At least 77 migrants have died after a boat from Lebanon sank off Syria

At least 77 migrants drowned when a boat they were boarding in Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast, Syria’s health minister said on Friday, in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.

Lebanon, mired since 2019 in a financial crisis described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launching pad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees demanding to leave their homeland.

About 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrian, were on board the small boat that ran aground Thursday near the Syrian city of Tartus.

“Seventy-seven people have died,” Syrian Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash told state television from Al-Basel Hospital in Tartus, where he said 20 survivors were being treated, including eight in critical condition.

Of the rescued, five were Lebanese, Lebanon’s interim transport minister, Ali Hamieh, told AFP.

Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports and is about 50 kilometers north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the migrants have settled.

“We are dealing with one of our biggest rescue operations,” Sleiman Khalil, an official at Syria’s transport ministry, told AFP as the search for survivors continued.

“We are covering a large area that stretches along the entire coast of Syria,” he said, adding that high waves were hampering their efforts.

According to the Syrian authorities, Russian ships helped in search operations.

Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said the identified bodies would be taken to a border crossing to be handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross.

“Some of the relatives of the victims have come from Lebanon … to identify the dead,” said Ahmed Omar, a Tartous health official.

Many of the Lebanese passengers on the boat come from impoverished regions in the north of the country, including Tripoli.

“Remember that these people had families to care for and dreams to fulfill” – European Council for Refugees and Exiles tweeted on Friday.

The city has become a center of illegal migration, and most migrant boats depart from its shores.

Among the survivors was Wisam al-Talawi, a resident of Tripoli, who was being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad told AFP.

But the bodies of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, were returned to Lebanon, where they were buried on Friday morning, Ahmad said.

“They left two days ago,” he added.

“(My brother) could not afford the daily expenses or the cost of enrolling the children in school,” he said, adding that Wisem’s wife and two sons were still missing.

Syrian Arab Red Crescent posted the images on his Facebook page shows volunteers carrying corpses in sacks into an ambulance. Another video appeared to show volunteers dragging the lifeless body onto the beach.

Other rescuers were photographed searching for survivors on the coast of Tartus.

From the response to the accident #غرق مركب قصير #أرواد, where volunteer #الهلال_الأحمر_العربي_السوري is located on the beach of #طرطوس منذ امس خمسي, to rescue the survivors, and to transport #جثث victims, with the continuation of the search operations.

The authorSyriac Arabic Red Crescent – الهلال الأحمر العربي السوريon Friday, September 23, 2022

At the Arid border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, dozens of corpses awaited their arrival.

Among them are residents of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli, which is home to some of the dead and missing.

“I’m an old man, but if I had a chance to die at sea, I’d rather do it than lead a humiliating life in this country,” said one of them from the crossing, waiting for news of his missing niece and nephew.

Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a surge in migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.

In April, dozens of people died when an overcrowded migrant boat that was being chased by the Lebanese navy sank off the northern coast of Tripoli, sparking anger in the country.

The exact circumstances of the incident are still unclear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insist the smugglers made a rash attempt to escape.

Many bodies were never found.

On September 13, Turkey’s coast guard announced the death of six migrants, including two infants, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the coast of the southwestern province of Mugla.

They reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.

Most boats leaving Lebanon go to Cyprus, a member of the European Union, an island about 175 kilometers to the west.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 24,000 migrants have gone missing. Mediterranean region since 2014, the group says the Central Mediterranean is “the world’s deadliest migration route”, with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances reported since 2014.

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