Survivors and families of the victims of migrant boat that sank off the coast of Lebanon have filed a lawsuit accusing the military of detaining two missing survivors.
Four months after it sank off the Lebanese coast, a boat in which more than 80 people had set off hoping to reach Italy remains at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Designed to carry up to a dozen people, the overloaded dinghy capsized on April 23 about three nautical miles from Tripoli after a confrontation with a Lebanese navy vessel.
The bodies of seven people – including one child – were recovered and 48 survivors were rescued. 30 others remain missing and are believed to have gone down with the boat. The dinghy had been carrying Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese nationals.
The captain of a submarine mission last week said they found the remains of at least 10 victims of the tragedy as well as the wreckage of the boat. The team had hoped to salvage the bodies and establish how the dinghy came to sink. But the mission has since been abandoned after the Lebanese military warned of possible security risks.
Mission chief Tom Zreika, a former refugee from Lebanon and chair of the Australian charity AusRelief, which helped to bring the submarine to Lebanon, said much greater resources would be required to complete the salvage operation.
Army accused of holding survivors
The circumstances in which the migrants' boat sank are still disputed. Survivors say the vessel was rammed by the Lebanese navy, while the military claims the dinghy was trying to evade capture when it collided with the navy vessel.
Some families of the victims have filed criminal charges against the commander and crew of the navy vessel. They have complained that the investigation into the incident is being led by Lebanon’s military court and do not trust General Joseph Aoun, Lebanon’s armed forces commander in chief, who promised that the inquiry would be transparent and impartial.
Now, survivors are accusing the army of holding two survivors who have been missing since the night of the sinking. They also claim that footage of the wreckage from the submarine mission is being withheld, and that they were barred by the military from attending a press conference with the submarine's captain Scott Waters and navy officials.
At the press conference, held in Tripoli last Friday, Waters described the salvage attempt. He said that the first body was found outside the wreck but much of it had decayed – what remained intact were bits of clothing and some bones.
Four more bodies were discovered inside the wreckage. Waters said it appeared that some people had tried to escape the boat had got "tangled in … debris."
"One of the very last footage and images we took was of the remains of a person, an arm around another," he said.
"They died holding each other."
Lebanon's navy chief, Colonel Haitham Dinnawi, said all the video footage from Waters' crew would be handed over to the judiciary investigating the sinking.
But Amid Dandachi, a survivor whose wife and three children died in the sinking, expressed frustration at the delay: "We've been waiting for you and the state for four months throughout this whole turmoil,'' he said. "I challenge you to show us the videos of the pursuit of the boat.''
Call to retrieve wreck
While human rights organizations continue to accuse Lebanese authorities of "negligence and lack of seriousness" in searching for the missing and confirming their identities, the survivors' lawyers have also been critical of the slow pace of the investigation. Diala Chehade, a lawyer representing the survivors and victims' families, said it was crucial to retrieve the wreck.
"A key reason of the submarine mission was to try to recover what remains from the bodies so their loved ones can mourn them in dignity and pray for their souls,'' Chehade said at the press conference.
"But there is also another key reason, which is to find and retrieve the drowned boat and forensically examine it.''
Chehade also called for the official investigation to be moved from the military tribunal to a civil court.
Lebanon is in the grip of an economic crisis that began in 2019 and has plunged three quarters of its population of around 6 million, including at least 1 million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
In addition to Syrians and Palestinians, growing numbers of Lebanese nationals are setting off on dangerous journeys towards 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, according to Reuters.
The UNHCR told the news agency that the main reasons people were fleeing included an "inability to survive in Lebanon due to the deteriorating economic situation" and the "lack of access to basic services and limited job opportunities."
Bilal Hamam, a day laborer at a local cement factory who was not called to work on Monday said: "All we want to do is leave this country. There is nothing here anymore."
The 42-year-old told Reuters that his friends had gone on previous migrant boats. "I was scared to go because I have kids ... but now I'm ready to go with my family."
With AP, Reuters, The Canberra Times