A five-year-old boy and a newborn girl were among 12 Pakistanis who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the western Libyan town of Zuwara on the night of Jan 31, 2018. They were aboard a boat carrying more than 90 aspiring migrants, including 33 Pakistanis, who had dared to cross into Europe through the oft-treaded migrant routes illegally — in search of a better life and dreams.
One wonders if the family of these two little children had known that often such journeys do not lead to the desired destination. Did this family, hailing from the Gujranwala division in Punjab, know that such journeys are full of hardships and often end in death? Knowing the dangers involved, would it still have embarked on it?
Libya is the main gateway used by 119,369 migrants to enter Europe every year. According to the United Nations, more than 6,624 migrants used this corridor to reach Europe in January 2018. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) points out that Pakistanis constituted the 13th largest group attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe last year, with 3,138 of them arriving in Italy in 2017.
Two months ago, some 24 bullet-ridden bodies of migrants who aspired to cross the Iranian border to reach Europe were found in Turbat, Balochistan. They were mostly from the Gujranwala division in Punjab.
The Supreme Court (SC) has taken up the matter of human trafficking and illegal migrants after bodies were found on the route to Iran.
Gujranwala has a long history of people venturing out in search of greener pastures. The process started in the 1960s, after the government helped displaced families of Mirpur in Azad Kashmir to settle in the UK to compensate for the displacement caused by the construction of Mangla Dam.
Iran is the most popular route. The illegal immigrants cross the Pak-Iran border through agents to enter into Iran from where they proceed to Turkey, then Greece and eventually Europe. According to one senior official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Islamabad, who asked not to be named, “The FIA has apprehended 7,381 persons involved in human trafficking during the past two years and has registered 7,430 cases of crime against them, as part of a countrywide campaign”.
He says the FIA has arrested 4,233 alleged human traffickers in 2016 and 3,148 in 2017.
In a report presented before the SC after the Turbat tragedy, the FIA had stated that nearly 7,000 Pakistanis illegally entered the European Union (EU) in 2017 through this route. The FIA also stated that most of the illegal migrants hail from various districts of Gujranwala.
FIA also informed the court that as many as 80,040 Pakistani have been deported from Iran, 10,476 have been expelled from Turkey and more than 20,000 have been exiled from the EU in the last four years. Iran deports 20,000 to 25,000 illegal Pakistani immigrants every year through its immigration office near the border with Balochistan.
A few days back, the Pakistani mission, after dispatching at least 20 dead bodies of Pakistani immigrants in December 2017 alone in Greece, urged the authorities in Islamabad to take effective measures to stop human trafficking. The mission, in its reported letter to the Pakistan Foreign Office, stated that many of the smuggled/illegal immigrants, mostly teenagers and middle-aged women, have become sex workers — as they are unable to move to mainland Europe. The mission, further highlighting the matter, states that due to the depressed economy of Greece most of the illegal migrants do not find jobs and are ultimately trapped by criminals, while many of them perish on the way.
According to FIA, the number of illegal migrants is also increasing in United Kingdom through study visa.
“Italy accounts for approximately 64 per cent of the total human traffic, with the remainder split between Spain (19 per cent) and Greece (16 per cent),” says Joel A. Millman, IOM press officer.
According to the UN, the number of migrants and refugees travelling from Pakistan along the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes for asylum and jobs in Eastern Europe has increased since 2016, and majority of such people are from Punjab, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT).
Dr Usman Anwar, Director FIA (Punjab), says that not all these people dreaming to reach Europe are illegal migrants. “Most of Pakistanis on this capsized boat had a valid visa to Libya, from where they were trying to reach Europe illegally.”
He adds, “Only FIA cannot stop it with very light punishment for such agents given in the law,” urging to enhance punishments, create awareness and provide opportunities to people in our own country to stop this trend.
Currently, there is only a three-month imprisonment and nominal fine prescribed in the law for human trafficking. A summary to tighten the law and increase fine and sentence period from FIA is pending for deliberations with the Interior Ministry for the past several months. “The punishment for this crime must be enhanced” says FIA official.