According to Syria’s health minister, at least 77 migrants perished when a boat carrying them from Lebanon to Syria capsized off its shore, making it one of the bloodiest disasters in the eastern Mediterranean.
As a result of the financial crisis that has gripped Lebanon since 2019—one of the worst in modern history, according to the World Bank—its inhabitants have joined Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes.
On Thursday, the tiny boat that capsized off the coast of Tartus, Syria, had about 150 passengers, most of whom were Lebanese and Syrians.
Hassan al-Ghabash, Syria’s health minister, announced on state television that “seventy-seven people had perished” while speaking from Tartus’ Al-Basel hospital, where he said 20 survivors were being treated, including eight who were in serious condition.
According to Lebanon’s interim transport minister Ali Hamie, five of those saved were Lebanese.
The southernmost of Syria’s essential ports, Tartus, is located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where the migrants had embarked.
As rescue efforts for survivors proceeded, Sleiman Khalil, a representative of Syria’s transport ministry, told AFP, “We are dealing with one of our largest ever rescue operations.”
He said heavy seas were impeding their efforts and “covering a huge region that runs over the whole Syrian coast.”
Syrian authorities claim that Russian ships are helping with search activities.
The Lebanese Red Cross would be given the identifying bodies at the border crossing, according to Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
According to Ahmed Ammar, a health officer in Tartus, some of the victims’ families travelled from Lebanon to identify the corpses.
Many Lebanese people on the boat are from the poorer parts of the nation’s north, including Tripoli.
Most migrant boats that leave the country illegally go from the city’s coastline.
Wissam al-Talawi, a native of Tripoli, was one of the survivors and was receiving medical treatment, according to his brother Ahmad, who spoke to AFP.
But according to Ahmad, the bodies of Wissam’s two children, ages five and nine, were returned to Lebanon and interred early on Friday.
He said, “They departed two days ago.”
He said that Wissam’s wife and two boys were still absent and claimed that his brother “couldn’t pay his daily costs or the cost of enrolling his children in school.”
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent posted pictures of volunteers loading bodies wrapped in bags into ambulances on its Facebook page.
Along Tartus’s beachfront, other rescuers could be seen looking for survivors.
Numerous people gathered at the Arida border crossing between Lebanon and Syria to await the arrival of bodies.
They included inhabitants of Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli that is home to some of the deceased and unaccounted for.
One of them stated from the crossing as he awaited word of his missing niece and nephew, “I am an elderly guy, but if I had the chance to die at sea, I would instead do that than suffer a humiliating life in this nation.
Since 2020, there has been an increase in the number of migrants trying to make the dangerous journey to Europe from Lebanon’s coasts in overcrowded boats.
Numerous individuals were murdered, and many more were injured when a migrant boat carrying too many passengers capsized in April while being chased by the Lebanese navy off the northern coast of Tripoli.
It’s still unclear what exactly happened in that episode; some passengers believe the navy hit their ship, while authorities maintain the smugglers made rash attempts to flee.
A large number of the corpses were never found.
Off the coast of the Mugla region in the southwest, on September 13, Turkey’s coastguard reported the deaths of six migrants, including two infants, and the rescue of 73 others who were trying to reach Europe.
According to reports, they had boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon to go to Italy.
Most boats leaving Lebanon are bound towards Cyprus, an island about 175 kilometers west, a member of the European Union.