More bodies of migrants and refugees were found at sea off Syria after a boat capsized on Thursday, raising the death toll to 89 as the Lebanese army said it arrested a suspected smuggler behind the one of the deadliest maritime disasters in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“There are 89 casualties, while 14 people are receiving treatment at Al-Basel hospital, two of whom are in intensive care,” Syria’s official SANA news agency reported on Saturday, quoting Iskandar Ammar, an official from the ‘hospital.
More people are believed to be missing as up to 150 people were on board the small boat which sailed from crisis-ridden Lebanon. The boat sank off the Syrian port of Tartous, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Tripoli in Lebanon.
Those on board were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included both children and the elderly, the United Nations said.
Funerals were held for a second day in the Lebanese city of Tripoli for those who died.
The Lebanese army said it arrested a man it said was behind the “smuggling operation” to Italy.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called it a “heartbreaking tragedy”.
Lebanon, a country that hosts more than a million refugees from the Syrian war, has since 2019 been mired in a financial crisis described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
Disastrous economic situation
The dire economic situation has forced Lebanese citizens to join Syrian and Palestinian refugees using dangerous boat trips in search of a better life.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen an increase in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous boat crossing to reach Europe.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said Lebanon’s economic situation has made Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians equally desperate.
“They have seen these tragedies in the past…but they are taking this dangerous journey,” Khodr said. “Nothing deterred people from taking these boats and finding a better life in Europe.”
Rula Amin, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that the Lebanese population has seen their standard of living drop dramatically and sees ‘no light at the end of the tunnel’. .
“They need hope, they need to know there are other options than going to sea,” she said. “That’s why the international community must come forward.”
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said it had received initial reports that 10 children were “among those who lost their lives” in the latest disaster.
“Years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have plunged many children and families into poverty, affecting their health, well-being and education,” UNICEF added.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said: “Nobody boards these death boats lightly.”
“People are making this perilous decision, risking their lives in pursuit of dignity.”
Lazzarini said more needed to be done “to provide a better future and tackle the sense of hopelessness in Lebanon and across the region, including among Palestinian refugees.”
Antonio Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said: “People seeking safety should not be forced to undertake such perilous and often deadly migratory journeys.”
Most boats leaving Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island about 175 km (110 miles) to the west.