At least 77 migrants drowned when a boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off the coast of Syria, Syria’s health minister said Friday, in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
Lebanon, which has been embroiled in a financial crisis described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times since 2019, has become a launching pad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamoring for their to leave home country.
About 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board the small boat that crashed near the Syrian city of Tartus on Thursday.
“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, eight of them in critical condition.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese, Lebanon’s Transport Minister Ali Hamie 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 had embarked.
“We are dealing with one of our largest ever rescue operations,” Sleiman Khalil, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Transport, told AFP as the search for survivors continued.Read:Shinzo Abe funeral: Japanese man ‘sets himself on fire’ in protest of assassinated PM’s state funeral
“We cover a large area stretching along the entire Syrian coast,” he said, adding that high waves hampered their efforts.
Syrian authorities say Russian ships assisted in searches.
Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said the 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 Tartus health official.
Many of the boat’s Lebanese passengers come from impoverished regions in the north of the country, including Tripoli.
“Remember that these people had families they cared about and dreams they wanted to fulfill”, European Council for Refugees and Exiles tweeted on friday.
The city has become an illegal migration hub, with most migrant boats departing from the coast.
Among the survivors was Wissam al-Tlawi, a Tripoli resident who was being 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.Read:Biden faces pressure to waive restriction as ship idles off Puerto Rico coast
“(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 posted images on its Facebook page showing volunteers carrying corpses covered in bags in an ambulance. Another video showed volunteers pulling a lifeless body onto the beach.
Other rescuers were pictured searching for survivors along the coast of Tartus.
Dozens of corpses waited at the Arida border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.
Among them were residents of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared, north of Tripoli, where some of the dead and missing live.
“I’m an old man, but if I had the chance to die at sea, I’d rather do it than lead a humiliating life in this country,” one of them said from the crossing in anticipation of news of his missing niece. and cousin.Read:Russia defends war in Ukraine as US, others decry alleged abuses | Russia-Ukraine war News
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to make the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat being chased by the Lebanese navy off the north coast of Tripoli killed dozens of people, sparking anger in the country.
The exact circumstances of that incident are still unclear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their ship, while officials insisted the smugglers made reckless attempts to escape.
Many of the bodies were never recovered.
On September 13, the Turkish Coast Guard announced the deaths of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe, off the coast of southwestern Mugla province.
They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most boats departing from Lebanon go to Cyprus, a member of the European Union, an island about 175 kilometers to the west.
More than 24,000 missing migrants have been reported in the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 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.