DAMASCUS: Thirty-four migr­ants died on Thursday when the boat they were travelling in sank off Syria’s coast after departing from neighbouring Lebanon, the government in Damascus said.

Lebanon, a country which hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has been mired in economic crisis for the past three years, prompting a rise in clandestine attempts to leave for the European Union.

“The number of people found dead stands at 34,” Syria’s health ministry said in a statement, adding that 20 survivors were being treated in a hospital in Tartus.

Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports, and lies about 50 kilometres north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

20 survivors under treatment at a Syrian hospital

Syrian authorities initially reported 15 dead, before revising that figure to 28 and, shortly afterwards, revising up by a further six.

The country’s Sana news agency and the health ministry reported that the migrant boat sank.

“According to survivors, their boat left Lebanon days ago,” the head of Syrian ports Samer Kbrasli said in an initial statement released by the ministry of transport.

Local fishermen were supporting ongoing efforts to retrieve the boat, he said.

The statement published by the Syrian transport ministry said information gathered from survivors suggested the boat set off from Miniyeh, a town just north of Tripoli.

Lebanon last year saw a spike in the number of would-be migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded 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 six people and angered the country.

The circumstances of that incident were not entirely clear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their boat, while officials have insisted the smugglers attempted reckless escape manoeuvres. The government in Beirut ordered an investigation.

On Sept 13, Turkiye’s coast guard announced the death 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 a bid to reach Italy.

Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometres away.

Many of those departing from Lebanon are Syrians, but the ever-worsening economic crisis has pushed growing numbers of Lebanese to also attempt the crossing.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2022

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