Seventeen bodies were recovered on Saturday after a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off the Syrian coast, bringing the total toll to 94, Syrian state television said, in one of the deadliest such episodes in the eastern Mediterranean.
The toll has risen repeatedly since the first bodies were found Thursday. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, described the sinking as a “heartbreaking tragedy” and the search for the missing people continued until after nightfall.
At least 14 survivors were recovering in hospitals in Syria, while six others were discharged. Two were still in intensive care at Al-Basel hospital, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported earlier.
“The death toll from the boat that sank off the coast of Tartus has risen to 94,” state television reported.
The Lebanese army said it had arrested a Lebanese national who “admitted to organizing the recent (people) smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”.
Lebanon, a country hosting more than a million refugees from the Syrian civil war, is embroiled in a financial crisis labeled by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
Nearly three years of economic collapse have turned the country into a launch pad for migrants, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamoring to leave via dangerous sea routes.
As many as 150 people were aboard the small boat that sank off the Syrian port of Tartus, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Tripoli in Lebanon, from which the migrants departed.
On board were mainly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, including both children and the elderly, the UN said.
Families in Lebanon held a second day of funerals on Saturday after receiving bodies of relatives through the Arida border crossing Friday night. Others are still waiting for the bodies of their relatives.
In Tripoli, anger mixed with sadness when relatives received the news of the deaths of their loved ones.
Hundreds of people gathered on Saturday at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, 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 make the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.
The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said there appear to be 10 children “among those who have lost their lives”.
“Years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have pushed many children and families into poverty, affecting their health, well-being and education,” UNICEF added.
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees, said: “No one just gets on these death boats.
“People are making these dangerous decisions and risking their lives in search of dignity.”
Lazzarini said more needs to be done “to provide a better future and address a sense of hopelessness in Lebanon and throughout the region, including among Palestinian refugees”.
Antonio Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said: “People seeking security should not be forced to make such dangerous and often deadly migration journeys.”
Most boats departing from Lebanon go to Cyprus, a member of the European Union, an island about 175 kilometers (110 miles) to the west.