Greece shipwreck: Heart-wrenching tales of Pakistanis seeking a better life

Published in The Express Tribune on June 16, 2023

“My nephew, Shahbaz Mahmood, worked as a barber in Saudi Arabia, where he earned good money. However, he then made plans to go to Europe and finalised the arrangements while still in Saudi Arabia.”

This was stated by Khushal Khan, a resident of Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s Kel sector in Kotli district who claimed that his nephew, Shahbaz, along with three neighbouring youths – Chaudhry Azad, Chaudhry Nasir, and Nabeel Butt – were among the missing individuals in the Greek shipwreck tragedy.

He recalls that Shahbaz was prohibited from pursuing his plan, not just by his father but by everyone who knew about it. However, Khan said, approximately two months ago, Shahbaz returned from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, stayed at home for only five days, and then embarked on his journey to Europe.

According to Khan, Shahbaz has two children and was the sole breadwinner for his family. Shabaz had informed his family about boarding the ship before leaving his home, he added.

He said that Shahbaz was also on the same ship that encountered the tragedy near Greece that killed at least 78 people earlier this week.

Witness accounts suggested between 400 and 750 people had packed the 20- to 30 metre-long (65- to 100-foot) fishing boat that capsized and sank early on Wednesday morning about 50 miles (80 km) from the southern coastal town of Pylos.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 104 survivors and 78 people who drowned were brought to shore by Greek authorities, but nothing has been found since.

Concerns are being raised about several young individuals from the Kel sector of the Kotli district, who are feared to have been aboard the ill-fated ship. Local residents are providing various estimates in this regard.

However, BBC Urdu reported that it had contacted three families in Kotli who have expressed concerns that their beloved ones were on that boat and are now missing.

Muhammad Mubashir, a resident of Kotli, informed that his uncle, Aftab Qasim, and a close relative, Inam Shafaat, embarked on a journey to Italy after the holy month of Ramazan.

“Their plan was to reach Libya from Pakistan, and from there, their destination was Italy. They had left home a considerable time ago and kept us informed about their well-being from time to time,” said Mubashir.

Mubashir mentions that they have been unable to establish contact with Aftab, who as per their information was in Libya, for the past two days.

According to Mubashir, they have spoken to people in their village, and based on the information they have gathered, a significant number of individuals from a village in the Kel sector had left to go to Europe.

Khushal Khan also mentioned a heart-wrenching story of his neighbour, Chaudhry Nasir, who used to work as a welder in their locality, but when some young individuals from the area succeeded in reaching Europe some time ago, he also got influenced by them and handed over a sum of money to an agent after taking a loan.

“He left a couple of months ago to go to Europe. A few weeks after leaving his home, his five-year-old son passed away. It was well-known in our entire locality that both the father and son loved each other dearly. The son used to be at his father’s shop even during work hours, and it became famous in the area that the son couldn’t bear the separation from his father.”

Khan claimed that when his son passed away, Nasir was in Libya and wanted to return home, but his passport and other documents were with the agent.

“Nasir saw his son’s funeral prayer through a video call. At that time, he was crying and saying that if the son for whom he was enduring so many difficulties is no longer there, then what will he do by going to Europe?”

He said that Nasir had spoken to his relatives two days before boarding the boat to Europe, but now he is missing.

The Pakistani Embassy in Greece has confirmed the rescue of 12 Pakistanis. According to the Pakistani Embassy in Athens, a team from the embassy contacted the relevant Greek authorities regarding the incident.

It said that the team visited the area and obtained preliminary information.

‘Migrants had paid $4,500’

The ageing fishing vessel was thought to have departed from Egypt, then picked up passengers in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk on June 10. Greek authorities say survivors have told them they paid $4,500 each to go to Italy.

The exact circumstances of the vessel sinking while it was being shadowed by the Greek coastguard are still unclear.

Authorities, who were alerted by Italy on Tuesday and subsequently monitored the vessel over a period of 15 hours before it sank, say occupants on the vessel repeatedly refused Greek help, saying they wanted to go to Italy.

An advocacy group that had been in communication with the vessel said that on at least two occasions persons on board pleaded for help. The group, Alarm Phone, said it had alerted Greek authorities and aid agencies hours before the disaster unfolded.

‘Current approach unworkable’

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nation’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean was the worst in several years and urged states to address the gaps in search and rescue rules.

“It is clear, that the current approach to the Mediterranean is unworkable,” IOM’s Federico Soda. “Year after year, it continues to be the most dangerous migration route in the world, with the highest fatality rate.”

Greek authorities denied accounts that surfaced late on Thursday that the boat flipped after the coastguard attempted to tow it.

“There was no effort to tug the boat,” coastguard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state broadcaster ERT.

Nine Egyptians, aged between 20 and 40 years, were arrested over the shipwreck on Thursday evening. Authorities said they faced charges of negligent manslaughter, exposing lives to danger, causing a shipwreck and human trafficking.

They were expected to appear before a judge and respond to the accusations in the coming days.

Under a conservative government in power until last month, Greece took a tough stance on migration, building walled camps and boosting border controls.

The country is currently governed by a caretaker administration pending an election on June 25.

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