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‘Desperation’: Why Pakistanis Are Leaving, Losing Their Lives at Sea

Islamabad, Pakistan – Two members of Abid Kashmiri’s family were on board the refugee boat that sank off the coast of Greece last week.

A cousin, Imran Nazir, and a nephew, Abdul Islam, traveled to Libya from Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s Kotli district in March after obtaining valid visas for the war-torn country.

But Syria was not to be the pair’s last stop, Kashmiri said, adding that her family knew their true destination: Europe.

“There are many people from our village who managed to migrate to European countries where they have now settled, allowing their families to live well here in Pakistan,” Kashmiri, an electrician, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

Family members paid 2.2 million Pakistani rupees ($7,655) for each of the travelers to “agents” who provide documentation for people seeking financial opportunities abroad, he said.

“Both Nazir and Islam were single and they also wanted to find a way to Europe,” he added.

They are now considered among the missing from the Greek boat tragedy.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said there were believed to be between 400 and 750 people aboard the ship that sank about 47 nautical miles (87 km) into the Ionian Sea on June 14. away from the Greek city of Pylos.

So far, only 104 people have been found alive. None of the women or children aboard the ship were found.

‘He was a good boy and a good student’

According to data compiled by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), at least 124 Pakistanis have been identified on board the ship that sank off the coast of Greece. Only 12 Pakistanis are reported to have survived the sinking.

The tragedy in Greece is the third major recorded incident after February in which migrants and refugees from Pakistan lost their lives at sea.

In February, more than 20 people from Pakistan were among the 60 people who died in a boat accident near the southern Italian region of Calabria. Two months later, Pakistanis were among 57 bodies washed ashore in Libya after two boats carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean.

Anis Majeed, a 24-year-old law student from Kotli district, said Awais Asif, a cousin of the ship that sank last week, was among those among them.

“My cousin left the country five months ago and when he was leaving, hundreds of people came to say goodbye to him,” Majid told Al Jazeera.

According to Majeed, 21-year-old Asif undertook the dangerous journey due to his family’s poor financial condition and his father’s poor health.

“He was a good boy and a good student. But he decided to take this journey for greener pastures and a better financial future for himself and his family,” Majeed said.

“There are so many people in our area who have been able to change their lives by traveling to Europe, my cousin thought he could do the same.”

Survivors of the shipwreck rest in a warehouse in the port city of Kalamata
Survivors of a shipwreck rest in a warehouse in the port city of Kalamata, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Athens, on June 14, 2023. [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP Photo]

‘crime of consent’

Rana Abdul Jabbar, a senior FIA official, said that 90 percent of the people who were on board the boat had traveled legally to Libya in the first place.

“According to our records, a large majority of these people got either a work permit or a visa to travel to Libya, and they flew there from Karachi via Dubai, for which they paid agents who facilitated their paperwork,” he added. Authorities have arrested 26 suspected human traffickers involved in human trafficking on board the sunken ship.

In 2022, FIA prevents 19,000 people from leaving Pakistan by land or air routes, Jabbar said, adding that 10,000 people have been prevented from leaving the country so far this year.

“Many of those trying to leave the country from the airport were not satisfied [authorities as to] Why were they leaving,” he said, adding that in 2022, more than 34,000 people were deported from Pakistan for staying illegally in various European countries.

Jabbar said economic migration has been witnessed in particular “catchment areas” in Pakistan, where people have a history of moving to and settling in Europe.

Previously, he said, most Pakistanis tried to reach Europe by land, which involved transit through Iran, Turkey and Greece.

“As many of these countries, including Pakistan, have deployed strict border control policies, migrants have now switched to taking [the] By sea, where they try to reach Libya and then by boat,” Jabbar said.

A disadvantage of trying to deter people from such dangerous journeys is that it is a “crime of consent”, he said.

“Smugglers have deployed this new technique where they obtain valid documentation for those wishing to travel,” he explained. “How do you stop someone who has a valid passport and visa? It then becomes a legal issue to stop someone’s right to movement.”


Kashmiri, who lost his cousin and nephew, said that although the tragedy saddened him, he still understood why his family members risked their lives trying to cross to Europe.

“It’s the desperation of this place that makes them leave,” the 34-year-old said.

Pakistan plunged into economic recession.

The country has foreign reserves of just over $4 billion, just enough to cover a month’s worth of imports. The national currency – the Pakistani rupee – has also depreciated by more than 50 percent against the US dollar in the past year alone, and inflation has reached historic highs of around 38 percent.

“When a person decides to take this step, despite knowing all the risks involved, imagine for yourself what motivates him to take this dangerous journey,” Kashmiri said.

“You must be incredibly brave to think of doing that.”

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