Scores dead in worst sinking of migrant boat from Lebanon in recent years

Scores dead in worst sinking of migrant boat from Lebanon in recent years

At least 71 people drowned and many are still missing after shipwreck off coast of Syria

Palestinian Salim al-Jar shows a photo of his brother, one of those missing after the shipwreck

At least 71 people have drowned after the migrant boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off Syria’s coast, the deadliest such shipwreck from Lebanon in recent years.

The country, which has been mired since 2019 in a financial crisis the World Bank has described as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launchpad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave the country.

Syrian authorities began finding bodies off the coast of Tartus on Thursday afternoon. The country’s transport ministry has quoted survivors as saying the boat left Lebanon’s northern Minyeh region on Tuesday bound for Europe with between 120 and 150 people onboard.

Reuters reported that the family of Mustafa Misto, a Lebanese man who was on the boat with his wife and three young children, were accepting condolences at their apartment in the impoverished Bab Al-Ramel neighbourhood of the northern city of Tripoli.

“We have no one but God,” an elderly relative cried as mourners paid their respects.

Lebanon’s transport minister, Ali Hamie, who gave the death toll, said 20 survivors were being treated in Syrian hospitals, the bulk of them Syrians, around a million of whom live in Lebanon as refugees.

“Almost 90% of Syrian refugees don’t have legal residency in Lebanon. This puts them at risk of arrest,and deportation, and also limits their access to employment,” said Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“At the same time, there has been a wave of xenophobia and hate speech directed towards refugees, particularly by Lebanese politicians who are scapegoating them for the economic crisis.

“It’s not hard to see why many refugees feel like they have no other choice but to take these very dangerous journeys to try to get out of Lebanon.”

A spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration said it was working to verify what had happened, and that migrants and refugees “should not feel compelled to resort to such perilous and deadly journeys in search of safety or a better life”.

Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports. It lies about 30 miles (50km) north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the passengers are thought to have boarded.

Wissam al-Talawi from the northern Akkar region of Lebanon was among the survivors and was being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad told Agence France-Presse. .

Wissam’s two daughters aged five and nine, died in the sinking. Their bodies had been returned to Lebanon where they were buried early on Friday, Ahmad said.

Wissam’s wife and two sons were still missing, he said. “They left two days ago. My brother couldn’t afford his daily expenses, or the cost of enrolling his children in school.”

Family members of others onboard the boat said they had gone to the border with Syria to try to get information about their relatives.

The number of people who have left or tried to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, the UN refugee agency told Reuters earlier this month. It rose again by more than 70% in 2022.

The increase has been fuelled by Lebanon’s financial collapse. Poverty rates have skyrocketed among the population of 6.5 million.

Dozens of people died in April in the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the coast of Tripoli, sparking anger in the country.

The circumstances of the incident were not entirely clear. Some onboard said the navy had rammed their vessel, but officials said the smugglers had attempted reckless escape manoeuvres. Many of the bodies were never recovered.

Turkey’s coastguard announced the death of six people, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the coast of the south-western province of Mugla earlier this month.

They had reportedly boarded in Tripoli in an attempt to reach Italy.

Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for Cyprus, an EU member state that lies 110 miles to the west.

Agence France-Presse and Reuters contribute to this report