More than 300 Pakistani nationals have been killed in the sinking of a overcrowded fishing trawler off the coast of Greece, the latest tragedy to expose the refugee crisis confronting the European Union as tens of thousands seek sanctuary from war, persecution and poverty.
The chairman of of Pakistan’s Senate, Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani, disclosed the numbers in a statement Sunday, sending condolences to grieving families of the dead.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you, and we pray that the departed souls find eternal peace,” Sanjrani said. “This devastating incident underscores the urgent need to address and condemn the abhorrent act of illegal human trafficking.”
Greek authorities have yet to confirm Pakistan’s death toll.
Pakistan is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in decades, with efforts to secure a financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund complicated by political turmoil in the country.
Growth has stalled and inflation has soared in the South Asian country of 220 million over the past year. The country has struggled to import essential food products, leading to deadly stampedes at distribution centers.
The number of Pakistanis traversing dangerous routes to Europe in search of a better future has reverberated through the nation, prompting Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to declare Monday a national day of mourning for those who died in the boat’s sinking.
In a tweet Sunday, he ordered a “high-level inquiry” into the incident.
“I assure the nation that those found negligent towards their duty will be held to account. Responsibility will be fixed after the inquiry and heads will roll,” Sharif wrote.
About 750 men, women and children were on the packed boat when it capsized last week, the United Nations Migration Agency (IOM) said, killing hundreds and making the tragedy one of the worst in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.
Every year, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution, climate change and poverty risk treacherous routes to Europe.
Johansson condemned the role of “smugglers” who put people on the boats.
“They are not sending them to Europe, they are sending them to death. This is what they’re doing and it’s absolutely necessary to prevent it,” she said.
Greek authorities have faced criticism for how the disaster was handled, and uncomfortable questions have been raised about European countries’ attitudes toward migrants.
Despite the dangers, tens of thousands of people are willing to risk everything to make the unsafe journey to Europe, searching for a better life.
At the same time, many European countries have toughened their borders and their stance toward migrants.
Last week, Greek authorities denied claims that the boat had capsized after the coast guard attempted to tow it to shore.
Authorities had initially said the coast guard kept its distance but their assistance “had been declined” after they threw a rope to the vessel to “stabilize and check if it needed help.”
But Tarek Aldroobi, a man who had three relatives on board, told CNN that they had seen Greek authorities towing the vessel with ropes – but says they were tied in the “wrong places,” which caused it to capsize.
“Their boat was in a good condition and the Greek navy tried towing them to the beach but the ropes were tied in the wrong places,” Aldroobi said. “When the Greek navy tried pulling them it caused the boat to capsize.”
Speaking to Greek national broadcaster ERT, government spokesperson Ilias Siakanderis said the coast guard arrived two hours before the boat capsized after its engine broke down and there had been “no connection” between the two.
“The engine broke down at 1:40 a.m. and at 2:00 a.m. it sank – therefore there can be no connection between (the coast guard approaching the boat and the time of its sinking),” he told ERT.
The Hellenic coast guard also defended its response.
“When the boat capsized, we were not even next to boat. How could we be towing it?” Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the coast guard told CNN.
Alexiou said their patrol boat only used a small rope to stabilize itself while it was close to the migrant boat hours before it sank, and the patrol boat would have been unable to tow the fishing boat.
“Regretfully there was movement of people, a shift in weight probably caused by panic and the boat capsized. As soon as we got there, we started our rescue operation to collect those who were in the water,” said Alexiou.