Seventeen bodies were recovered Saturday after a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off Syria’s coast, raising the overall toll to 94, Syrian state television said, in one of the eastern Mediterranean’s deadliest such episodes.
The toll has repeatedly ratcheted higher since the first bodies were found on Thursday. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, described the shipwreck as a “heart-wrenching tragedy” and the search for those still missing continued beyond nightfall.
At least 14 survivors were recovering in hospitals in Syria, while six others were discharged. Two remained in intensive care in Al-Basel Hospital, Syria’s official SANA news agency reported earlier.
“The death toll from the boat that sank off the coast of Tartus has risen to 94,” state television said.
The Lebanese army said that it had arrested a Lebanese national who “admitted to organising the recent (people) smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”.
Lebanon, a country which hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has been mired in a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
Nearly three years of economic collapse have turned the country into a launchpad for migrants, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave by dangerous sea routes.
As many as 150 people were on board the small boat that sank off the Syrian port of Tartus, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Tripoli in Lebanon, from where the migrants set sail.
Those on board were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included both children and elderly people, the UN said.
Families in Lebanon held a second day of funerals Saturday after they were handed bodies of relatives on Friday night through the Arida border crossing. Others still await the bodies of their relatives.
In Tripoli, anger mixed with grief as relatives received news of the death of their loved ones.
Hundreds of people gathered Saturday in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, north of Tripoli, for the funeral procession of one of the victims, pumping their fists in the air.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in jam-packed boats to reach Europe.
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said that 10 children appeared to be “among those who lost their lives”.
“Years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have pushed many children and families into poverty, affecting their health, welfare and education,” UNICEF added.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said: “No one gets on these death boats lightly.
“People are taking these perilous decisions, risking their lives in search of dignity.”
Lazzarini said more must be done “to offer a better future and address a sense of hopelessness in Lebanon and across the region, including among Palestine refugees”.
Antonio Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said: “People looking for safety should not be compelled to take such perilous and often deadly migration journeys.”
Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island about 175 kilometres (110 miles) to the west.