Migrant boat disaster destroys Lebanese family in crisis

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — A week ago, the boat carrying Bilal Dandashi, his relatives and dozens of others hoping to flee Lebanon and reach Europe sank in the Mediterranean. Dandashi still doesn’t know if his wife and children are alive or dead.

Their boat sank in the dark of night within seconds after colliding with a Lebanese navy ship trying to arrest the migrants. Of the 60 or so men, women and children on board, 47 have been rescued, seven bodies have been recovered – and the rest are still missing.

The tragedy underscored the desperate efforts some Lebanese are going after their country’s economy collapsed, plunging two-thirds of the population into poverty with no hope of recovery in sight.

Lebanon has now become a source of migrants making the dangerous boat crossing to reach European shores. There are no precise figures, but hundreds of Lebanese in recent months have attempted the trip.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, locals say there is a steady stream of migrant boats, taking off from shores around the city – even from Tripoli’s official port.

“The port has become like an airport. Young people, women and children leave for Europe. The trips are daily,” said Amid Dandashi, Bilal’s brother, who was also on the boat with him and whose three children were killed in the sinking.

On Friday, police said they arrested three smugglers who were about to depart with a boat carrying 85 migrants from the wharf of a seaside resort near Tripoli.

Bilal and another of his brothers had already attempted a crossing, but the smugglers’ boat they were on stalled offshore.

So for a second trip, they took matters into their own hands. Working with two other families in Tripoli, they secured a nearly 50-year-old pleasure boat from a smuggler. The brothers spent three months refurbishing her and getting her life jackets.

On the night of April 23, they set off: about 22 members of the extended Dandashi family as well as members of the other two families. They were about 60 people in total, well beyond the capacity of the small yacht. The aim was to reach Italy – some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across the Mediterranean, a common route for migrant boats from Lebanon.

An hour and a half into their journey, their boat was intercepted by the Lebanese Navy.

Disaster: The boat collided with the Navy ship and sank within seconds.

The navy blamed the captain of the boat, saying he was maneuvering to avoid being forced back ashore. He also blamed the migrants for overcrowding the boat and not wearing life jackets.

Bilal Dandashi, however, accused the Navy vessel of intentionally ramming his boat to force him back.

He said the navy crew shouted insults at the migrants during the encounter. Their boat would have reached international waters, outside the Navy’s jurisdiction, in just minutes, he said.

“If he hadn’t hit us in the face…we could have crossed,” he said. “They made a decision intentionally.”

The passengers weren’t wearing their life jackets because they didn’t want to attract attention as they left port and the boat sank too fast to put them on after the collision, Dandashi said.

Bilal Dandashi was rescued along with two of his children. But his wife and two other children are still missing.

His brother Amid’s three children were all killed, their bodies found in the subsequent search.

Amid recalled packing his children’s things for the trip, never imagining he would go home without them. He and his brothers were sure the boat was safe after the work they had put into it, otherwise he would never have put his children in danger, he said.

“I blame myself, as a father, for going to take that risk,” he said. “But I was sure that I would reach (Europe.)… Everything was safe.”

The rise in the number of migrants is fueled by despair over an economic collapse caused by years of corruption and mismanagement.

Rampant inflation and the collapse of the currency destroyed people’s wages and savings. Medicines, fuel and many foods are missing. Bilal Dandashi is diabetic and cannot find the medication he needs.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has felt the brunt of the crisis. Almost all of Tripoli’s workforce depends on day-to-day income.

Since the boat sank, tensions have risen in the city. Angry residents blocked roads and attacked a main army checkpoint in Tripoli, throwing rocks at soldiers who retaliated by firing into the air.

The government held an extraordinary meeting and asked the military court to investigate the case.

“This whole country is drowning, (it’s) not just us who drowned. The whole country is drowning and they ignore it,” said Bilal Dandashi.

The 47-year-old admitted his attempted crossing was illegal but said he was unable to travel legally. With so many applications for Lebanese passports, authorities faced a huge backlog and recently stopped processing applications.

“Give me a passport. For 6 months I couldn’t get one,” he said. “Why? Because they want us to be here to put ourselves in the grave here — or go die in the sea.”

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