At least 73 people have drowned after the migrant boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off Syria’s coast, the deadliest such shipwreck from Lebanon in recent years.
The country, which has been mired since 2019 in a financial crisis the World Bank has described as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launchpad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave the country.
Syrian state TV quoted the health minister, Mohammed Hassan Ghabbash, as saying that 73 people had died, and that 20 people had been rescued alive.
Lebanon’s caretaker transport minister, Ali Hamie, said more than 100 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were onboard the small boat that sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian city of Tartus on Thursday. Syrian authorities had said about 150 passengers were on the boat.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese, he said, adding: “I am discussing with Syria’s transport minister a mechanism to retrieve the bodies from Syria.”
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports. It lies about 30 miles (50km) north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the passengers had boarded.
Wissam al-Talawi from the northern Akkar region of Lebanon was among the survivors and was being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad said.
Wissam’s two daughters aged five and nine, died in the sinking. Their bodies had been returned to Lebanon where they were buried early on Friday, Ahmad said.
Wissam’s wife and two sons were still missing, he said. “They left two days ago. My brother couldn’t afford his daily expenses, or the cost of enrolling his children in school.”
Family members of others onboard the boat said they had gone to the border with Syria to try to get information about their relatives.
The number of migrants using Lebanon’s shores to attempt the perilous crossing to Europe in overcrowded boats increased last year.
Dozens of people died in April in the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the coast of Tripoli, sparking anger in the country.
The circumstances of the incident were not entirely clear. Some onboard said the navy had rammed their vessel, but officials said the smugglers had attempted reckless escape manoeuvres. Many of the bodies were never recovered.
Turkey’s coastguard announced the death of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the coast of the south-western province of Mugla earlier this month.
They had reportedly boarded in Tripoli in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for Cyprus, an EU member state that lies 110 miles to the west.