Debate reignites in Pakistan following Pylos boat tragedy

Pakistani flag

The July 14 migrant shipwreck off the Greek coast has once again instigated debates in Pakistan over the government’s ability to take action on human smugglers, as the number of people fleeing the country is rising rapidly, Nikkei Asia reported.

Almost 750 migrants were aboard the overcrowded fishing trawler which sunk in the Mediterranean Sea last week after setting off from Libya. Out of them, only 104 have been found yet.

According to the reports, a dozen of Pakistanis were rescued but possibly, there may have been 400 aboard the vessel, as well as, other Italy-bound migrants from Syria and Egypt.

Following the dreadful tragedy, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif declared a national day of mourning and vowed to punish human traffickers.

Crisis-hit Pakistan has a population of 240 million and an average salary of USD 1,500 a year. Moreover, its inflation has reached 33 percent, which is the highest in decades, with the rupee depreciating rapidly and a sovereign default looming, as per Nikkei Asia.

In 2022, over 800,000 Pakistanis officially left the country in search of work, which marks the biggest outflow in the past five years. Some desperate residents turn to illegal smugglers to move them to Australia, Europe and other top destinations, despite the risks, according to Nikkei Asia.

Adding to that, more than 20,000 people have died or gone missing who were trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“The dearth of economic opportunities available in the country compels more and more people to take their chances on such routes without being aware of the risk,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said this week.

“The fact that there were possibly avoidable deaths, and [the accident] involved victims of human trafficking, should serve as a stark reminder to the state that it has failed to stem a long-standing and grievous human rights violation,” it added.

The rights watchdog warned that a “serious lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies continues to allow traffickers to operate with impunity.”

In a year, about 40000 Pakistanis leave the country through unofficial channels.

According to a Mixed Migration Centre, a Europe-based research group, about 40,000 Pakistanis a year leave the country through unofficial channels. Up to 90% of Pakistani migrants who reached Italy relied on smugglers and other illegal means, reported Nikkei Asia.

Some 34,000 were deported back to Pakistan last year from Europe, but that has not stopped the smugglers, who advertise widely on social media. They are known by their slang name “dunkers,” and can be found on Facebook offering to transport migrants overland from Pakistan to Turkey for between 200,000 and 400,000 rupees each.

The suspected smugglers are expected to face manslaughter charges in Greece, while Pakistan said it has arrested a dozen suspects since the sinking.

Following the tragedy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC) has called for countries to stop human trafficking. But, the smuggling problem in Pakistan is caused by more than economic distress and weak law enforcement.

According to a former immigration official, another key issue is that corrupt officials are willing to look the other way in exchange for bribes. He said that his efforts to crack down on smuggling rackets got him quickly transferred, as per Nikkei Asia.

Jamal, an immigration lawyer said that the government should step up its monitoring of travel consultants and how passports are issued in districts hit hardest by the migrant exodus. He also added that Islamabad must reach out for technical assistance.

“Developed countries will provide all possible help to Pakistan for preventing illegal migration because it’s in their national interest,” he added. 

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