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Pushed toward death in the sea: A survivor’s account of the Tripoli shipwreck

“They hit us, they are the ones that drowned us, I hold them accountable,” said Ahmad Sabsabi, who lost his wife and three children after a Lebanese navy boat collided with their migrant vessel on April 23.

16 May 2022

BYBLOS – The boat had been sailing in the dark Mediterranean Sea for more than an hour and a half and was just minutes away from reaching international waters when its passengers were dazzled by the bright spotlights of two Lebanese navy vessels.

Around 6:45 pm on April 23, Ahmad Sabsabi, his wife Riham Ahmad Dualiwi and their three children boarded the boat in Qalamoun, a city just south of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Alongside 79 other passengers—Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian nationals—they sailed towards Cyprus, hoping to leave behind the economic crisis devastating Lebanon.

Ahmad, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, was sitting on the deck with the rest of the men, while Riham and their children—Massa (9 years old), Mohamad (7 years old) and Jad (5 years old)—stayed below deck with the other women and children. 

As Ahmad recalls, the intercepting navy boats started encircling them aggressively to make them stop. “They were shouting ‘go back!’ at us, and we were pleading with them, telling them that we were dying in Lebanon,” he said. The driver of the vessel persevered on their route. “The navy boat hit us twice, and then moved away,” Ahmad said. 

Four minutes later, the passengers realized the boat was flooding. “Then, it sank in a matter of seconds,” Ahmad said. 

Riham, Massa, Mohamad and Jad were swallowed by the sea. Ahmad managed to swim towards one navy boat and was pulled from the water.

In all, 47 people, including 11 Syrians, died or went missing in the sinking, while 37 people were rescued, UNHCR told Syria Direct.

Amina holds her phone displaying a photo of her grandchildren Massa, Jad and Mohamad, from left to right, 5/5/2022 (A. Medina, Syria Direct)

The shipwreck appears to be the first fatal attempt to cross the 131 nautical miles (200 kilometers) between Tripoli and the island of Cyprus. “In 2022, the only confirmed deaths occurred as a result of the Tripoli shipwreck. No deaths were confirmed in 2021,” UNHCR spokesperson Paula Barrachina said.

The Tripoli-Cyprus migration route has been on the radar of authorities for the last three years, since the 2019 economic crisis hit Lebanon. In 2020, 34 boats carried 794 passengers (60 percent of them Syrian), and “62 percent of attempted journeys failed to reach their intended destination,” said Barrachina. In 2021, 38 boats departed carrying 1,570 passengers (72 percent of them Syrian) and eight boats were returned to Lebanon. As of May 2022, eight boats carrying 597 individuals have departed or attempted to depart irregularly by sea, per UNHCR data.

The Tripoli-Cyprus route is the result of both the post-2019 economic crisis in Lebanon and the scarcity of legal ways to reach European territory. As a result, not only Syrian refugees, but also Lebanese citizens, are risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, the world’s deadliest migration route, which has taken 23,939 lives since 2014, according to the Missing Migrants Project.

In 2021, 1,924 people died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean. The Sabsabi family’s tragedy will be part of that statistic in 2022.

No choice but the sea

Twelve days after the shipwreck, the Sabsabi family home, in the northern Lebanese coastal town of Byblos, remains eerily quiet and dark. Toys are still spread on the patio. 

Ahmad sat on the couch next to Amina Mshallah, Riham’s mother and Mohamad, Massa and Jad’s grandmother. Both have barely slept. The bodies of Ahmad’s wife and children have not been retrieved from the sea yet. “Every corner in the house reminds me of them,” said Ahmad, still in shock. “I feel like I see them in the street.”

The family fled Aleppo in 2013, when war intensified in their home city, and found safety in Lebanon. Amina taught Arabic with an NGO, and Ahmad built furniture. They were getting by until the economic crisis engulfed Lebanon in 2019, driving 88 percent of Syrian refugees to extreme poverty and 97 percent to food insecurity. “With the dollar crisis, there was less work, the last two years have been very difficult,” explained Ahmad. Lately, with Ahmad making just $50 per month, the family’s debt rose to $8,000.

