Families of victims of migrant boats find no way out in crisis-ravaged Lebanon

Families of victims of migrant boats find no way out in crisis-ravaged Lebanon
Families of victims of migrant boats find no way out in crisis-ravaged Lebanon

Captain Scott Waters, who is leading the small yellow submarine’s quest to unravel the fate of the migrants missing since their boat sank on April 23, said the crew decided to bring the badly decayed remains to the surface. to a height of half a kilometer.

But when it was lifted to the surface, the body fell apart piece by piece, scattering like sand in the water, leaving only clothes in the grip of the submarine’s robotic arm.

The research submarine arrived last week on a mission by Australia-based NGO AusRelief to bring answers to the families of dozens of people still missing and presumed dead — answers the dysfunctional, money-stressed Lebanese state still hasn’t given. .

The Pisces VI located the boat, which Waters said showed no obvious signs of damage from a naval boat that intercepted it, as well as 10 bodies. But the mission has since ended after the Lebanese military notified AusRelief of potential security risks, mission chief Tom Zreika told Reuters.

Zreika, a former refugee who was herself taken by his mother on a similar trip to Cyprus at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, said AusRelief came to the regrettable conclusion that salvaging all the bodies and the boat would require much more resources. .

“There was a woman down there who was half stuck out of a window with her baby…That’s the one who broke everyone’s (heart),” he said, referring to the mission team. “It reminded me of how my mother would have held me.”

The dinghy was designed to carry up to a dozen people. About 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants were on board, about 40 of whom were rescued, seven were confirmed dead and about 30 remain missing.

Distraught families of the missing hoped the submarine would reveal the fate of their loved ones and how the boat sank. They now fear that the bodies will remain underwater for good, along with potential evidence.

While an investigation by the Lebanese authorities into the incident is still ongoing, few families expect it to reach a just conclusion, underscoring the people’s deep mistrust in the Lebanese judiciary and state institutions.

Local residents say the mounting economic despair and hopelessness in the impoverished area of ​​northern Lebanon from which the migrant boat departed will push more and more people to embark on a perilous sea voyage in search of a new life in Europe.

“I’M READY TO GO

The number of people who left or attempted to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled in 2021 from 2020, and rose again by more than 70% in 2022 from the same period last year, the United Nations refugee agency said. to Reuters in an email.

The main reasons cited are an “inability to survive in Lebanon due to the deteriorating economic situation” and the “lack of access to basic services and limited employment opportunities,” the agency said.

Lebanon has been struggling with a severe financial crisis since 2019, leaving eight in ten people poor.

The migrant boat capsized and sank after colliding with a Lebanese naval vessel trying to stop its journey to Europe.

Authorities believe it departed from the sleepy coastal town of Qalamoun just south of the large port city of Tripoli, from the wharf of an abandoned resort where locals go to spend leisure time.

“All we want to do is leave this country. There is nothing left here,” said Bilal Hamam, a 42-year-old day laborer at a local cement factory, who was not called to work on Monday.

“My friends have gone (on previous migrant boats). I was afraid to go because I have kids…but now I’m ready to go with my family,” he said.

“I am no better than those who have died and neither are my children.”

“A DISGRACE

Some of the victims’ families have filed charges against the naval officer in command of the ship that intercepted the migrant boat and the dozen other crew members on board, after some surviving migrants said they had been rammed.

The military has said its ship and boat collided as the people smuggler responsible maneuvered to avoid capture.

The investigation was led by Lebanon’s Military Court, staffed by military personnel.

“It is a mockery in every sense of the word…that a self-respecting institution accuses the perpetrator of killing people and also leads the investigation,” said Jihad Medlej, the father of 22-year-old Hashem Medlej who the boat sat and is still missing.

“We will not be silent about this…We want to live in a state with institutions and laws,” Mohammad Sablouh, a lawyer who represents some families, told Reuters.

An army spokesman told Reuters it was unable to comment on complaints and allegations from relatives of the dead, due to the ongoing investigation.

During a meeting in May with grieving families of the victims, General Joseph Aoun, the commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces, promised a transparent and impartial investigation.

But Medlej, who dismisses the army’s story, said he has not been able to mourn his son because he has received conflicting reports of his fate, with no body recovered, and believes he may still be alive. .

An army source, who requested anonymity due to the ongoing investigation, said it had no information about Hashem Medlej.

An attempt by a lawyer for the families to subpoena Waters to provide more information in court about the submarine mission’s findings, including high-definition footage, failed as Lebanon’s judiciary was on strike.

The captain has since left Lebanon, and the military has so far only published low-quality images of the wreckage.

Zreika said he would make all the footage public soon.

He deplored the growing bad blood between ordinary people and institutions in Lebanon.

Before leaving, the mission team conducted a small sea shift for the dead, but the military advised them not to take any relatives of victims with them, Zreika said.

“They said, ‘We cannot guarantee your safety.'”

The article is in Dutch

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