The death toll from a boat which sank off the Syrian coast while carrying people leaving crisis-stricken Lebanon has risen to 89, authorities have said, as others vowed to undertake the same treacherous voyage.
It appears to be the largest such tragedy to occur as a growing number of Lebanese residents try to flee the country by sea to Europe, after wide-ranging political and economic crises saw the national currency drop more than 90 per cent in value, plunging a huge majority of the population into poverty.
Survivors on the crowded boat said that there were between 120 and 150 people on board when it left the Miniyeh region – close to the country’s northern border with Syria – on Tuesday, the transport ministry in Damascus has said.
Syria’s health minister said on Friday that at least 77 people had died, but a day later state news agency Sana said that the death toll had increased to 89.
“There are 89 victims, while 14 people are receiving treatment at Al-Basel Hospital, two of whom are in intensive care,” Iskandar Ammar, the director of the hospital in Syria’s coastal city of Tartus was quoted as saying.
Six people had been discharged, with 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians said to be among the survivors. At least 31 bodies washed ashore and the rest were recovered at sea, Sana quoted a port official as saying.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Lebanese army said troops stormed the homes of several suspected smugglers on Friday, detaining eight people involved in trafficking people abroad.
Lebanon’s army claimed it had arrested a Lebanese man who “admitted to organising the recent smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”, Agence France-Presse reported.
Residents in northern Lebanon say that people pay about $6,000 (£5,500) for an adult and $3,000 (£2,750) for a child to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.
“Anyone that comes with a boat, people are ready to go,” said Omar Abdel-al, whose 24-year-old son Abdul-Al Abdul-Al was among the dead, on what was the Palestinian’s 14th and final attempt to flee Lebanon.
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“We don’t want to live here anymore. We want to leave,” his father told The Associated Press, adding that he encouraged his late son to leave Lebanon and is encouraging his four other sons to do the same, who he said are all well educated but cannot find jobs.
“We are passing through a severe crisis. There is no medication or bread or anything,” Mr Abdel-al said, adding that many other Palestinians were planning to go on the boat but it did not fit more people.
Hundreds of Palestinians held prayers as Abdul-Al’s coffin was placed in the middle of a small football pitch in Nahr el-Bared, a refugee camp close to Tripoli, before his body was taken to a nearby cemetery where thousands gathered to witness him being laid to rest.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called the disaster a “heart-wrenching tragedy”, while Philippe Lazzarini, who leads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said: “No one gets on these death boats lightly. People are taking this perilous decisions, risking their lives in search of dignity.”
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”, Mr Lazzarini said.
The number of people attempting to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, the UN refugee agency told Reuters earlier this month, with that figure rising again by more than 70 per cent this year.
The figures were issued as investigators pulled the first bodies from a dinghy which sank in April following an interception by the Lebanese navy, believed to have departed Tripoli with 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian people on board, of which some 40 were rescued, seven were confirmed dead and around 30 remained missing.
Additional reporting by Reuters