At least 77 migrants likely have drowned in the incident while 20 others were rescued after their boat sank off Syria's coast, having departed from neighbouring Lebanon. The death toll of what is the deadliest shipwreck from Lebanon in recent years is expected to still rise.
Syrian Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash on Friday (September 23) said that 77 people had died, though the number was not thought to be final. The number of those rescued and receiving treatment at the al-Basel Hospital in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus has reached 20, he said in a statement, cited by news agency dpa.
According to Lebanon's Transport Minister Ali Hamieh, more than 100 mostly Lebanese and Syrian migrants had been on board a small boat which sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the Syrian city of Tartus on Thursday. Dozens remained unaccounted for, the minister added.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese nationals, he said. The group of migrants reportedly departed from Lebanon, news agency AFP reported, citing information shared by the Syrian government from Thursday.
Initially, 15 people were reported to have died; however, that figure had to be revised upward to 28 and, shortly afterwards, to 34. Several hours into the operation, it became clear that more than 60 bodies had been found. By Friday afternoon, the death toll had risen to 77.
At least one child was reported to be among the dead, according to AFP. The Lebanese government warned the death toll still could rise.
Lebanon hosts more than a million refugees from Syria, who have fled the 10-year civil war in their country. It has also been mired in economic crises for the past three years, prompting a rise in clandestine attempts to leave for the European Union.
Search efforts halted for now
An Syrian official said on Thursday that the boat was even carrying up to 150 people, according to news agency AFP.
"According to survivors, their boat left Lebanon days ago," the head of Syrian ports Samer Kbrasli said, adding that "between 120 and 150 people" had been on board before it sank. Search efforts for survivors were being suspended Thursday evening because of dangerously high waves, AFP reported.
The survivors were taken to hospital in Tartus, the southernmost of Syria's main ports, located just around 50 kilometers north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli. Syria's health ministry said in a statement, adding that "oxygen assistance has been provided to most of the hospitalized people, and some of them have been transferred to intensive care."
The Syrian transport ministry said information gathered from survivors suggested the boat set off from Miniyeh, a town just north of Tripoli.
A family tragedy
Wissam al-Talawi from the northern Syrian Akkar region was among the survivors. His brother told AFP that while he is being treated in hospital, the bodies of Wissam's two daughters, aged five and nine, had been returned to Lebanon where they were buried early on Friday, Ahmad said.
"[My brother] couldn't afford his daily expenses, or the cost of enroling his children in school," he added, saying Wissam's wife and two sons remained missing.
Spike in attempted crossings
Lebanon is in the grip of an economic crisis that began in 2019, and which has plunged three quarters of its population of around 6 million, including at least one million Syrian refugees, into poverty. Last year, Lebanon saw a spike in the number of people leaving from Lebanese shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, nearly twice as many people left or tried to leave Lebanon by boat in 2021 as in the previous year. That figure rose again by more than 70% in 2022 compared with the same period last year, news agency Reuters reported.
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 many in the country. In August, survivors and families of the victims filed a lawsuit accusing the military of detaining two missing survivors.
Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island nation located around 175 kilometers away. Many of those departing from Lebanon are Syrians, but the ever-worsening economic crisis has pushed growing numbers of Lebanese nationals to also attempt the dangerous crossing.
With AFP, dpa