280 Pakistani families fear relatives died in boat disaster off the coast of Greece

Rescue mission after migrant boat tragedy
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More than 280 Pakistani families fear they had relatives who drowned when a migrant boat sank off the coast of Greece last week. The rusty trawler packed with travellers capsized in the Ionian Sea on June 14. It had set sail from Libya towards Europe on the world’s deadliest migrant route.

The death toll stands at 82, with 104 survivors pulled from the water. However, witness accounts suggest many hundreds more went down with the ship. Their remains are still missing at sea.

Forced below deck

Pakistani interior minister Rana Sanaullah told parliament that:

so far 281 Pakistani families have contacted us and said that their children may be victims of this accident.

Twelve Pakistanis were among the survivors. Sanaullah estimated that “about 350 Pakistanis were on board”. He added:

Perhaps there has never been such a large toll in any incident before, even in terrorist incidents.

Furthermore, the Guardian reported that:

Read on...

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According to leaked testimonies told by survivors to coastguards, Pakistanis were forced below deck, with other nationalities allowed on the top deck, where they had a far greater chance of surviving a capsize.

The testimonies suggest women and children were effectively “locked up” in the hold, ostensibly to be “protected” by men on the overcrowded vessel. The Observer has learned that Pakistani nationals were also kept below deck, with crew members maltreating them when they appeared in search of fresh water or tried to escape.

Unanswered questions

Beyond the toll of human lives, questions are mounting regarding the role of the Greek coastguard in the disaster. The Greek government claimed that the vessel made no cry for help because the crew wanted to reach Italy.

However, the testimony of Nawal Soufi – a Moroccan-Italian activist and social worker – directly contradicts this claim. Soufi said passengers cried for help as much as a day before the vessel sank:

I can testify that these people were asking to be saved by any authority.

Further compounding the likelihood of distress cries, survivors claimed that the boat’s engine failed a full three days before it sank. Six people had already died on board due to lack of fresh water.

Greek authorities have also denied claims that the capsizing of the boat was caused directly by the coastguard. The coastguard initially maintained that it kept a “discrete distance”. However, a government official later revised the story, stating that the authorities threw a rope to “stabilise” the distressed vessel.

Maurice Stierl, a scholar of migration at Osnabrück University, said:

The Hellenic coastguard speaks of a sudden shift in weight. So what caused the sudden shift in weight? Was there a panic on board? Did something happen during the attempt to provide them with something? Or was it towed? And due to this towing, did the boat go down?

Pakistan: DNA sampling

Pakistan is currently in the grip of a staggering economic downturn, leaving many families struggling desperately. In turn, this leads many – mostly young men – to seek jobs in Europe, hoping to send money home.

The routes they take vary greatly. Some pay for legal transport to North Africa and take their chances from there, voyaging onwards by sea. Others attempt to go over land through Iran and Turkey.

Dodging border guards and police and moving through different jurisdictions with limited funds means that communication with families is often patchy. This makes it difficult to determine their exact movements.

Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is collecting DNA samples from the families. It hopes to link them to the remains recovered from the wreck. To this end, 193 blood and hair samples have been taken so far.

Dwindling hope

However, the number of missing far outweighs the number of bodies recovered. This is diminishing hope for grieving families who are overwhelmingly from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the eastern Punjab province.

Zafar Iqbal reported losing two nephews in the incident. From Bandli village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, he told Agence France-Presse:

We should at least get the dead bodies so that the parents and relatives can get peace of mind.

He continued:

The government should at least complete the investigation as soon as possible.

Featured image via screengrab cbsnews.com/CBS News

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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