At least 77 people died on a boat carrying migrants near Syria : NPR

Ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross, carrying the bodies of people who died in the drowning, passed between Lebanon and Syria on Friday.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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Bilal Hussein/AP

Ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross, carrying the bodies of people who died in the drowning, passed between Lebanon and Syria on Friday.

Bilal Hussein/AP

ARIDA BORDER CROSSING, Lebanon — At least 77 people died on a boat carrying migrants off Syria this week, the country’s health minister said Friday, amid fears the death toll could be much higher.

The incident was the deadliest so far, as an increasing number of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have tried to flee crisis-hit Lebanon by sea for a better future in Europe. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs, while the value of the Lebanese pound has fallen by more than 90%, stripping the purchasing power of thousands of families now living in extreme poverty.

Syrian authorities said relatives of the victims had begun traveling from Lebanon to Syria to help identify their loved ones and retrieve their bodies. The ship left Lebanon on Tuesday and news of the incident began to emerge on Thursday afternoon. On the boat were Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians.

Syrian state television quoted Health Minister Mohammed Hassan Ghabbashi as saying that 20 people had been rescued and were being treated at al-Basel Hospital in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus. He added that medical facilities have been on alert since Thursday afternoon to assist in search operations.

An al-Basel official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations, told The Associated Press that the eight rescued were in intensive care. The official also confirmed 77 dead. There were conflicting reports about how many people were on board the ship when it sank, with some saying at least 120. Details of the ship, such as its size and capacity, were also unclear.

According to Ali Hamie, the Lebanese Minister of Transport, the survivors include 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians. According to Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, eight bodies were brought back to Lebanon early Friday morning.

After sunset on Friday, the bodies of more victims, including those of two Palestinians, were brought to Lebanon. They were taken in seven ambulances and headed south from the Arida border crossing towards the city of Tripoli.

The governor of Tartus, Abdul-Halim Khalil, told the pro-government radio Sham FM earlier in the day that more bodies are being searched for on the coast of his country. According to Khalil, the boat sank on Wednesday.

Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted a port official as saying 31 bodies had washed ashore while the rest were picked up by Syrian boats during a search operation that began Thursday night.

Wissam Tellawi, one of the survivors treated at al-Basel, lost two daughters. His wife and two sons are still missing. The bodies of his daughters Mae and Maya were brought to Lebanon early Friday morning and buried in their northern hometown of Qarqaf.

“He told me on the phone, ‘I’m fine,’ but the children are gone,” said Tellaw’s father, who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud. The father told local TV channel Al-Jadeed that his son gave the smugglers the family’s apartment in exchange for taking him and his family to Europe.

Lebanese forces raid homes of suspected smugglers

The Lebanese army said after the disaster that troops raided the homes of several suspected smugglers on Friday, detaining four people in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city. Three more people were detained in the nearby village of Deir Ammar.

The military said the suspects were involved in smuggling migrants by sea, while others were planning to buy boats for the same reason.

Lebanon, home to 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, has been in the grip of a severe economic downturn since late 2019, leaving more than three-quarters of the population in poverty.

Lebanon’s economic crisis triggers emigration to Europe

For years it was a country that received refugees from wars and conflicts in the Middle East, but an economic crisis caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement has changed that dramatically.

Hyperinflation has caused prices to soar, forcing many to sell their belongings to pay smugglers to take them to Europe as migration has intensified in recent months.

In April, a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians attempting to migrate to Italy by sea capsized more than 5 kilometers from Tripoli after a clash with the Lebanese navy. Dozens of people died in the incident.

Lebanese officials said on Wednesday that naval forces rescued a boat carrying 55 migrants after it experienced technical problems about 11 kilometers off the coast of northern Akkar. It says that among those rescued were two pregnant women and two children.