DAMASCUS: Thirteen more bodies were recovered on Saturday after a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast, raising the overall toll to 90, Syrian state television said, in one of the eastern Mediterranean’s deadliest such shipwrecks.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, called it a “heart-wrenching tragedy”.
At least 14 of those rescued were recovering in hospitals in Syria, while six others were discharged, as search efforts continued with several people still missing since the boat sank on Thursday.
“The number of dead from the sinking off the coast of Tartus has risen to 90,” state television said.
Fourteen people are receiving treatment at Al-Basel Hospital, two of whom are in intensive care, Syria’s official SANA news agency reported earlier.
The Lebanese army said that it had arrested a Lebanese national who “admitted to organising the recent (people) smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”.
Lebanon, a country which hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has been mired in a financial crisis 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 launchpad for migrants, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave by dangerous sea routes.
As many as 150 people were on board the small boat that sank off the Syrian port of Tartus, some 50 kilometres north of Tripoli in Lebanon, from where the migrants set sail.
Those on board were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included both children and elderly people, the UN said.
Families in Lebanon held a second day of funerals Saturday after they were handed bodies of relatives on Friday night through the Arida border crossing.
Others still await the bodies of their relatives.
In Tripoli, anger mixed with grief as relatives received news of the death of their loved ones. Hundreds of people gathered Saturday in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, north of Tripoli, for the funeral procession of one of the victims, pumping fists into the air.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in jam-packed boats to reach Europe. The UN children’s agency, Unicef, said they had initial reports that 10 children were “among those who lost their lives”.
“Years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have pushed many children and families into poverty, affecting their health, welfare and education,” Unicef added.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said: “No one gets on these death boats lightly.
“People are taking these perilous decisions, risking their lives in search of dignity.” Lazzarini said more must be done “to offer a better future and address a sense of hopelessness in Lebanon and across the region, including among Palestine refugees”.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2022