BEIRUT — Syrian authorities have recovered the bodies of at least 77 migrants who were aboard a boat sailing from Lebanon that capsized off the port city of Tartus, Syria’s state news agency said Friday, in an accident that laid bare the alarming toll of an economic crisis in Lebanon that has caused tens of thousands to flee.
The boat is believed to have left from the coastal Lebanese city of Minyeh on Tuesday, carrying migrants of varying nationalities and bound for Italy, said Brig. Gen. Samer Kubrusli, Syria’s director general of ports, according to the news agency. Twenty survivors were being treated at a hospital, the agency said.
Thursday’s accident appeared to be the deadliest to date in the ongoing wave of sea migration from Lebanon that has accelerated over the last few years as the country suffers from a catastrophic financial collapse. The value of the local currency has been decimated, leaving three-quarters of the population living in poverty, according to the United Nations.
The migrant boats carry not only Lebanese citizens but also Syrians and Palestinians who were already refugees. Many of the vessels, like the one that sank Thursday, left from impoverished areas in northern Lebanon.
Ali Hamie, Lebanon’s public works and transport minister, told Reuters that most of the survivors being treated in Syrian hospitals were Syrian refugees who had been living in Lebanon. The boat, he added, was made of wood and “very small.”
Ali Hijazi, a Lebanese politician with close ties to the Syrian government, told Lebanese broadcaster NTV in an interview from Tartus that the boat was carrying as many as 170 people and that many of the dead were children. Families had paid smugglers between $6,000 and $7,000 for the voyage, he said.
In April, a boat that left the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli headed for Europe sank off the coast, killing dozens of people, according to relatives and local media. Allegations that the boat was rammed by a vessel carrying Lebanese military personnel added to anger in Tripoli about the city’s marginalization and broader complaints about the state of the economy, which has left nearly half of the population of 6.5 million facing growing hunger.
Earlier this month, dozens of migrants on a crippled fishing boat that left Lebanon went for days without food and water before they were picked by a cargo ship, the Associated Press reported.
Two brothers with ties to smugglers operating in Lebanon said in an interview Friday that would-be migrants were being charged increasingly exorbitant sums — as much as $9,000 per person — to board the boats headed to Europe. The men spoke on the condition of anonymity because smuggling is illegal.
“They find people who have been driven to such a point of desperation that they embrace the possibility of death and sell all they have to pay for their kids to reach European shores,” one of the brothers said.
Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.