Lebanon migrant boat tragedy: total number of dead still unknown

The army and UN have found six bodies but dozens remain missing

Gunmen fire in the air and shout slogans during the funeral procession for seven people killed when a boat packed with migrants sunk over the weekend as the Lebanese navy tried to force it back to shore, in Tripoli, north Lebanon, Monday, April 25, 2022.  The small vessel was carrying nearly 60 people, many times its capacity, when the disaster struck on Saturday night.  The tragedy was the latest in a growing trend involving mostly Lebanese and Syrians trying to travel to Europe from Lebanon in search of better lives.  (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar)

The final death toll from the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat off north Lebanon last week remains unclear as the search for bodies continues.

The navy has confirmed six deaths, including that of a child, an army official, who declined to be identified, told The National on Friday.

That contradicts media reports, which reported the toll at seven on Monday, when the body of a woman was found on a beach.

“A body was counted twice,” the official said.

On Friday, the Lebanese army thwarted a new crossing attempt and detained five people as they prepared to smuggle 85 migrants by boat to Europe, AP reported.

Meanwhile, dozens of passengers from the April 23 incident remain missing.

The boat reportedly carried 84 people, the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration said in a joint statement on Monday.

The army said it rescued 47.

It tweeted on Friday that land, sea and air forces were participating in the rescue effort, with the assistance of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

Unifil's maritime task force helped the navy from late Monday evening to Tuesday morning, a Unifil spokesperson told The National.

The army previously said that the 10-metre-long and three-metre-wide boat, built in 1974, left the Lebanese coast on Saturday night with “dozens” of passengers, despite being designed to only carry 10.

The passengers had no life jackets, head of the navy Col Haitham Dnaoui said on Sunday.

President Michel Aoun summoned senior military officials, including army chief Joseph Aoun and Col Dnaoui, who presented the findings of their preliminary investigation.

The findings were not made public.

On Tuesday, Lebanon’s government tasked the military judiciary with investigating the deadly sinking.

Survivors told local media that the army had rammed the vessel to force it to return to the shore, causing it to sink.

The army said that the boat collided with the navy vessel as it tried to escape.

The incident caused anger in Tripoli, from where many passengers originated, with local media reporting heavy shooting on Sunday.

Lebanon’s severe economic crisis has prompted residents to leave the country.

The country is experiencing its third mass exodus, the American University of Beirut said in September.

General Security, the agency in charge of issuing passports, said on Thursday it paused appointments for passport requests because unidentified "state institutions" had not paid the company contracted to produce the travel documents.

Lebanon has recorded an increase in sea departures since 2020, when 38 boats with more than 1,500 passengers attempted dangerous journeys.

More than 75 per cent of those were intercepted or returned, the UNHCR and IOM said.

Media reports says passengers pay thousands of dollars to smugglers in the hope of reaching the closest EU country, Cyprus, an island 175 kilometres away from Lebanon.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 10:57 AM