At least two migrants were confirmed to have died while over 200 were rescued on Saturday when their boat sank off Lebanon's northern coast, from where increasing numbers of people are trying to make the risky journey to flee their collapsed economy.
Lebanon's navy along with UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) rescued more than 200 migrants from a sinking boat off the coast off Selaata, north of the Lebanese capital Beirut on Saturday.
The boat carrying 232 migrants was found in distress just hours after leaving northern Lebanon, the military said in a statement. Two migrants died in the incident; according to some reports, one of the two victims was only a minor.
According to reports from Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest and most impoverished city, there were Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian men, women and children were on board the boat.
AFP reported that about 50 Lebanese nationals were on board the vessel when it ran into difficulty at sea. Residents of Tripoli who are in contact with survivors said the two dead were a Syrian woman and a Syrian child.
The Lebanese army meanwhile only said in statement that the vessel was carrying people "who were trying to illegally leave Lebanon's territorial waters."
Migrants departing from Lebanon head for Europe, with one of the main destinations being the nearby island nation of Cyprus.
Also read: 'I saw my children die': Shipwreck survivor tells his story
Lebanese army and UNIFIL conduct rescue
Three naval vessels and a boat operated by UNIFIL took part in the rescue operation. Established in 1978, UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, is a UN peacekeeping mission with the original purpose of ensuring the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon.
Their mandate is renewed annually, and UNIFIL has around 10,500 peacekeepers in Lebanon coming from 48 countries in Lebanon - as well as a five-vessel Maritime Task Force.
On Twitter, UNIFIL confirmed that it was assisting the Lebanese Navy in search and rescue operation at sea between Beirut and Tripoli.
Lebanese security forces have been working to prevent migrants from heading across the Mediterranean sea to Europe. But these boat crossings are becoming more frequent, as the small nation remains in the grips of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.
Many fleeing the war in Syria
Dozens of relatives of those rescued streamed into the port in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli to await their return to shore, an AFP correspondent said.
"We can no longer live in this country -- or Syria," said Younes Jomaa, a Syrian national originally from Idlib, who is the brother of one of the surviving migrants.
"I had planned to go with my brother, but was unable to get enough money together," Jomaa said, adding that his brother had gone into debt to fund his journey.
Like millions of other Syrian nationals, the family have been repeatedly displaced by over more than a decade by Syria's civil war.
Also read: Syria-Lebanon shipwreck: Castaway Fuad Hoblos returns home after over 2 months
Sea crossings on the rise
Since October 2019, Lebanon has been experiencing a devastating economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut explosion in August 2020.
Three-quarters of the country's 6 million people, including a million Syrian refugees, are now believed to be living in poverty.
Suffering more than three years of this economic collapse has pushed Lebanon's own citizens to join Syrian and Palestinian refugees to leave the country via dangerous sea routes. In recent years sea migration attempts from Lebanon have risen significantly, with a 73% surge in the past year alone according to figures from UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
On September 21, a crowded boat capsized off the coast of Tartus, Syria, just over a day after departing from Lebanon. Almost 100 people were killed, among them at least 24 children. Twenty people survived the shipwreck and but others still remain missing.
It was one of the deadliest incidents recorded in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in recent years.
Also read: 'I heard him calling for me': Survivor's account of capsized boat in Mediterranean
With AFP, AP, Reuters