Relatives and media in Pakistan reported Sunday that up to 300 of its citizens were among those believed to have been killed after a migrant boat capsized off Greece.
The incident occurred last Wednesday when a fishing trawler, reportedly carrying around 750 men, women, and children, sank off the Greek coast in the Mediterranean Sea five days after leaving eastern Libya for Italy.
The ill-fated boat was packed with migrants from Pakistan, Syria, and Egypt, fleeing dire economic conditions in their home countries and trying to reach relatives in Europe. Greek authorities have since rescued 104 people and retrieved 78 dead bodies, with little hope of finding more victims and survivors.
The Pakistani foreign ministry has so far confirmed that only 12 survivors were from Pakistan, saying it was verifying the number and identity of Pakistanis among the victims.
On Sunday, Pakistani news channels aired interviews of victims' wailing relatives and reported the death of at least 298 Pakistanis in the shipwreck. Officials have not commented on the reported death toll.
Muhammad Akash, a 21-year-old Pakistani, was also on board the fishing trawler. He was in regular communication with his family and made one last contact before his boat began its journey.
"He made a heartfelt phone call to his brother, urging the family to pray for him as he embarked on what he acknowledged to be a perilous journey," his uncle Amanat Ali told AFP Sunday after learning Akash was one of the hundreds who drowned off the coast of Greece on Wednesday. "The devastating news has left us in deep sorrow."
Ali said the family joined forces to pay an agent around $7,000 to organize his journey, starting with flights to Dubai, Egypt, and finally Libya.
"While the number of people on board the boat which capsized on 14 June off the coast of Greece is not clear, it is believed to have been somewhere between 400 and 750, according to various testimonies," the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. refugee agency said in a joint statement Friday.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's office said the country would observe a national day of mourning on Monday for those who perished. It shared no details about the casualty toll.
Sharif also ordered an immediate crackdown on agents involved in human smuggling, with federal authorities reporting Sunday the arrest of 10 suspects linked to the shipwreck.
Critics remain skeptical about Pakistan's efforts to counter human trafficking, saying the illegal practice takes place with authorities' backing, and culprits often escape prosecution because of their links to influential political figures.
The United States released its annual report last week, listing Pakistan among countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating the trafficking of persons.
"The [Pakistani] government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action," the report noted.
Thousands of young Pakistanis from poverty-stricken families pay vast amounts to human smugglers and undertake dangerous journeys in a bid to illegally enter Europe in search of a better life, despite frequent accidents and coming under deadly fire by border guards at times.
A famous Pakistani female athlete, Shahida Raza, and several others were among 150 people from Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan who were killed in March when their boat was wrecked off the coast of Italy.
In recent months, lingering political turmoil coupled with the worst economic crisis facing Pakistan have prompted tens of thousands of people to leave the country, legally and illegally. The South Asian nation of about 230 million people suffers from record-high inflation and unemployment is growing due to the closure of factories.