At least 34 dead after migrant boat sinks off Syria

A rubber boat teeming with with migrants floating on seaFile photo

At least 34 migrants died when the boat they were in sank off Syria after departing from neighbouring Lebanon, the government in Damascus said Thursday, warning the toll could rise.

Lebanon, a country which hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has been mired in economic crisis for the past three years, prompting a rise in clandestine attempts to leave for the European Union.

An official said the boat was carrying up to 150 people and authorities said that 20 survivors were taken to hospital, potentially leaving many people still unaccounted for.

It also reported that search efforts at sea level were being suspended because of dangerously high waves.

“The number of people found dead has risen to 34,” Syria’s health ministry said in a statement, adding that 20 survivors were being treated in Al-Basel hospital in Tartus and noting that the toll was only provisional.

“Oxygen assistance has been provided to most of the hospitalised people and some of them have been transferred to intensive care,” it added.

Syrian authorities initially reported 15 dead, before revising that figure to 28 and, shortly afterwards, revising up by a further six.

“According to survivors, their boat left Lebanon days ago,” the head of Syrian ports Samer Kbrasli said, adding that “between 120 and 150 people” had been on board before it sank.

At least one child was reported to be among the dead.

Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports, and lies little more than 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

‘Air search ongoing’

Rescue teams were dispatched to the scene to try to find other survivors, but “the search in the waters was interrupted in the evening due to strong waves”, Kbrasli later added.

“Outposts deployed along the coast... continue to monitor the situation.”

Ali Hamie, Lebanon’s transport minister, said on Twitter that Syrian authorities had assured him that an airborne search, involving a Russian helicopter, was still ongoing.

Lebanese citizens had been on board the boat, he said, without providing a figure.

The Syrian transport ministry said information gathered from survivors suggested the boat set off from Miniyeh, a town just north of Tripoli.

Lebanon last year saw a spike in the number of would-be migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.

In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the northern coast of Tripoli killed six people and angered many in the country.

The circumstances of that incident were not entirely clear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers attempted reckless escape manoeuvres. The government in Beirut ordered an investigation.

On 13 September, Turkey’s coastguard announced the death of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe, off the coast of the southwestern province of Mugla.

They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.

Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometres (110 miles) away.

Many of those departing from Lebanon are Syrians, but the ever-worsening economic crisis has pushed growing numbers of Lebanese to also attempt the crossing.