Pakistani authorities said Wednesday they have arrested seven alleged key figures in a human trafficking ring following last week's sinking of an overcrowded smuggling vessel off Greece that left more than 500 migrants missing, including Pakistanis.
Police told The Associated Press that the ring was engaged in smuggling Pakistanis into Europe and that the arrests took place over the last two days, as part of a government crackdown on traffickers.
Thirty other suspects were arrested over the past few days in Pakistan and were being questioned for their role in facilitating smuggling activities.
Police continued raids across the country on Wednesday, in an attempt to arrest all involved in the migrant ship disaster. Pakistan's intelligence agencies are also helping local police in tracking smugglers who went underground.
The boat which capsized off the Greek coast — while carrying as many as 750 people — on June 14 is one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. Only 104 men— Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians — survived and 82 bodies were recovered.
Pakistan PM convenes meeting
On Wednesday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said efforts to dismantle trafficking rings would continue. He said Pakistan would seek the help of Interpol and other nations in tracking and arresting traffickers in hopes of preventing more tragedies at sea.
It was not immediately clear how many Pakistanis were on board the vessel and are still missing. So far, 150 relatives of Pakistanis believed to have been on the ship have given DNA samples for cross-referencing with the recovered bodies.
Following accounts accusing Greek authorities of not acting swiftly to rescue the migrants, anger and frustration prevailed among the relatives of the dead and missing Pakistanis.
Officials in Athens said passengers refused help and insisted on proceeding to Italy, adding that it would have been too dangerous to try and evacuate hundreds of unwilling people from an overcrowded ship.
In sworn testimonies over the weekend, seen by the AP, survivors described shocking conditions on the five-day journey. Most of the passengers were denied food and water, and those who couldn't bribe the crew to get out of the hold were beaten if they tried to reach deck level.
Some Pakistani survivors also shared similar accounts with their families over the phone.
9 detained in Greece
Meanwhile, nine men charged over last week's tragedy were detained pending trial, Greece's coast guard said on Wednesday, while the European Union promised more funds and actions on migration.
The suspected smugglers, all from Egypt and aged between 20 and 40 years, appeared before a prosecutor on Tuesday to respond to charges that included manslaughter, setting up a criminal organization, migrant smuggling and causing a shipwreck.
They all denied any wrongdoing, according to state broadcaster ERT.
In Brussels, the European Union decided to earmark 15 billion euros ($21.6 billion Cdn) as part of its 2024-2027 budget to address migration challenges.
The money would be used, among other things, to foster partnerships with third countries, provide help to refugees in the Middle East and react to humanitarian crises, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
"It is horrible what happened and the more urgent it is that we act," von der Leyen said when asked about the shipwreck.
The latest incident comes as the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project reported last week that 2022 was the deadliest year for migrants in the Middle East and North Africa seeking to reach Europe since 2017. About 3,800 people died on sea and land migration routes within and from the Middle East-North Africa region, 11 per cent higher compared to 2021. In 2017, the project documented the deaths of 4,255 people in the region.
The first three months of 2023 were the deadliest first quarter since 2017, the same agency has reported, with 441 documented migrant deaths.
The Associated Press
This article was published by CBC News.