At least 77 migrants drowned when a boat they were boarding in Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast, in one of the deadliest such shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria’s health minister said on Friday.
Steeped in a financial crisis since 2019, described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, Lebanon has become a launching pad for illegal immigration as its own citizens join Syrian and Palestinian refugees seeking to leave their homeland.
About 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board the small boat that sank on Thursday off the Syrian city of Tartus.
“Seventy-seven people died,” Syrian Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash told state television from the Al-Basel hospital in Tartus.
Ali Hamie, Lebanon’s interim transport minister, told AFP that five of the evacuees were Lebanese.
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports and is located about 50 kilometers north of the port city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where migrants board.
“We are dealing with one of our largest rescue operations to date,” Suleiman Khalil, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Transport, told AFP.
“We cover a large area along the entire Syrian coast,” he said, adding that high waves hindered their efforts.
According to Syrian officials, Russian ships were assisting in the search operations.
Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said that the bodies, whose identities have been identified, will be transferred to a border crossing to be handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross.
“Some relatives of the victims came from Lebanon to identify the dead,” said Ahmed Ammar, health official in Tartus.
Most of the boat’s Lebanese passengers come from poor areas in the north of the country, including Tripoli.
“Remember that these people have families they value and dreams they want to fulfill,” said the European Council for Refugees and Exiles. tweeted on friday.
The city emerged as an illegal immigration hub, with most immigrant boats leaving its shores.
Among the survivors was Tripoli resident Wissam al-Talawi, who was treated in hospital, his brother Ahmed told AFP.
But Ahmed said the bodies of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, were returned to Lebanon, where they were buried early Friday.
“They left two days ago,” he added.
Adding that Wissam’s wife and two sons are still missing, he said, “(My brother) could not afford his daily expenses or the cost of enrolling his children in school.”
Syrian Arab Red Crescent Images posted on Facebook page It shows volunteers carrying sacks-wrapped bodies to the ambulance. Another video It showed volunteers pulling a lifeless body onto the beach.
Other rescuers were spotted on the shores of Tartus searching for survivors.
Dozens of people waited for the bodies to arrive at the Arida border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.
These included residents of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli, which is home to some dead and missing.
“I am an old man, but if I had the chance to die at sea, I would rather do it than lead a humiliating life in this country,” one of them said from the gate, as he awaited the news of his missing niece and nephew.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen an increase in the number of migrants using its shores to try the dangerous crossing with congested boats to reach Europe.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the northern coast of Tripoli killed dozens of people and sparked anger in the country.
The exact circumstances of the incident are still unclear, with some on board claiming the navy had crashed into their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers made reckless offers to escape.
Most of the bodies were never found.
On September 13, the Turkish coast guard announced the death of six migrants, two of whom were infants, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the southwestern province of Muğla.
They reportedly boarded a plane from Tripoli in Lebanon with the aim of reaching Italy.
Most boats departing from Lebanon head to Cyprus, a member of the European Union, about 175 kilometers to the west.
More than 24,000 missing migrants have been reported in the country, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Mediterranean region The group says the central Mediterranean is “the world’s deadliest known migration route”, with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances recorded since 2014.
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