By Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service
BEIRUT, Lebanon – The capsizing of a small boat overloaded with passengers trying to illegally leave Lebanon is “the biggest proof of the terrible crisis” that the country is enduring as it continues to sink economically, said Carmelite Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon.
Among the victims of the April 23 tragedy off the coast near the northern city of Tripoli was a 40-day-old infant.
The boat reportedly was carrying 84 people, including children, women, men and a number of elderly people. As of April 25, the death toll was six; 45 people were rescued, and the search continued, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Col. Haitham Dinnaoui, commander of the Lebanese army’s naval forces, told media April 24 that the boat had “a maximum permissible load of only 10 persons.” There were no life jackets or life rafts on the boat, he said.
The passengers were mostly Syrian refugees and Lebanese.
At a Mass April 24 on the feast of Divine Mercy, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics, conveyed his sorrow over the boat tragedy, noting that the passengers “were trying to escape illegally from the bitter reality of their lives.”
Cardinal Rai expressed his hope for the rescue of those who were still missing and offered “deepest condolences to the families of the victims who died in this terrible accident, asking the Lord Almighty to rest their souls in peace and grant their families solace and comfort to endure their loss.”
Local media reported survivors accused the army of deliberately ramming a naval vessel into the boat. Dinnaoui said the captain of the migrant boat tried to outmaneuver the naval vessel, leading to the crash.
A Lebanese citizen was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the smuggling operation.
Lebanon’s deteriorating living conditions in the once middle-income country have propelled the population into taking desperate measures to seek a better future.
Since late 2019, Lebanon’s currency has devalued by more than 90 percent. Poverty has now become a reality for more than 80% of the population amid an economic meltdown marked by severe electricity, medicine, fuel and food shortages.
“People usually run away from two kinds of death, either death from war, or death from hunger. What happened in Tripoli was people trying to escape famine and searching for a place where they feel safe, a place where they can find a future for themselves and for their children,” Father Abboud told Catholic News Service April 25.
“What we have seen is a confirmation that the situation is getting worse,” he said.
“Caritas has been doing its best to stand next to the needy from all nationalities and provide the basic needs from hospitalization, food, financial and health support, and much more,” he said. “But it is surely obvious that the need has become huge, and we cannot continue alone. We need the support of the international communities and all the generous donors and supporters.”
While such illegal departures from Lebanon typically were Syrian refugees, of whom there are some 1.5 million in the Land of the Cedars, increasingly Lebanese also are risking such desperate measures to flee their crisis-stricken homeland.
The UN refugee agency said Lebanon has been witnessing an increase in sea departures since 2020, when 38 boats with more than 1,500 passengers attempted dangerous journeys. Over 75 percent of the vessels were intercepted or returned to Lebanon.
The main destination is Cyprus, a member of the European Union 100 miles across the Mediterranean Sea. The migrants flee with the hopes of eventual passage to Europe.
Lebanon’s economic crisis – labeled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s – has been blamed on decades of political mismanagement and corruption.
The tragedy sparked protests in Tripoli and around Lebanon, including in front of the Tripoli home of Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire. Tripoli is Lebanon’s most impoverished city.