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Syria has detained survivors of Lebanese boat disaster

After a hundred people drowned off the coast of Syria sources tell MEE that survivors have been detained by authorities
People in Lebanon mourn those who died in the boat disaster off the Syrian coast (AFP)

Syrian government forces have detained survivors of a Lebanese refugee boat that sank off the coast of Syria, local sources, activists and a human rights group have told Middle East Eye. 

As many as 150 passengers, mostly Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian, were on board a small vessel that sank near the Syrian coastal city of Tartus on 22 September. Over a hundred bodies have since been recovered

The UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria said on Sunday that Syrian security services had arrested a number of those on the boat, for not serving in the military and for “security reasons”.

“Among the detainees are Palestinian survivors and other Syrians, who were arrested at al-Bassel Hospital in the city of Tartus,” Fayez Abu Eid, a spokesperson for the group, told MEE.

"Families of detainees have contacted us and explained the details of the detention of their relatives in the hospital. They are afraid for them,” he said. 

The boat was carrying people trying to escape disastrous social and economic conditions at home. Two days after it sank, Lebanon said it had arrested one of the smugglers involved in the operation.

Loss of nine relatives

Most Syrian victims of the disaster are from the opposition-held northwest of the country, which is periodically attacked by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“My sister was suffering from cancer, her treatment failed in Syrian government hospitals, and treatment was so expensive in Lebanon, so they tried to go out to Europe," the brother of one of the victims living in Idlib told MEE.

“They were also aiming to escape the deteriorating economic conditions in Lebanon. They sold all their simple belongings, owed some money and registered six months ago with a smuggler to get out by boat,” he added on WhatsApp, without giving his name for security reasons.

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There are about seven million Syrian refugees now living outside the country. Lebanon hosts around a million of them, most of whom live in tents and are dependent on United Nations aid.

“There has been a lot of secrecy over the date of the trip for months, because we were worried the local authorities would find out,” the man said. "Suddenly, at half past five in the morning a few days ago we got a call that my sister was in the boat and drowned with her family.

“On the boat were my sister, her husband, their three children, her brother-in-law, his wife and his two children. All of them drowned. The only survivor in the family is the second brother-in-law of my sister.”

Survivors arrested

The survivor’s sister travelled from Lebanon to Tartus to confirm what had happened. She saw the bodies of some of the victims in the hospital but was prevented from seeing her brother.

“The army officers who supervised the evacuation process and landed at the hospital told her in an arrogant way that her brother was arrested because he was wanted for compulsory military service,” the victim’s brother said. 

"He was later transferred from the hospital to a military prison, and it is said that he will be fined or imprisoned for leaving the country illegally."

Local sources told MEE that four other survivors had been arrested at a Tartus hospital.

“Unfortunately, as far as I know they will be arrested if they face security problems,” a journalist from the city of Latakia, up the coast from Tartus, told MEE.   

The Consolidated Rescue Group, a non-profit organisation, told MEE that other patients were allowed to leave the hospital after it was verified that their security record was clean.

Dozens of refugees trapped in the sea and forests between Turkey and Europe send their location to the group’s Facebook page, which in turn sends it to the local police in the country where they are stranded, in order to save them.

'Legitimate reasons'

One show on Al Madina FM, a pro-state local radio station based in Damascus, was dedicated to justifying the arrest of the survivors. 

“Syrian law punishes anyone who has left the country illegally, or who has been caught in border areas without a legitimate reason,” Syrian lawyer Rami Hamed told the station.

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“The penalty is estimated between imprisonment from one to five years and a fine of five to ten million Syrian pounds, or one of these two penalties,” the lawyer explained.

“Even if the emigration started from Lebanon, if the traces of the crime [illegal immigration] appeared on Syrian soil, that is something that carries punishment for the survivors,” he said.

“What happened is a human catastrophe, but the law says that there is a crime that constitutes an aggression against Syrian law and sovereignty. The judge may look with compassion at the victims, as Syrian law is recognised for its humanity and good treatment,” the lawyer said.

Syrian security forces killed 14,697 people under torture from March 2011 until September 2022, according to the Europe-based Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The network says that Syrian security forces have detained about 96,000 people since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, and that many of them face unfair trials.

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