Drowning in hope

Two separate boats capsizing near the coast of Italy resulting in around 51 people having to be rescued and at least 11 deaths

By Editorial Board
June 20, 2024
This handout photo from the Italian Coast Guard shows a sailboat off the coast of Calabria, Italy. — AFP/File

Over 23,500 migrants have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014. The latest addition to this gruesome total came while the country was celebrating Eidul Azha, with two separate boats capsizing near the coast of Italy resulting in around 51 people having to be rescued and at least 11 deaths. Pakistanis were among the migrants on the ill-fated boats. It is not yet known where the Pakistanis on these boats came from or how they got on them. What is no longer in doubt is that people from the country have now joined the tide of undocumented migrants risking death to escape the global south and reach the more prosperous shores of the West. Mostly, they are those who lack the cash and the credentials to cross the invisible lines of red tape that divide our world. They are the migrants whose lives either matter less or do not matter at all.

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This latest drowning harks back to a similar tragedy from last year. On June 14 last year, almost a year to the day, over 600 lives were lost after an overcrowded fishing boat carrying undocumented migrants capsized off the coast of Greece. Over 200 Pakistanis are thought to have perished in the tragedy. The incident marked one of the deadliest years in the Mediterranean Sea with deaths in one of the most dangerous routes for migrant smuggling reaching a six-year high. Almost 30,000 have gone missing or lost their lives in these waters since 2014. While many of the migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea are displaced or refugees, others are simply trying to find a better life for themselves and support their families back home. This was likely the motivation of most if not all of the Pakistani migrants on the ill-fated boat. Some reportedly hailed from small towns like Kotli in Azad Kashmir, where their families scraped together what little money they had to send their sons towards opportunities and a quality of life that their own country has failed to provide. As such, there is no shortage of people willing to do whatever it takes to get out of the country. Sadly, there are also all too many willing to exploit the desperation of ordinary, well-meaning people to earn a quick buck. In the aftermath of the Greek boat tragedy, the families of the dead or missing claimed that individuals posing as travel agents had charged them up to Rs2.3 million to take their family members to Europe. In some cases, it seemed that those who paid thought their sons would be taken via legal means. This was obviously not the case.

Aside from the illegality of this enterprise, migrant or human smugglers are notorious for keeping their victims in squalid and dangerous conditions, using unsafe transport methods and sometimes engaging in sexual trafficking of women migrants. Migrants smuggled in this manner lack the protections afforded to those with the means to cross borders legally, making them a target for violence and abuse in the countries that they are travelling through. However, this is not a problem for which one country can be blamed. This is about a highly unequal global migration system that treats the poorer migrants and refugees from the Global South as though their lives do not matter. If anything, the countries most to blame are the ones people are dying to get to. The current conditions in Libya emerged after years of civil war, triggered by West-backed regime change that paved the way for widespread lawlessness. And with the West only getting more and more eager to keep most migrants from the developing world out, these sorts of illicit and dangerous crossings are here to stay. However, none of this lets the leaders and policymakers in Pakistan and other countries people are dying to get away from off the hook. If people are putting their lives on the line to get out of Pakistan over seven decades after Independence to, in some cases, go live in the country from which we won our independence, one must ask what the point of it all was. The country’s inability to give its people a better life is rendering the sacrifices of the past pointless. Protecting Pakistanis from the clutches of predatory human smugglers will require major changes in how the state does business and how well it is able to deliver if the problem is to be solved on a permanent basis.

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