At least 77 migrants drowned when a boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast, Syria’s health minister said Friday, in one of the deadliest such shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
Lebanon, mired since 2019 in a financial crisis that the World Bank has labeled one of the worst in modern times, has become a hotbed of illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamoring for to leave their homeland.
About 150 people, mainly Lebanese and Syrian, were on board the small boat that went down on Thursday off the Syrian city of Tartus.
“77 people have died,” Syrian Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabas told state television from Al-Basel hospital in Tartus, where he said 20 survivors were being treated, eight of them in critical condition.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese, Lebanon’s interim transport minister Ali Hamie told AFP.
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports and is located about 50 kilometers north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the migrants had boarded.
“We are dealing with one of our biggest rescue operations ever,” 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 Syrian coast,” he said, adding that high waves hampered their efforts.
According to the Syrian authorities, Russian ships assisted in search operations.
Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said identified bodies would be transported to a border crossing to be handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross.
“Some of the victims’ relatives came from Lebanon… to identify the dead,” said Ahmed Ammar, a health official in Tartus.
Many of the boat’s Lebanese passengers come from poor regions in the country’s north, including Tripoli.
“Remember these people had families they cared about and dreams they wanted to achieve,” European Council on Refugees and Exiles tweeted Friday.
The city has emerged as a hub for illegal migration, with most migrant boats sailing from its shores.
Among the survivors was Wissam al-Talawi, a resident of Tripoli, who was treated in a hospital, his brother Ahmad told AFP.
But the bodies of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, had been returned to Lebanon, where they were buried early Friday, Ahmad said.
“They left two days ago,” he added.
“(My brother) could not afford his daily expenses or the cost of enrolling his children in school,” he said, adding that Wissam’s wife and two sons were still missing.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent published photos on his Facebook page shows volunteers carrying bodies covered in bags into an ambulance. Another video appeared to show volunteers pulling a lifeless body onto the beach.
Other rescuers were pictured searching for survivors along the coast of Tartus.
At the Arida border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, dozens waited for bodies to arrive.
They included residents of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli, which is home to some of the dead and missing.
“I am an old man, but if I had the chance to die at sea, I would rather do it than live a humiliating life in this country,” said one of them from the crossing as they waited for news of his missing niece and nephew.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen an increase in the number of migrants using the country’s shores to attempt the perilous crossing in jam-packed boats to reach Europe.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat being pursued by the Lebanese navy off Tripoli’s northern coast killed dozens of people, sparking anger in the country.
The exact circumstances of this incident remain unclear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers made reckless offers to escape.
Many of the bodies were never found.
On September 13, Turkey’s coast guard announced the deaths of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the coast of the southwestern province of Mugla.
They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most of the boats leaving Lebanon are headed for EU member Cyprus, an island about 175 kilometers to the west.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 24,000 missing migrants have been reported in Mediterranean area since 2014. The group says the central Mediterranean is the “deadliest known migration route in the world,” with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances recorded since 2014.