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Greece boat tragedy exposes Pakistan's migration problem

Haroon Janjua in Khuiratta
June 26, 2023

Pakistani citizens accounted for the largest number of victims in the recent migrant boat disaster. DW spoke with victims' families about why so many are choosing to risk their lives for an uncertain future in Europe.

Men huddled on beds in a warehouse
Officials said around 350 Pakistani migrants were aboard the capsized boat. Here, survivors are seen at a holding station in GreeceImage: Angelos Tzortzinis/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

On the evening of June 14, Muhammad Gulfam was at home in a rural mountain village in northern Pakistan when he received a call from his cousin about a migrant boat that had capsized that day off the coast of Greece.

His younger brother, Aakash Gulzar, had been on board. Jobless, and without many prospects in cash-strapped Pakistan, 21-year-old Gulzar had made up his mind that he would pay smugglers to embark on a monthslong journey across thousands of miles through arduous land and sea routes to Italy.

The journey was not cheap, and Gulzar's family had cobbled together €7,000 ($7,640) to pay a trafficking agent to smuggle him to Europe, where they hoped he would find a better life.

Late one afternoon in March, Gulzar hugged his mother and brothers goodbye and set off.

"We don't want it to be the final goodbye, we want to see him again and we hope he is one of the injured in the hospital," Gulfam told DW.

Naseem Begum, Gulzar's mother, said she had spoken to her son on the phone before he boarded the overloaded vessel.

"My son requested prayers on the phone call and said 'I will call you after reaching my destination,'" Begum told DW.

Pakistan's migration problem

Witness accounts described the vessel carrying Gulzar as a 30-meter (100-foot)-long fishing boat that was crammed with over 700 people. It had departed from Libya and sank 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) off the coast of Pylos, a small Greek coastal town on the Ionian Sea.

Gulzar is still missing and presumed dead. Begum has sent DNA samples to aid in identification of her son's remains, if they are found.

According to Pakistan's Interior Ministry, 350 of those on board were Pakistani citizens. They are among the thousands of people fleeing an economic crisis in the South Asian country that has left many people without hope.

According to data from Frontex, the European Union's border and coast guard agency, a record number of nearly 5,000 Pakistanis were detected on the "central Mediterranean route" into Europe in the first five months of 2023.

"We know that it is a combination of a lack of decent work and a general disillusionment about the future of the country which pushes young Pakistanis to use dangerous and illegal migration as a means to a better life. The victims on that boat must have been aware of the risks they were taking," said Imran Khan, country director for Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a US federal agency.

The victims "could be alive today if there were better employment opportunities, economic security and political stability in Pakistan," he told DW.

In a village near Gulzar's home in northern Pakistan, a local district official, Sardar Mushtaq Ahmad, told DW that 24 young men from the area were reported missing after the boat accident. Relatives have provided DNA samples to aid in the identification of recovered bodies.

Greece migrant boat disaster: A wife left behind in Pakistan

Among the missing is 31-year-old Sajid Yousaf, who was running a crockery shop in the local market but failed to make ends meet. Yousaf's two brothers already settled in Italy, one of them having taken the same route across the Mediterranean.

"We paid €7,100 to the smuggling agent to send Sajid to Italy where two of my sons are already living and earning well," Muhammad Yousaf, Sajid's father, told DW.

Osama Malik, a Pakistani immigration and refugee law expert, told DW that there are multiple push and pull factors that drive people to risk their lives for a chance to reach Europe.

"The rapid depreciation of the already weak Pakistani rupee against foreign currencies over the past 18 months has probably been a huge factor," he said, adding that political and economic uncertainty has led to "desperation" among young Pakistanis.

"Most young men, and now increasingly women, are willing to invest their savings, borrow money and risk their lives just to get out of the country to what they perceive as greener pastures," Malik said.

How do traffickers in Pakistan operate?

Approximately 90% of the Pakistanis who arrived in Italy in recent years have used a human smuggler, according to a 2022 survey by the Mixed Migration Centre, a Europe-based migrant research group.

Smugglers and middlemen work by canvassing poor towns and villages and promising youth a bright future in Europe in exchange for a lump sum of €6,000 to €10,000, which is paid to "bosses" living in European destination countries.

Gulzar and Yousaf's families told DW that they dealt with several local "trafficking agents" and paid a boss living in Italy for the journey.

One of these "agents" told DW under condition of anonymity that the market for smuggling has increased as Pakistan's economy has deteriorated, and foreign currency grows in value against the Pakistani rupee.

 "Those wishing to flee Europe are aware of the hardship, life-threatening risks and dangers but they neglect those risks and opt for the voyages," he said.

An out-of-focus picture of an overloaded boat at sea
The Greek coast guard took this grainy photo of the overloaded fishing boat before it capsizedImage: IOS/picture alliance

Pakistan cracks down on human trafficking

As the number of migrants continues to increase, Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency has been tasked by the government with cracking down on smugglers and agents, particularly in the wake of the tragedy.

"We have arrested 27 human smugglers across the country and 70 cases have been registered against those smugglers," spokesperson Abdul Ghafoor told DW.

Pakistan has signed on to international protocols to prevent human trafficking, and in 2018, passed the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, but this has failed to put a dent in international human trafficking organizations.

"While legislation has improved over the years, its implementation is abysmal and needs to be improved if Pakistan is to counter the trafficking of citizens," said immigration expert Malik.

He said the few prosecutions have only netted small middlemen, while allegedly complicit government officials and trafficking bosses are left untouched.

"It is the foot soldiers of the human trafficking mafia who are occasionally arrested, but convictions are rare even in these cases. The human trafficking cartels are known to have very strong links with certain influential political families in central Punjab, and also have links with the military and bureaucracy," he said. 

"The main solution to this problem is for Pakistan to improve its governance, adherence to rule of law and lift the economy so that young people do not feel the need to take such risks to escape," he added.

Refugee tragedy: 'We hope the tragedy will spur some action'

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon