Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

5 Syrians fleeing Lebanon for Cyprus missing after boat capsizes

The Lebanese army managed to rescue three people

Dark clouds hover over the Mediterranean Sea along the Beirut coastline, Lebanon, October 25, 2018. AP
Dark clouds hover over the Mediterranean Sea along the Beirut coastline, Lebanon, October 25, 2018. AP

The Lebanese army tried to rescue a group of eight Syrians travelling on a boat that sunk off the coast of Lebanon as it was trying to make its way to Cyprus, but five people remain unaccounted for.

In a press release published on Monday, the army said that following a tip-off about a sinking boat off the coast of Chekka, a coastal town 65 kilometres north of the capital Beirut, a navy patrol was dispatched to find survivors.

Only one was discovered at sea. Army intelligence found two more on a nearby beach. The navy patrol, which went looking for the five missing Syrians, returned empty-handed.

An army spokesperson told The National that survivors and the smuggler are currently being interrogated.

Nearly one million Syrians are registered with the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, but local authorities believe that their number is higher.

Hoping for a better future in Europe, some Syrians pay smugglers to try to make it to neighbouring Cyprus on small fishing boats.

As sunny weather returned to Lebanon these past few weeks, crossings have started taking place again.

A UNHCR spokesperson in Cyprus told The National that it knew of two boats that arrived from Lebanon in 2019, the first on May 3 with 10 people, and the second on May 12 with 14 individuals, mainly Syrian refugees.

Based on their point of arrival on the island of Cyprus, UNHCR believes that roughly half of the 22 boats that made it to Cyprus last year came from Lebanon, with an increase in August.

The route can be deadly. Last September, a five-year old Syrian boy drowned.

After eight years of war in Syria, interest and aid towards refugees living in Lebanon has dwindled.

Over half of Syrian households live with less than $2.90 per person per day, unable to meet survival needs of food, health, and shelter, according to the 2018 Vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, jointly prepared by UNHCR, the UN's children's agency and the World Food Programme.

Arguing that Syrian refugees represent too heavy a burden for Lebanon, the government has encouraged return. Late March, General Security, the security branch that supervises returns, claimed that over 170,000 Syrians had gone home since December 2017. General Security submits names to Damascus in advance for approval.

Some Syrians return spontaneously and are not included in these figures which anti-Assad activists say are exaggerated to give the impression that refugees are eager to go back to Syria.

Worried about arbitrary arrest and the lack of infrastructure, many Syrians still fear returning to their home country.

In a country where military conscription is obligatory between 18 and 42 years old, young men who deserted or avoided military service are especially at risk.

Despite recent announcements by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad saying that they would be offered amnesty, they fear punishment upon return.

Fighting continues in spite of talk of reconstruction and of the conflict winding down. The Syrian government has intensified attacks in recent weeks in the last rebel-held stronghold of Idlib, fuelling fears that a large-scale assault is imminent.

Updated: May 15, 2019 05:19 PM

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