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The Lebanese army on their dinghy rescue migrants from a boat sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, near the shores of Tripoli, north Lebanon, on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. A short Lebanese army statement said the vessel was carrying people "who were trying to illegally leave Lebanon's territorial waters." It said three Lebanese navy boats and one from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, were rescuing the approximately 200 migrants.

The Lebanese army on their dinghy rescue migrants from a boat sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, near the shores of Tripoli, north Lebanon, on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. A short Lebanese army statement said the vessel was carrying people "who were trying to illegally leave Lebanon's territorial waters." It said three Lebanese navy boats and one from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, were rescuing the approximately 200 migrants. (Lebanese Army Website/AP)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — On New Year's Eve, a small boat carrying more than 230 would-be migrants, most of them Syrians, broke down and began to sink after setting sail from the northern coast of Lebanon.

Since the collapse of Lebanon's economy in 2019, an increasing number of people — mostly Syrian and Palestinian refugees but also Lebanese citizens — have tried to leave the country and reach Europe by sea. The attempts often turn deadly.

This time, rescue crews from Lebanon's navy and U.N. peacekeepers deployed along the border with Israel, were able to save all but two of the passengers, a Syrian woman and a child who drowned. For many of the survivors, however, the relief was fleeting.

After bringing them back to shore, to the port of Tripoli, where they recovered overnight, the Lebanese army loaded nearly 200 rescued Syrians into trucks and dropped them on the Syrian side of an unofficial border crossing in Wadi Khaled, a remote area of northeastern Lebanon, some of the survivors and human rights monitors said.

It remained unclear who had ordered the deportation but the incident marked an apparent escalation in the Lebanese army's deportations of Syrians at a time of heightened anti-refugee rhetoric in the small, crisis-ridden nation. Officials with the army and General Security — the agency normally responsible for managing immigration issues — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Once on the other side of the border, the boat survivors were intercepted by men wearing Syrian army uniforms who herded them into large plastic greenhouses. They were held captive there until family members paid to have them released and brought back to Lebanon by smugglers.

"It was a matter of buying and selling, buying and selling people," said Yassin al-Yassin, 32, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon since 2012.

Al-Yassin said he paid $600 — to be split between the Syrian army and the smugglers — to have his brother brought back to Lebanon. Syrian officials did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.

One of the boat survivors, Mahmoud al-Dayoub, a 43-year-old refugee from the Syrian area of Homs, said he overheard their captors negotiating the price of each detainee.

"I don't know if it was the Syrian army or the smugglers," said Dayoub, who has also been registered as a refugee in Lebanon since 2012,

"There were 30 people surrounding us with guns and we didn't know what was going on," he said. "All I cared about was not being taken to Syria, because if I'm taken to Syria, I might not come back."

Dayoub said he managed to slip away and flee back across the border — his family never paid a ransom for him.

Human rights monitors say the case of the boat survivors is a troubling new twist in Lebanon's ongoing push for Syrian refugees to go home.

Lebanon hosts some 815,000 registered Syrian refugees and potentially hundreds of thousands more who are unregistered, the highest population of refugees per capita in the world. But since the country's economic meltdown erupted three years ago, Lebanese officials have increasingly called for a mass return of the Syrians.

Lebanon's General Security agency has tried to coax the refugees into going home voluntarily, with anemic results. In some cases, the agency has deported people back to Syria, citing a 2019 regulation allowing unauthorized refugees who entered Lebanon after April of that year to be deported.

Reports by human rights organizations have cited cases of returning refugees being forcibly detained and tortured, allegations Lebanese authorities deny. Until recently, deportations mostly involved small numbers of people and were carried out under formal procedures, giving the U.N. and human rights groups a chance to intervene and, in some cases, halt them.

What happened to the boat survivors, "is a violation of human rights and of the Lebanese laws and international treaties," said Mohammed Sablouh, a Lebanese human rights lawyer.

Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon, said the UNHCR was "following up with the relevant authorities" on the case. "All individuals who are rescued at sea and who may have a fear of (returning) to their country of origin should have the opportunity to seek protection," she said.

The Lebanese army regularly returns people caught crossing illegally from Syria.

Jimmy Jabbour, a member of Parliament representing the northern Akkar district, which includes Wadi Khaled, said that when army patrols intercept would-be migrants who crossed into Lebanon through smuggler routes, they often round them up and dump them in the no man's land across the border — instead of initiating formal deportation proceedings.

Afterward, the deportees simply pay smugglers to bring them in again, Jabbour said, adding that he had complained to the army about the practice.

"It's not the army's job to create work opportunities for the smugglers," he said. "The job of the army is to hand them over to General Security … and General Security is supposed to hand them over to the Syrian authorities."

In contrast to the newly entered migrants, the New Year's Eve boat survivors included refugees who had been living in Lebanon for more than a decade and were registered with the United Nations.

One of them, a Syrian woman from Idlib who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retaliation, said she spent two nights detained at the border before her relatives paid $300 for her to be released back into Lebanon.

"I can't return (to Syria). I would rather die and throw myself in the sea," she said.

Jasmin Lilian Diab, director of the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University, said many refugees take to the sea to avoid deportation.

Diab said her institute found a spike in migrant boats leaving Lebanon in late 2022. Some told her team of researchers that they left because of the increasingly aggressive anti-refugee rhetoric. They feared "deportations were going to happen and that they were going to be sent back to Syria," Diab said.

"So they felt like it was their only chance to get out of here."

Associated Press writers Kareem Chehayeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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