Dozens of Lebanese and Syrian refugees stranded for days at sea

Two children have died, migrants say, as roughly 60 of them remain stranded for days on a sinking fishing boat in the Mediterranean.

Migrants with life jackets provided by volunteers of the Ocean Viking
About 60 migrants told relatives and volunteer groups with a satellite phone that the group has been without food, water, and baby formula for the past three days [File: Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo]

Dozens of Lebanese and Syrian migrants stranded for days on a sinking fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea are urging European coast guards to save them, saying that two children have died.

The roughly 60 migrants and refugees told relatives and volunteer groups with a satellite phone that two young children have died, and that the group has been without food, water, and baby formula for the past three days, The Associated Press (AP) news agency reported on Monday.

On board are Syrian refugees and Lebanese from its severely impoverished northern provinces trying to reach Italy for job opportunities. They left Lebanon off the coast of the northern city of Tripoli about 10 days ago.

“They’re trying to remove water leaking into the boat with buckets, that’s all they have,” the brother of one of the Syrian passengers told AP. He asked to not disclose their names for security reasons and because some of the migrants did not want to disclose the news to their families back home. “This is fishing boat is meant for five people, not 60.”

Lebanon has a population of six million, including one million Syrian refugees, and has been in the grip of a severe economic meltdown since late 2019 that has pulled over three-quarters of the population into poverty.

The migrants are reportedly stranded near the coasts of Malta and Italy. The authorities have not dispatched rescuers, according to families and activists in touch with the migrants.

Lebanese parliamentarian Ashraf Rifi urged the Italian government, as well as the Lebanese Foreign Ministry and the Lebanese Embassy in Rome to take action.

According to families and Alarm Phone, an activist network that helps bring in rescuers to distressed migrants at sea, Malta has not yet authorised a rescue operation and has not given permission to a commercial cargo ship to rescue the stranded migrants.

“A relative informed us that water is entering the boat and it is at severe risk of capsizing!” Alarm Phone said on Twitter on Monday. “They have been at sea for over 10 days already and several EU authorities have been informed – why is nobody intervening?”

Meanwhile, families fear the leaking boat could sink at any time.

“Whenever I call, you can hear the children screaming and crying in the background,” the relative said. “I don’t know why no governments have taken action to rescue them, is it because they’re poor people trying to make ends meet for their families?”

The Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) organisation said on Twitter on Monday that the “Malta Search and Rescue Coordination Centre needs to take its responsibilities and comply with international and maritime laws NOW.

“Its lack of action is killing people. This is not acceptable,” it said.

Once a country that received refugees, Lebanon has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe.

As the crisis deepened, more Lebanese, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees, set off to sea, with security agencies reporting foiled migration attempts almost weekly.

In April, a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians trying to migrate by sea to Italy went down more than five kilometres (three miles) from the port of Tripoli, following a confrontation with the Lebanese navy. Dozens were killed in the incident.

The circumstances of the vessel’s sinking are disputed. Survivors say their boat was rammed by the Lebanese navy, while the military claims the migrants’ boat collided with a navy vessel while trying to get away.

The April sinking was the greatest migrant tragedy for Lebanon in recent years and put the government further on the defensive at a time when the country is in economic freefall and public trust in the state and its institutions is rapidly crumbling.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies