Islamabad (AP) — 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.
Each of those who tried to make the perilous journey to Europe — hoping for a better life — paid the smugglers between $5,000 to $8,000, Pakistani authorities said.
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.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz 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 Pakistani 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.
The migrant ship sank near the deepest part of the Mediterranean, where depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) could hamper any effort to locate a sunken vessel. Hope for finding survivors dimmed over the past week.
Human rights groups say a European Union crackdown on smuggling has forced people to take longer, more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.
Though dozens of Pakistanis die in migrant boat accidents every year, many still turn to traffickers for a chance to reach Europe amid their country’s economic downturn.
Pakistan is going through an unprecedented economic crisis and talks on a key tranche of a $1.1 billion package by the International Monetary Fund have stalled. The country is also struggling to overcome the aftermath of last summer’s floods that killed 1,739 people and caused $30 billion in losses.