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Arrests have been made after migrant ship capsized off the coast of Greece


Hundreds of people are still missing and presumed dead a week after a migrant ship organized by smugglers capsized off the coast of Greece. Witnesses say as many as 750 people were on board, with only around 100 survivors found. Many are from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, which declared a day of mourning. Some arrests have been made. NPR's Ruth Sherlock spoke with family members of some of the victims.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Nedal al-Amari lives in Germany and says he was getting calls daily from a cousin who was waiting in Libya to board a smuggler's boat to Europe.

NEDAL AL-AMARI: We talked almost every day.

SHERLOCK: Al-Amari had barely survived his own smuggled journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. And he urged his cousin, Ahmed al-Ghazali (ph), who was just 18, to take another route. He says al-Ghazali just laughed.

AL-AMARI: He laughed too much. Why did he laugh? Because he knows that I know very well there is no other option - only this way.

SHERLOCK: The two men are from Daraa, in Syria, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began. Now, after 12 years of war and with Assad still in power, Ghazali was being summoned for military service to fight for the regime. He needed to get out. So he traveled to Libya and took the ill-fated ship towards Italy. So did another young man, Romail Akram, who set out from Pakistan, according to his family.

MUHAMMAD SHADIR: (Speaking Punjabi).

SHERLOCK: His cousin, Muhammad Shadir, says smugglers arranged Akram's journey from Karachi to Dubai and then to Libya, where he was kept in a warehouse with other migrants for days. Shadir says he was in contact with Akram until he, along with hundreds of others from Pakistan, Egypt and Syria, set sail. When the family saw the reports of the ship sinking off the coast of Greece a week ago, Shadir and his relatives panicked and called the smuggler. He says, at first, the smuggler lied.

SHADIR: (Through interpreter) He told us not to worry and that he was safe. Afterwards, he switched off his phone.

SHERLOCK: Authorities say, so far, 82 bodies have been recovered. But hundreds more are missing and presumed dead in one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. Aerial photos of the ship show a vessel so overcrowded that people can hardly move. Exactly who and how many people were on board is hard to know, as there is no manifest. But witness accounts suggest there may have been as many as 750 men, women and children.

EFI LATSOUDI: All these families that are looking for their beloved ones - they are really desperate. They are trying to get some information, and it's very hard.

SHERLOCK: Efi Latsoudi with the organization Refugee Support Aegean says there are many questions to be asked about how such a tragedy unfolded long after the Greek Coast Guard and European Union coastal agency Frontex had been alerted.

LATSOUDI: We know that these people were in distress for many hours. We know that the Coast Guard and Frontex was informed. We know that there were boats around - that they could have supported a rescue operation. These are the facts.

SHERLOCK: She and other rights groups are calling for an independent investigation into the response. Greece has arrested several Egyptian men on board, accusing them of smuggling. As countries grapple with how to handle the steep rise in migrant sea crossings, Latsoudi says coast guards from Greece have become increasingly aggressive in trying to prevent ships from entering their waters.

LATSOUDI: There is a policy of deterrence that - trying to keep the people outside our borders and operate systematic and very violent pushbacks.

SHERLOCK: Despite these incredible dangers, this journey across the Mediterranean Sea remains for so many the only source of hope.

Hamza Sakr, an unemployed Syrian refugee we contacted in Jordan, says he lost his cousin in this recent tragedy. And another cousin is in Libya, about to take a smuggler's boat.

HAMZA SAKR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Sakr says he would still try to make the journey himself if he had the thousands of dollars needed to pay the smugglers.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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