Pakistani nationals appear to have been singled out on the trawler that sank off Greece last Wednesday with hundreds of passengers feared dead.

Macabre details have emerged of conditions on the boat, as questions mount over whether the Greek coastguard “covered up” its role in the tragedy. With about 500 people still feared missing, new accounts from survivors indicate that women and children were forced to travel in the hold, and that certain nationalities were condemned to the most dangerous part of the trawler.

According to leaked testimonies told by survivors to coastguards, Pakistanis were forced below deck, with other nationalities allowed on the top deck, where they had a far greater chance of surviving a capsize.

The testimonies suggest women and children were effectively “locked up” in the hold, ostensibly to be “protected” by men on the overcrowded vessel. The Observer has learned that Pakistani nationals were also kept below deck, with crew members maltreating them when they appeared in search of fresh water or tried to escape.

No women or children are thought to be among the survivors, while reports from Pakistan on Saturday indicate hundreds of its citizens may have died when the rusty trawler sank off the Peloponnese peninsula. Local media reported that at least 298 Pakistanis died, 135 from the Pakistani side of Kashmir.

One estimate indicated about 400 Pakistanis were on board. The country’s ministry of foreign affairs has so far confirmed that only 12 of the 78 survivors were from Pakistan.

Conditions on the boat were so bleak that even before it sank there had already been six deaths after it ran out of fresh water.

Nawal Soufi, a Moroccan-Italian social worker and activist, added that passengers were pleading for help a day before it sank. “I can testify that these people were asking to be saved by any authority” she said. Her account contradicts that of the Greek government, which said passengers told the coastguard no request for help was made because they wanted to go to Italy.

New testimony also indicates that the trawler’s engine failed days before it sank, making it likely the crew would have sought help. “We started the journey at dawn on Friday. Around 700 of us were on board,” one migrant is recorded as saying in testimony taken by coastguards overseeing the inquiry into the disaster. “We were travelling for three days and then the engine failed.”

Four days after one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean in recent years, the discrepancy is only one of a series of unanswered questions, including what prompted the vessel to capsize. Of concern are claims that it overturned in the early hours of Wednesday because a rope was attached by coastguards, allegations rejected by Greek officials.

At first, the coastguard said it had kept a “discreet distance” from the boat, but on Friday a government spokesman confirmed a rope had been thrown to “stabilise” the boat.

Maurice Stierl, of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University in Germany, said: “The Hellenic coastguard speaks of a sudden shift in weight. So what caused the sudden shift in weight? Was there a panic on board? Did something happen during the attempt to provide them with something? Or was it towed? And due to this towing, did the boat go down?”

There are also questions over whether the Greek coastguard should have intervened earlier to escort the ageing trawler to safety. Government officials have confirmed patrol boats and cargo ships had been shadowing the trawler since Tuesday afternoon.

Some believe the failure to intervene cannot be explained by incompetence. Stierl accused many EU countries of “weaponising time” by delaying rescue as long as they can, or what he called a “phase of strategic neglect and abandonment.” He said: “They have managed to build in delays into European engagement at sea. They’re actively sort of hiding, in fact, from migrant boats, so that they are not drawn into rescue operations. We can see how a strategy is being created, that slows down –actively and consciously slows down – rescue efforts.”

On Monday attention will turn to the alleged Egyptian smuggling ring in charge of the vessel, with nine suspects due in court.

Coast Guard footage of the boat before it capsized.
Coastguard footage of the boat before it capsized. Photograph: Hellenic Coast Guard/Reuters


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