By KAREEM CHEHAYEB
BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Lebanese and Syrian migrants who are adrift in the Mediterranean on a fishing boat that has taken on water pleaded with European coast guards Monday to save them, saying two children on board have already died.
The roughly 60 migrants also told relatives and volunteer groups by satellite phone that they have been without food, water, and baby formula for the past three days. The vessel left from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli about 10 days ago. The passengers, headed for Italy, include Syrian refugees and Lebanese from their country’s impoverished northern provinces.
“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 The Associated Press. 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 6 million, including 1 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 rescuers to distressed migrants at sea, Malta has not yet authorized a rescue operation and has not given permission to a commercial cargo ship to rescue the stranded migrants.
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?”
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 kilometers (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 free fall and public trust in the state and its institutions is rapidly crumbling.
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