This Sabsabi family has been registered with UNHCR since 2013 and has asked to be resettled multiple times. “I told them my situation was very bad, I don’t want their money, I just need to travel, I need a piece of paper so I can leave this country,” said Ahmad, exasperated. “Nothing came out of there, just empty words,” he added.

“I am a refugee. Who is responsible for me? UNHCR. I talked to them a lot, to no avail,” he said. 

Third countries allocate “resettlement spaces” to UNHCR and the UN agency initiates the resettlement process. Between 2011 and 2022, a total of 71,342 Syrian refugees have been resettled to third countries from Lebanon, a low number compared to the 839,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon or the 1.5 million estimated in the country. Many Syrians are unregistered because the Lebanese government halted UNHCR registration in 2015.

Ahmad is of military age and eligible for conscription, so he cannot return to Syria. “If I could go back, I’d have gone back three years ago,” he said.

Having lost faith in resettlement, Ahmad recently started to pay attention to the stories of illegal migration routes. Last year, he considered going to Belarus and then crossing to Poland. He even paid the $800 required by the Syrian embassy to obtain his passport and got a tourist visa for Belarus, but then Poland shut its borders. 

“I heard that many people were leaving for Cyprus, you hear that this or that person migrated…I felt the need to offer my children an education, a future,” he said, in tears. The family’s plan was to arrive in Cyprus, then reach Italy and finally head to Germany. 

‘The navy hit us’

Lebanese Army Commander General Joseph Aoun has promised families of the victims of the April 23 sinking a “transparent and impartial” investigation.

That investigation falls under the jurisdiction of the military justice system. Ghida Frangieh, lawyer at Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based advocacy organization, argued that “this is not the right authority to conduct a fair and transparent investigation,” given that this system “grants privileges to the army” and “treats victims likes mere witnesses and denies them the right to participate in the investigation and future trial.” Frangieh said it is important to “limit the jurisdiction of the military justice system and transfer the case to the regular courts.”

Ahmad and Amina have no faith in the army investigation. “Look at what happened with the Beirut blast,” said Ahmad, referring to the attempts by Lebanese authorities to block the trial on the Beirut explosion.

Lebanese authorities have attributed the sinking to high waves and overloading, saying the vessel could only accommodate six people and blaming the captain’s escape maneuvers for causing the boat to crash into the patrol ships.

Those statements are at odds with testimonies of survivors gathered by France24 and AP. They also differ from Ahmad’s account.

Ahmad disputed the claim that the boat only fit six people. “That’s a lie, if that were true the boat wouldn’t have sailed for even five minutes,” he said. “We were sailing for almost two hours.”

He also disputed that the trip was organized by professional smugglers and said the captain’s own family was on board. “These people were not smugglers, they were people like me, people struggling, the driver lost his wife and children,” Ahmad said. He paid $3,000 in advance for his family to make the crossing, with $4,000 more to be paid upon arrival.

Ahmad contested the army’s version of the collision. “They are saying we hit them, and it’s the opposite, they want to erase the truth,” he said, using a pen and paper to draw the boat and show where it was hit. “First I saw how they hit us in the front right side, then I felt how they hit us from the back—they bumped into us twice,” he explained.

After the collision, Ahmad said the navy boats sailed away, but in a matter of minutes, the passengers in the vessel realized water was rushing in. Seconds later, the vessel sank to the bottom of the sea.

“They hit us, they are the ones that drowned us, I hold them accountable,” said Ahmad. 

Nessma Bashi, a legal officer at Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) stressed that “under international maritime laws, if a vessel sees people in distress, it has an obligation to help that boat in distress.” 

Ahmad saw the vessel disappear and men drowning in front of him. With a group of survivors, he was able to swim towards the navy boat. “I felt like we swam for 30 minutes,” he said. When he was safe on the navy boat, he asked those aboard to rescue the rest of the passengers. “I shouted at them, ‘My wife and kids are there, and there’s a lot of people, children, they’re drowning’,” he said. 

