a lifeless body onto the beach.
Rescuers were also pictured searching for survivors along Tartus’ coast.
Several dozens of people waited for corpses to arrive at the border crossing between Lebanon and Syria at Arida.
The dead and missing include residents of Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.
As one of them awaited news of his missing niece and nephew, he said, “I would prefer to die at sea than live a humiliating life in this country.”
There has been an increase in the number of migrants using Lebanon’s shores to attempt the perilous crossing in packed boats to reach Europe since 2020.
Lebanese anger erupted in April after an overcrowded migrant boat was sunk by the navy off the northern coast of Tripoli.
Some on board claim the navy rammed their vessel, while officials claim the smugglers made reckless escape attempts.
Many of the bodies were never recovered.
The Turkish coastguard announced on September 13 that six migrants, including two babies, had died and that 73 people had been rescued off Mugla’s coast, trying to reach Europe.
As part of their attempt to reach Italy, they boarded a ship from Tripoli, Lebanon.
In most cases, boats leaving Lebanon head for Cyprus, a member of the European Union about 175 kilometers away.
Over 24,000 missing migrants have been reported in the Mediterranean region since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It says the Central Mediterranean is the “deadliest migration route in the world,” with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014.
For more on this story, please consider these sources:
- At least 77 migrants dead after boat from Lebanon sinks off Syria CBS News
- Scores Of Migrants Feared Drowned After Boat Sinks Off Syria NBC News
- Dozens of migrants killed as boat sinks off Syrian coast BBC
- More than 70 dead after boat carrying migrants sinks off Syria Al Jazeera English
- At least 77 people died when a boat carrying migrants sank off Syria, an official says NPR