Capsized in Tripoli’s Murky Economic Waters

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.


Jess Diez
Managing Editor & Research Associate, Middle East Policy Council

On Saturday, April 23, a small boat carrying over 60 people capsized off the northern coast of Tripoli, Lebanon. The boat was reportedly reaching for Europe for better economic opportunities. At least seven people died, including an infant; while there were 45 survivors, the UNHCR estimates over 30 people to be missing. The victims were fleeing the financial crisis in Lebanon, which has been plagued with heightened accessibility issues and low purchasing power over the past three years. Escalated by the 2020 Beirut Blast and, more recently, the growing lack of wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, the value of Lebanese lira has plummeted by over 90 percent and a majority of the population is now living below the poverty line. 

While recent protests have flooded Tripoli, many individuals have fled Lebanon in search of better opportunities. According to the Lebanese Army Guidance Directorate, the Lebanese Army stopped 4 boats from departure in 2020 and over 20 boats in 2021. The capsized boat on Saturday invoked further protest in Tripoli with participants dissenting against government inaction and increased socio-economic anxiety. Notably, this political disappointment may play a crucial role in the upcoming Lebanese elections scheduled for May 15, 2022.

Writing for Arab News, journalist Najia Houssari stated that Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a nation-wide day of mourning on Monday, April 25. Mikati called for a “‘quick investigation that reveals the circumstances and determines the responsibility. Otherwise, we have something else to say.’ He tweeted: ‘When conditions force Lebanese citizens to resort to death boats to escape from the state’s hell, this means that we are in a fallen state. Tripoli is announcing today this fall through its victims. The testimonies of the victims of the death boat are dangerous, and we will not allow (these testimonies) to be buried in the sea of the city.’”

Similarly, a report published by LBCI, a private Lebanese television station highlights parallel sentiments from Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian. Derian stressed that “the victims of the boat are the victims of all of Lebanon. The state is to blame for the citizen’s terrible situation, which has led him to want to flee his country into the unknown in any way he can earn a respectable life because of the daily suffering that he endures.”

In Arab News, journalist Houssari also elaborated on the conditions of the boat, which was built over 40 years ago, lacked safety measures, and had a permitted load of only 10 people. The commander of the Lebanese naval forces Colonel Haitham Dannawi accused the boat’s captain of trying to escape and, in a haste, crashing into the naval forces’ cruiser. Dannawi said: “The patrol that followed the boat a few miles from the shore and in the territorial waters tried to urge it to return because the situation was not safe and, if we did not stop the boat, it would have sunk outside the territorial waters…The boat sank quickly because of the overload and were it not for the presence of our forces near it, the number of victims would have been greater…We bear our full responsibilities in the army leadership, and if there is any verbal offense, we will hold the person concerned responsible.”

However, many of the survivors are stating otherwise. According to the Lebanese news outlet Naharnet, “the circumstances that led the small and overloaded craft to sink were not entirely clear, with some survivors claiming the navy rammed into their boat, and officials insisting the smuggler attempted reckless escape maneuvers. Angry residents attacked a main army checkpoint in Tripoli on Sunday, throwing stones at troops who responded by firing into the air. Some shops closed as angry men blocked several streets in Tripoli, Lebanon’s most impoverished city. There were no reports of injuries.”

Multiple funerals were held across Tripoli on Monday, April 25, for the people killed in the boat. The Jerusalem Post highlights various outcries regarding their own perspective on the incident, stating thatsurvivors rescued from a sinking boat of migrants claimed that the Lebanese Navy had rammed the boat and caused the disaster. A survivor of the incident told the Lebanese Annahar news site that a Lebanese Navy vessel had collided with the migrant boat, damaging it and causing it to sink, adding that it had chased them in an attempt to prevent them from sailing to Italy…If they have another chance to escape on an illegal migrant boat, they’ll take it, despite the risks.”

According to Lebanese news outlet 961, coined by Lebanon’s country calling code +961, Tripoli is increasing its smuggling operations due to the enlarged economic crisis. Thus, the brain drain and dangerous emigration of the country is facing horrid challenges: “These would-be migrants were boarding a smuggling boat that was neither prepared nor certified to go against the sea. The largely poverty-ridden area, where systematic marginalization dwells, is increasingly becoming an epicenter for seaborn smuggling operations as the socio-economic anxiety intensely lashes the wide lower social strata. This happens weeks before the 2022 Lebanese Elections – which is telling about the deep entrenchment of disappointment and disillusionment the average Lebanese feel towards nearby potential reforms.”

Although many educated youth are disillusioned and have left Lebanon, this new installment of tragedies adds to the hope of many to break the cycle of ‘political nepotism’ by bringing new voices in the country’s parliament elections. Writing for Al-Monitor, Beirut-based journalist Hanan Hamdan highlights the increase in youthful candidates for the May 15 elections, “with 1,043 candidates registered, including 155 women. What is most striking is the number of young candidates and independents who are running in the elections. ‘Eighty-eight people aged between 25 and 35 [registered their candidacies],’ said Mohamad Shamseddine, a researcher at Information International, a Beirut-based independent research and consultancy firm. He told Al-Monitor that this number is higher than previous in elections, and these candidates are running in different parts of Lebanon.” 

Continued in Hamdan’s Al Monitor article, she spotlights Mosbah Saket, a 26-year-old running for the Muslim Sunni seat in Tripoli, marking him a younger candidate in Tripoli. Saket told Al-Monitor, “I decided to run [in the elections] because the current economic crisis has destroyed our future as young people, and we have to do something about it. A lot of people told me that if those who are older than you could not do anything, how do you expect yourself to make a difference? Despite that, I am confident that people want change, and will vote for us.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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