He was told that the other navy boat had taken people aboard.  “When they told me this, I let out a big sigh of relief. I breathed and thanked God, I thought the army had taken them,” Ahmad explained. But when he and the other survivors reached the port, his wife and children were not there. “Until this moment I don’t know anything about their fate,” he said.

In the middle of the interview with Syria Direct, Ahmad received a call from a member of the family that organized the vessel. He was asked the name of his wife and children. Every muscle in Ahmad and Amina’s bodies tensed. “Any news?” he asked. 

No news. 

The cost of repression in the Mediterranean

The Tripoli shipwreck fits a broader trend of hostility in Mediterranean waters to deter and prevent migrants and asylum seekers from reaching southern European shores. According to the International Organization for Migration, the Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route, a mortality rate that can be explained by the length of the overseas journey, dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search-and-rescue capacity and restrictions on the life-saving work of NGOs. 

Aggressive, European Union-backed practices could also be blamed. A 2021 analysis by The Guardian found that  2,000 refugee deaths in 2020-2021 were linked to pushbacks, an illegal practice of forcing people back over a land or sea border immediately after they cross it, violating the principle of non-refoulement, the pillar of international refugee law.

“You can’t expect people to stop taking illegal routes when you’re not giving them the opportunity to take legal routes,” said Bashi, from SJAC. “As long as people are suffering, as long as mothers feel the need to cross that sea to provide safety for their children, they are going to come,” she added. 

In the last decade, thousands of Syrian refugees have embarked on dangerous sea routes from Turkey to Greece, from Morocco to Spain, from Libya to Malta or Italy, from Egypt to Greece or Italy, and lately from Lebanon to Cyprus.

In response, the EU beefed up maritime surveillance, installed fences and externalized their borders through deals with Turkey or Libya to keep migrants away. The budget of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has risen from six million euros in 2005, to 758 million euros in 2022. Frontex’s 2023 budget includes lethal and non-lethal weapons and ammunition. 

“Over time, the response has become more aggressive, there is a litany of human rights abuses involved in this process,” Bashi said. The most obvious violations are pushbacks. “We know that the Greek coast guard has physically pushed boats back from Greek waters into Turkish waters. They do that by destroying the boats’ engines, and by making waves that push the migrant boats,” she added.

Little accountability has been had for these apparent human rights violations. “All these crimes in theory should be able to go up in domestic courts,” said Bashi, adding that that is not happening. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against pushbacks by Greek authorities, but “each time Greece has not complied on the broader policy issues,” she added.

In an attempt to break this impunity, in 2021 SJAC called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Greek authorities and Frontex agents for abuses against asylum seekers that could amount to crimes against humanity. The ICC has yet to respond.

Under pressure, Frontex director, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned last May 1 after a Lighthouse Reports investigation revealed that Frontex was involved in and covered up 222 pushbacks in the Aegean sea that affected 957 asylum seekers. 

Bashi called Leggeri’s resignation as a “win” but added that it “probably won’t make that much of a difference” in Frontex’s policy because “European governments are indicating the direction in which Frontex should be moving, and we have to hold these government accountable for their actions.”

From their living room in Byblos, Ahmad and Amina asked for the Lebanese navy to be held accountable and criticized UNHCR for not offering them resettlement. After the shipwreck, UNHCR gave Ahmad 1.5 million Lebanese pounds (approximately $56 at the parallel exchange rate) and offered him psychological help, but he does not see the point of therapy. 

The family does not want pity, money or therapy. They want a way out of Lebanon. “We want to leave from here, to any country, and there’s no way I leave Lebanon without my mother-in-law, she comes with me,” said Ahmad, through tears. 

They fell silent for a moment. “Mark my words,” Ahmad said, “I’m thinking about killing myself. I have nothing to live for. My wife and my kids were my life, and they’re gone,” As Amina tried to comfort him, he added: “If they have humanity, they would take us out from Lebanon, but nobody cares about us. Where has humanity gone?” 

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