Monday May 27, 2024

Dying in the Mediterranean

By Dr Murad Ali
June 24, 2023

The recent tragedy of the migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea is a grim reminder of the prevailing hopelessness in the countries of origin of these settlers.

Reportedly, there were about 750 people on board, out of which there were more than 200 Pakistanis, mostly from relatively well-off towns of Punjab, Kashmir and other parts of the country. Thus far, only 104 people have been rescued, including 12 Pakistanis. There are slim chances of the survival of those missing.

I had written on this issue in this paper on November 27, 2017 when a group of young immigrants on their way to Iran was allegedly targeted by Baloch separatists. I must reproduce it here.

“The cold-blooded massacre of 20 young men in Balochistan’s Turbat district is an unforgettable tragedy for their families. One must put oneself in their shoes to feel the pain that the parents must have felt when they received the bullet-riddled bodies of their beloved sons. This is not the first time that families in Pakistan have had to receive the coffins of their loved ones targeted by border patrol in Iran, Turkey and other countries, or by kidnappers in

some European countries. Every year, thousands of illegal settlers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and many African countries try to cross into Europe’s greener pastures in the hope of starting new and more prosperous lives. The reality – they find – is different and much harsher, to say the least”.

Years after years, the practice has continued unabated, largely in alliance with corrupt officials in Pakistan and in several countries in this chain. It is strange that passengers flying from Pakistan to Libya or any other country are not properly checked whether they have a work permit and proper residence in the destination country or a return ticket to Pakistan in case they are visiting Libya or any other country for a short visit.

For example, upon my arrival to Germany last week for a short research visit, the immigration official asked me to show not only my return ticket and confirmation of accommodation but also to show to him whether I had sufficient cash as well as credit card. This was despite the fact that my institute in Germany had done all the arrangements for me and that I had entered Germany or Europe about a dozen times before.

I was a bit astonished as I had never been asked to show these documents in the past and I am not sure if it was the impact of the recent boat tragedy that had sensitized or alerted the immigration official about travelers of Pakistani origin with Pakistani passports. The question that comes to my mind is: why can’t relevant officials at Pakistani airports not ensure whether travelers have genuine and complete documents for their destinations.

However, this is just one aspect of the story as there are thousands of immigrants who do not use official channels for their journey. Most of them, through their agents, take illegal routes to Iran, Turkey and then Greece or Italy. One such immigrant from the Landi Kotal area of Khyber District of former Fata, who has now settled in Bonn, narrated his ordeals of traveling from his hometown to Karachi via bus and then to Balochistan.

He told me that from Karachi to Balochistan, the group was joined by people of multiple ethnicities, and it became a truly representative group of Pakistanis. In Iran, they were joined by young boys from Afghanistan and in Turkey, it became a multinational and multiethnic group having people from Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt and citizens from other African countries. Hence, it is a well-organized international network of smugglers, agents and officials spread over a number of countries where everyone has a piece in the pie. And unfortunately, there are no

indications of a reversal of this trend, despite frequent disasters in recent years. As per

the statistics provided by the European Union commissioner for home affairs, the Mediterranean has witnessed a 600 per cent increase in the number of boats carrying illegal immigrants.

In all this horrible business, human traffickers play with the lives of people from South Asia, and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as thousands of migrants are sold the dream of getting settled in Europe once they touch the shores. Scores of boats sink because they are usually of very low quality or are filled to overcapacity; as a result, thousands die every year trying to better their lot in life.

In 2022 alone, it was estimated that 2,062 migrants died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes, the exact number of deaths recorded in the Mediterranean Sea cannot be ascertained. It is estimated that between 2014 and 2018, for instance, about 12,000 people who drowned were never found. It is the same situation with the victims of the recent boat tragedy, where hundreds are still missing. How painful it must be for their families who have been waiting at least to receive the dead bodies of their loved ones.

Several factors are responsible for south-north migration: conflict, unemployment, social unrest, terror, religious oppression and lack of economic opportunities. For example, youth unemployment stands at around 50 per cent in many African countries. With an average age of 18 years and a population set to double by 2050, the continent needs roughly 20 million new jobs each year for its young population, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Conflict, lack of good governance and political uncertainty result in a hostile business climate. It is similar or even worse a situation in Pakistan as there are no signs of improvement in economic, political and governance situation.

Pakistan’s current socio-economic stagnation is a source of frustration for its over 230 million people, of which over 65 million are young. Hence, to escape the prevailing despondency and to realize their dreams, young people risk their lives.

However, most people are not aware of the challenges awaiting them in Europe. Due to the Ukraine war and other issues, inflation is high and so is unemployment in several European countries, particularly in Greece and Italy. Life is not a bed of roses, particularly if one is unskilled in these parts of the world. And learning a new language and adopting to a new environment has its own challenges. But the sense of utter frustration and hopelessness in their home countries compel people to either die on a daily basis in such a situation or end up taking an uncertain and perilous route to reach their dreamland.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the

University of Malakand.

He can be reached at: