A recent fatal illegal migrant shipwreck off the Greek coastline is reigniting heated debate in local and international media about Pakistan’s inability to crack down on human smugglers, as a substantially large number of people run away from the country on a regular basis.
More than 300 Pakistan nationals are feared to have been drowned. As many as 750 Italy bound migrants from Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and other countries may have been aboard the overcrowded fishing vessel capsized and sank in the Mediterranean Sea after setting off from Libya.
Around 104 survivors have been found alive including 12 Pakistani nationals. In the wake of this human tragedy, Pakistan observed a day of mourning on 20 June and the Interior Ministry of Pakistan said special legislation would be passed to prosecute those involved in human smuggling as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA ) started crack down on traffickers across the country. The suspected smugglers will face criminal proceedings against them.
Statistics made public by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment reveal that more than 800,000 Pakistanis went abroad to seek better economic prospects last year, the biggest flow of workers in the skilled and unskilled categories in the past five years. The actual figure is higher as it does not include illegal migration, family resettlement, and residency visas. Some desperate people despite the high risks turn to illegal smugglers to send them to the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and other destinations.
About 40,000 Pakistani nationals leave the country through unofficial channels every year. Up to 95% of Pakistani migrants who reached European countries relied on illegal means.
According to unconfirmed reports over 40,000 were deported back to Pakistan last year from Gulf countries and Europe but that has not stopped the smugglers, who advertise widely on media and personal contacts. The smugglers can be found on social media offering to transport migrants overland from Pakistan to Turkey on payment of Rs 200,000 and 400,000 each. According to some unconfirmed estimates around 20,000 people have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014.
Push and Pull factor:
Punjab’s Gujranwala Division borders and neighboring Gujrat has been identified as the major hotspot of outward illegal human smuggling including districts of Jhelum, Sialkot, and Mandi Bahauddin. The push factors for illegal migration to Europe and elsewhere are not confined to poverty and lack of education alone. There are multiple factors. Many young Pakistanis are influenced to take the illegal route due to the cultural pressure to be successful in life and improve their family’s fortunes. In the1960s, Pakistan’s second largest hydroelectric dam Mangla in the Jhelum district started construction displacing over 100,000 people, most of whom became a diaspora community later in the UK. The British government needed more workers at that time and decided to give them permits so they could go there to work.
The initial wave of immigration in the 1960s was followed by a bandwagon of immigrants especially from the province of Punjab. The catchment area began to develop as immigration until the 1980s-90s was easy. The pull factor for immigrants increased when settled immigrants processed legal immigration for their relatives in the host countries. This changed after the 9/11 incidents. The scrutiny and procedures became stringent. However, to work and settling abroad effect had not lost its appeal and immigration continued but now through illegal means. This created a demand for human smugglers. Like any other market, human smuggling entails a demand and supply-relationship. Responding to an increase in demand for illegal immigration, human smugglers set up offices in the catchment area to begin the process of recruitment, building networks, and starting their criminal enterprise.
Political instability, economic crisis and the promise of a better life abroad compel Pakistanis to risk everything for green pasture. Human smugglers ply different routes to reach Europe, depending on how much they are paid. The human smugglers use all three routes of transportation, i.e. land, water, and air. Those who pay high amounts are flown to North Africa legally via different routes and from there transported to Europe on ships.
Pakistanis who can’t afford the flight to North Africa are often transported by a dangerous land route to Greece, via Iran and Turkey.
Pakistan’s outward route primarily runs through the Balochistan province. The 905km long border with Iran offers multiple crossing points which are smugglers’ gateways into Iran on valid visas and onwards. The sea route originates from the ports of Pasni, Jiwani, Gwadar, etc. Human ‘cargo’ is put on boats which take these migrants through the Gulf of Oman and they reach Iran. The journey continues from there onwards to Turkey and overland to Europe. The air route is used by illegal immigrants with better means or resources. One such route runs from Pakistan to Libya via Dubai on valid visas. Libya is the staging post. Human smugglers take the group in sea-faring boats and leave them on smaller boats (often a rubber dinghy), in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The secondary boats or ships are left at the mercy of currents and winds or the chance of Italian Coast Guards’ interception. The most tragic accidents of drowning have occurred along this route.
Curbing human smuggling falls in the sphere of FIA. As an organized crime, international human smuggling develops nexuses with other criminal enterprises and networks, such as the forgery of documents. There is also a lack of investigative competence at the field office level.
A serious lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies continues to allow human smugglers/traffickers to operate with impunity.
The human smuggling problem in Pakistan is driven by economic woes and weak law enforcement. The country of over 240 million people, where the average salary is just Rs 35,000 per month is under the worst economic crisis in its history with the rupee depreciating rapidly and a sovereign default looming. What remains most worrisome is that among those who want to leave the country are youngsters who seem to have lost hope in the country. Many think the problem is irreversible in the near future. Pakistan’s policy has been to freely allow outward migration for employment. It has been buttressing the country’s poor economy, after all with annual substantial foreign remittances of around US$ 25 billion. But this is not a concrete policy and reflects a short vision on the part of the leadership.
But what remains a fact is that more and more people are convinced that people should work overseas and migrate to other countries. Robust policy discussions should thus be generated on how and why this is happening.
The state’s efforts ought to be aimed at meeting the expectations and needs of its people. A holistic approach needs to be taken.
What is happening right next door in Afghanistan is a perfect example. What the state needs to do is pursue a sound policy: Set its faltering house in the order wherein domestic economic growth and societal liberalization are fostered while young people are cajoled into staying with employment opportunities and turning Pakistan’s politics, society, and economy around.
The author has been a Foreign Service Officer with a diplomatic career of around 30 years, During which he held several important positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad, and Pakistan Missions abroad.
Ambassador Haider joined the Foreign Services of Pakistan in 1992 and his postings abroad include that of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Seoul (RoK), Pyongyang (DPRK), Jakarta (Indonesia), and Athens (Hellenic Republic).
His last assignment abroad was in the State of Kuwait as Ambassador from 2019 to 2022 while in the Ministry he served last as an Additional Secretary. Earlier, he worked in various Divisions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dealing with bilateral and multilateral affairs as Director General, Director, Deputy, and Assistant Director. He tweets @SajjadDiplomat