Twelve more bodies were recovered on Saturday after a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off the coast of Syria, bringing the total death toll to 89, Syrian state media said, in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called it a “heartbreaking tragedy”.
At least 14 rescued people are recovering in hospitals in Syria, while six others have been discharged as search efforts continued, with several people still missing since the boat sank on Thursday.
“There are 89 victims while 14 people are being treated at Al-Basel hospital, two of whom are in intensive care,” reported Syria’s official news agency SANA, citing Iskandar Ammar, a hospital official.
The Lebanese army said on Saturday it had detained a Lebanese man who “admitted to organizing the recent smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”.
Lebanon, a country hosting more than a million Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, has been mired in a financial crisis since 2019, branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
Nearly three years of economic collapse have turned the country into a launch pad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees screaming to cross dangerous sea routes.
Up to 150 people were on board the small boat, which sank off the Syrian port city of Tartus, some 50 kilometers north of Tripoli in Lebanon, from where the migrants set sail.
Those on board are mainly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, including both children and the elderly, the UN said.
Families in Lebanon held a second day of burial on Saturday after the bodies of relatives were handed over to them through the Arida border crossing into Syria on Friday night.
Anger mixed with sadness in the northern port city of Tripoli, from which many migrant boats depart, as loved ones received news of their loved ones’ deaths.
Hundreds of people gathered for the funeral procession of one of the victims on Saturday, banging their fists in the air while relatives wept as they carried a makeshift coffin through the streets.
– ‘Death Boats’ –
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a surge in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the dangerous crossing in crowded boats to reach Europe.
The UN children’s fund UNICEF said there were initial reports that ten children were “among those who lost their lives” in the recent disaster.
“Years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have pushed many children and families into poverty, affecting their health, well-being and education,” UNICEF added.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said: “Nobody gets on these death boats lightly…
“People make these dangerous decisions and risk their lives in search of dignity.”
Lazzarini said more needs to be done “to provide a brighter future and to address feelings of hopelessness in Lebanon and across the region, including among Palestinian refugees.”
Antonio Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said: “People seeking safety should not be forced to undertake such dangerous and often deadly migratory journeys.”
Most boats departing from Lebanon head for EU member Cyprus, an island some 175 kilometers to the west.