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Death of 300 migrants in boat tragedy spotlights crisis in Pakistan, POK 

A migrant boat in the waters between Libya and Greece (Photo: Twitter)

Pakistan has declared June 19 a national day of mourning for the more than 300 of its nationals who drowned after an overcrowded Libyan boat sank off the coast of Greece. The Pakistani embassy in Athens identified 12 nationals who escaped drowning out of the hundreds on the boat.

According to a press statement from the Prime Minister’s office, Pakistan will fly its national flag at half-mast and offer special prayers to its dead in the boat tragedy today.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also ordered an investigation to search for human traffickers who sent the migrants, mainly from the prosperous Punjab province and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to Libya to be illegally ferried to Europe. The overloaded fishing trawler had at least 400 Pakistani, 200 Egyptian and 150 Syrian migrants besides Palestinians seeking a better life in Europe.

Human rights activist, Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza said that a large number of youth from PoK  who drowned near the Greek coastline is a pointer to discrimination, poverty, destitution and lack of opportunities in Pakistan and also PoK.

He said: “Their better future hopes were drowned along with them on the 14th of June. I have been trying to highlight the plight of the people of PoK who are just four million of which nearly two million are already in Arab countries and Europe. These people want to help their relatives and families back home in PoK”, adding that the conditions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in India are far better and Indian Kashmiris do not have to migrate due to need.

The migrants had paid large sums of money, often up to Rs 2.5 million Pakistani rupees to traffickers for an illegal passage to Europe, reports the Dawn newspaper. Despite the news of deaths trickling in for the past few days, the traffickers are still assuring the families of their clients that their young migrants are alive.

The families are reluctant to file police complaints against the agents.

However, Pakistani authorities have arrested small-time agents in PoK for their involvement in the tragedy, who revealed that the kingpins were based in Libya. The investigations revealed that many migrants had been legally flown to the UAE, Egypt and Libya from where they were to be boarded into ships to be taken to the Greek or the Italian coastline. Many Pakistanis have been put under detention in Libyan jails.

The Guardian newspaper revealed in a report that Pakistani nationals were discriminated against by the traffickers and pushed into the hold where they had the least chance of escaping in case of a disaster. They were refused water and at least six people died of thirst and inhuman conditions in the hold.

The Guardian says that the trawler’s engine failed after three days of journey. It also says that a Greek coast guard boat was close to the distressed trawler but it is not clear what help it provided, or withheld, to the stricken vessel.

Desperate and distressed migration from conflict-ridden countries – Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – is increasing as many of these countries face uncertain conditions with a worsening humanitarian situation.

This is the fourth such tragedy, and the biggest one, this year in which Pakistani migrants have drowned trying to escape the poor conditions in their country.

Earlier this year, seven Pakistani migrants drowned in a boat wreck near Libya’s port city of Benghazi in February. This was followed by the deaths of another 63 Pakistanis, Afghans and Iranians, when a boat capsized on its route between Turkey to Italy. This tragedy took the life of a female Pakistani international hockey player fleeing the persecution of Shia Hazaras in her country.

In yet another tragedy, two boats sank near Libya, killing at least five dozen people from Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt.

The increased drownings and also successful arrivals in Europe are a pointer to the humanitarian crisis affecting large parts of West Asia and the regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, 18 Afghan nationals were found dead in a container truck in Bulgaria as they made a vain attempt to smuggle themselves into Western Europe.