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At least 209 migrants died after a fishing vessel crossing the Mediterranean sank

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Many families across Pakistan are still waiting for news about their loved ones. Over 200 people from the country are confirmed dead after a fishing vessel carrying migrants sank last week. The boat was crossing the Mediterranean Sea loaded with over 700 passengers. Betsy Joles reports from Pakistan on how some of the families are coping.

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BETSY JOLES: In Goleki, a village near the Pakistani city of Gujarat, the houses of men missing from the shipwreck are within walking distance from each other. From this village, six men left for Libya, where they planned to travel to Italy by sea.

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JOLES: We visit the home of Makhdoom Sadiq, one of the men who is still missing. Sadiq's wife, Tefa Tabassum, last heard from her husband before the crash. He sent her a voice note from Libya.

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MAKHDOOM SADIQ: (Non-English language spoken).

JOLES: In the barely audible message, Sadiq tells his wife they'd leave any day now. May God make everything OK. Just pray for me, he says. Sadiq worked as a taxi driver. He sold his car and spent his family's savings to afford the trip, which relatives say cost him 2.4 million Pakistani rupees - more than $8,000.

TEFA TABASSUM: (Through interpreter) All of us had warned him against going. We had only heard from people that it was a very difficult journey. Please return my husband. We're still waiting for him.

JOLES: Sadiq's money went to Pakistani agents who coordinate travel for people to enter the EU illegally. Makhdoom's close friend, Ibrahim Khan, says many people use agents to go abroad.

IBRAHIM KHAN: (Through interpreter) Everyone in Pakistan is looking to go outside to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Muscat and other places. If the situation in Pakistan or business was good, nobody would want to leave.

JOLES: Pakistan's economy has been deteriorating for months, and record levels of inflation have made life harder for millions of lower- and middle-class people around the country. In three villages NPR visited in Punjab, families say this frustration of not being able to make a decent living pushed their relatives to attempt the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean. Mian Muhammad Khan is a local politician in Noor Jamal, a village around an hour from Goleki. He says a lack of information and a shortage of legal pathways for migration contributes to this trend.

MIAN MUHAMMAD KHAN: (Through interpreter) After this incident, people still went from our village to Libya. This can only be stopped after instituting better measures.

JOLES: Gujarat and its surroundings are known as a hotspot for human smuggling, and many from the area attempt the trip to Europe. Khan says people are also attracted to the image of life abroad and the wealth and status they believe it brings.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) They convince themselves that if they go there, they'll make more money.

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JOLES: Nearby Goleki, the family of Azmat Khan found out he was alive through a WhatsApp group used to identify missing people. Azmat escaped the boat by swimming, a skill he practiced in the nearby Chenab River. Others are hoping their children survived in the same way. Syed Ali Raza's son Zain completed a police training course and was physically fit, he says. People on the boat with Zain told the family he was wearing a life jacket and trying to make others around him feel safe. Ali Raza describes his son as big-hearted and giving, somebody who puts others first.

SYED ALI RAZA: (Through interpreter) He had a lot of love for people in his heart. And even though we're poor, when people would come, he would give them clothes, shoes and money.

JOLES: Ali Raza now spends his time surrounded by friends and neighbors who come to visit him and offer their support. It's a distraction from the uncertainty he feels not knowing the fate of his son.

ALI RAZA: (Through interpreter) You keep thinking about what must have happened and the tears keep flowing (crying).

JOLES: For now, all he can do is wait, hoping and praying for the best.

For NPR News, I'm Betsy Joles in Punjab, Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Betsy Joles