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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - 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 rise in attempted trips reflected the increasing level of desperation in the crisis-hit country.
With an economic collapse, poverty, the pandemic and the trauma of the August explosions that levelled parts of Beirut, scores of Lebanese have risked their lives to reach Cyprus, about 160 kilometres away at its closest point.
Figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees, people in 17 boats tried to reach the island from Lebanon in 2019 with more than 270 people on board, most of them Syrians.
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 UN agency said only eight crossings succeeded this year. Two more boats were reported to have reached Cyprus but this has not 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, a 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 some men jumped into the sea to swim for help.
The boat was rescued by a UN peacekeeping warship, which handed over those on board to Lebanese authorities.
On local TV, a Lebanese woman who was on the boat wailed as she described holding on to the body of her son, who had died of hunger, for three days before dropping it into the sea.
Six people from that boat remain missing. The civil defence on Monday said they have retrieved the bodies of four people, including a child, after they tried to flee the country by sea on an overloaded dinghy, since Friday. Two of the bodies, one a child, were Lebanese. The other two were a young Indian man and a Syrian man. It is not clear whether they are from the six missing from that one boat, or from other attempted deadly crossings.
“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 rise.
In previous years most of the boats left between August and November, before the sea became too dangerous.
Updated: September 22, 2020 08:05 AM
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