Pakistani migrant's final call home foretold Greek tragedy
Before 21-year-old Pakistani Muhammad Akash boarded a rickety fishing trawler in Libya on a journey he hoped would take him to a brighter future in Europe, he contacted his family one last time.
"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 on Sunday after learning Akash was one of the hundreds who drowned off the coast of Greece on Wednesday.
Authorities in Europe still have no clear idea how many people were aboard the boat when it sank — estimates range from 400 to over 700 — but likely hundreds came from Pakistan, and many from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Four of Akash's friends from the town of Khuiratta were also aboard, but only two survived. They had the grim task of breaking the news to his family.
The uncle told AFP that Akash started his journey three months ago. He had been in regular contact with two other friends who had already made their way to Italy by similar means, and he wanted to follow them.
Thousands of Pakistanis attempt to reach Europe illegally each year in search of a better life abroad, and there is an established network of people smugglers capitalising on their dreams.
On Sunday Pakistan officials said 10 suspected human traffickers had been arrested, and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif vowed "severe punishment" for those involved in the trade.
Pakistan is in economic freefall. A dire downturn — caused by decades of mismanagement and political instability — has drained dollar reserves, spurred runaway inflation and caused widespread factory closures.
The desperate situation is creating an incentive for Pakistanis to take perilous, illegal routes to Europe.
Akash's father passed away 12 years ago, leaving him to assist his older brother in managing the family-owned catering business in Khuiratta.
"He became fascinated by the enhanced living standards of the local residents whose families had established roots in Europe," said Ali. "The family isn't impoverished, rather it is the lack of faith in the system among the youth in the area that is leading them to consider leaving the country."
Ali said the family got together to pay an agent two million rupees (around $7,000) to organise his journey, which started with a flight to Dubai, onwards to Egypt, and finally to Libya.
Then on Monday came the call when he shared fears of the boat journey ahead.
"Despite our attempts to dissuade him, he remained adamant," Ali said.
On Sunday Prime Minister Sharif announced a national day of mourning for those who perished — local media say as many as 300 Pakistanis could have been aboard.
"The devastating news has left us in deep sorrow," said Ali. "He had a special place as the dearest among the siblings to his mother, so we made the difficult decision not to immediately inform her of his passing.
"Instead, we have conveyed to her that he has sustained injuries. We simply can't muster enough courage to speak the truth to her."