More bodies of migrants and refugees have been recovered from the 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 one of the deadliest boat disasters in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“There are 89 victims, while 14 people are receiving treatment at Al-Basel Hospital, two of whom are in intensive care,” Syria’s official news agency SANA reported on Saturday, quoting Iskandar Ammar, a hospital official.
More people are believed to be missing as up to 150 people were on board the small boat which sailed from crisis-hit Lebanon. The boat sank off the Syrian port of Tartous, some 50 kilometres (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 says it has arrested a man it believes was behind the suspected “smuggling operation” to Italy.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called it a “heart-wrenching tragedy”.
Lebanon, a country that hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s war, has since 2019 been mired in a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
Dire economic situation
The dire economic situation has forced Lebanese citizens to join Syrian and Palestinian refugees using dangerous boat journeys in search of a better life.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in boats 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’ve seen these tragedies in the past… yet they take this dangerous journey,” Khodr said. “Nothing has deterred people from taking these boats and finding a better life in Europe.”
Rula Amin, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that the Lebanese population has witnessed its standards of living drop dramatically and sees “no light at the end of the tunnel.”
“They need hope, they need to know that there are other options other than taking to the sea,” she said. “That’s why the international community has to come forward.”
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said they had 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 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 this perilous decision, 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 175km (110 miles) to the west.