Lebanese rescue teams continued to search the Mediterranean for survivors on Monday after an overloaded boat carrying migrants capsized. A national day of mourning has been declared, as dozens of people are believed to have died.
A boat reportedly carrying dozens of migrants sank about three nautical miles off the coast of Tripoli late on Saturday. The Lebanese army succeeded in rescuing at least 45 of the passengers alive, while seven others, including a 40-day-old baby, were confirmed as deceased as of early Monday.
The latest identified victim was a woman from the Al-Nimr family whose body was found on the Tripoli beach on Monday, the director general of Tripoli Port Ahmed Tamer told the AFP news agency. People were gathered outside the port on Monday morning waiting to find out about missing family members and friends, Reuters reported.
It is not clear how many people were on the overcrowded boat which was described as a 'small dinghy'. Some reports said it was carrying 60 people while the UN migration agency IOM and the refugee agency UNHCR said there were 84 people on board when the boat capsized.
The UN agencies said Sunday that the nationalities of the passengers had not yet been confirmed. Lebanese media reported that Lebanese and foreign migrants were on board, while the army said the passengers included Syrian and Palestinian refugees, according to AFP.
Survivors blame Lebanese navy
There are differing accounts of the circumstances that led the migrant boat to sink. The commander of the navy, Haitham Dinnawi, told the Lebanese station al-Jadeed TV that the boat sank because it was overloaded. The vessel, built in 1974, was only meant to carry up to 10 people and lacked safety equipment, he said, adding that no one had been wearing a life vest. "It was a crime to take people on such a boat," he said.
Dinnawi blamed the captain of the migrant boat for the maneuvering to avoid being forced to return back to shore, leading to a collision with the naval rescue vessel. He showed photographs of the damage to the side and rear of one navy boat and said the migrant boat had sunk almost immediately after the two collided.
But several survivors told the media that the Lebanese naval vessel deliberately rammed their boat in an effort to force it back to Lebanon. "They rammed into us and made us sink then moved away," said Mustafa al-Jundi, whose two sisters are still missing. He told the Associated Press that the Lebanese military returned about 90 minutes later and rescued them.
Another man, Naji Fawal, who was also rescued, told the dpa news agency: "As we approached Tripoli and were trying to enter international waters, a navy boat came near and asked us to stop. The navy boat circled several times around our boat, which didn't stop and crashed into the navy boat and sank."
Day of mourning amid national crisis
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared a day of national mourning on Monday as the President Michel Aoun ordered an investigation into the tragedy, which comes three weeks before parliamentary elections on May 15.
The country is in the middle of an economic depression which has caused hyper-inflation and resulted an estimated three-quarters of the population living in poverty. The World Bank says the crisis is among the worst in the world since the 1850s.
Lebanon used to be a transit country for asylum seekers from other countries in the region – especially Syria – who hoped to travel to Europe. But the extreme conditions have driven growing numbers of Lebanese nationals to attempt the 175-kilometer sea crossing to EU member Cyprus. The UN says more than 1,500 migrants have tried to leave Lebanon in this way since the start of 2021. Fawal, who survived Saturday’s shipwreck and who is Lebanese, said he was attempting to leave his country because life there was "unbearable".
"It is appalling to see deprivation still drives people to take these dangerous trips across the seas,'' Lebanon's UN humanitarian coordinator, Najat Rochdi, said on Twitter.
The head of IOM Lebanon, Mathieu Luciano, said the wave of migration triggered by the economic crisis in Lebanon is one of the largest in the country’s history. He said that safe and legal migration routes are urgently needed and called for "continuous solidarity from the international community to ease conditions for the host (Lebanese) community as well as refugees and migrants hosted in Lebanon."
Also read: Cyprus sends Syrian migrants back to Lebanon
With AFP, AP, DPA