More attempts have been made to flee Lebanon by dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean to Cyprus in a recent 16-day period than the whole of last year, the UN’s refugee agency said.
The sharp increase in the number of attempted crossings reflected the increasing level of desperation in the crisis-hit country.
With an economic collapse, poverty, the coronavirus pandemic and the trauma of the August explosion that levelled parts of Beirut, dozens of Lebanese have risked their lives to reach Cyprus, about 160 kilometres away.
According to the UN refugee agency, more than 270 people, most of them Syrian, tried to reach the island from Lebanon in 2019 using 17 boats.
The UNHCR said that of the 22 attempted crossings recorded so far this year, 18 were made between August 29 and September 14.
It said Lebanese made up a "substantial portion" of those trying to flee, compared with "a small minority in previous years".
The UNHCR said only eight crossings succeeded this year. Two more boats were reported to have reached Cyprus but this has not yet been verified.
Five boats were intercepted by Lebanese forces before leaving territorial waters, while others were turned back by Cypriot authorities.
"A number of individuals who had already disembarked in Cyprus have also been returned and readmitted to Lebanon," a UNHCR official said.
Lebanon and Cyprus, an EU member, have an agreement to stop the route between the two countries being used for illegal migration.
The UNHCR said that as of last week, an estimated 266 people had been returned to Lebanon after unsuccessful crossings this year.
One recent attempt ended in tragedy when the boat was lost at sea and went around in circles until it ran out of fuel, AP reported.
The trip, which should have taken 40 hours, lasted eight days.
Four adults and two children on the boat died before a group of men jumped into the sea to swim for help.
The boat was rescued by a UN peacekeeping warship and those on board were handed to Lebanese authorities.
On Lebanese TV, a Lebanese woman who was on the boat described holding on to the body of her son, who died of hunger, for three days before dropping it into the sea.
Six people from that boat are still missing.
On Monday, the Lebanese Civil Defence said that since Friday they had retrieved four bodies, including a child, after they tried to flee the country by sea on an overloaded dinghy.
Two of the dead were Lebanese, with the others a young Indian man and a Syrian man.
It is not clear whether they were from the six people missing from the boat that got lost, or from other crossing attempts.
“This incident is a tragic reminder of the desperation that an increasing number of people in Lebanon are feeling as they see no way of survival,” the UNHCR said.
“The impact of the deep economic and financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and most recently the Beirut blast are pushing many to the brink.”
The number of attempted crossings is expected to increase.
In previous years most of the boats left between August and November, before the sea became too dangerous.