Pakistani migrants leave Europe after shipwreck in Mediterranean

After spending weeks in Libya trying to enter Europe illegally, Muhammad Naeem Butt chose to return to his home in Pakistan, abandoning the journey that has claimed the lives of hundreds of his compatriots this summer.

Busy loading sand into a truck, a 39-year-old worker says his perilous search for a better life abroad has ended after a dilapidated and overloaded trawler sank off the coast of Greece in June.

More than 350 Pakistanis could be among the hundreds who lost their lives in the sinking, one of the deadliest in the Mediterranean in a decade. 24 of them were from Khuiratta, Muhammad’s hometown located in Pakistani Kashmir.

“Looking back, I realize I took a risk that wasn’t worth it,” he told AFP. “Family and children are what matters in life, not money.”

Several other residents of Khuiratta also told AFP that they had returned after drowning.

In Pakistan, which has been battling a year of severe economic crisis, families must raise large sums of money to pay traffickers who will send the youth to Europe, from where they will send the money to their relatives.

Muhammad enlisted the help of friends and relatives, with his wife selling her wedding jewelry to help collect the 2.2 million rupees (6,900 euros) claimed by the smugglers.

His journey began with commercial flights to Dubai and then to Egypt. From there, he traveled by land to Libya, where his ordeal really began.

General view of the city of Khuiratta, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (AFP – Aamir Qureshi)

He spent two months in a camp made of makeshift barracks with about 600 other migrants, waiting to know when he could cross the Mediterranean.

They found themselves on a dilapidated fishing boat drifting in international waters eight days before, he said, a Libyan warship fired at them and then rammed the boat.

The ship abandoned them when a storm hit, and then returned a few days later to pick them up. Once ashore, the emigrants were jailed.

– Suffering of families –

Muhammad recalled, “They gave us enough food to survive… a plate of macaroni or boiled rice shared by five people.” “These people were cruel.”

While he was in prison, news of the Greek sinking reached Khuiratta, leaving the people shocked.

“I cannot express the pain and suffering I experienced for a week,” his 31-year-old wife, Mehwish Matloub, told AFP.

Muhammad Naeem Butt and his children at their home in Khuiratta, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (AFP - Amir Qureshi)
Muhammad Naeem Butt and his children at their home in Khuiratta, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (AFP – Amir Qureshi)

“I felt like my entire universe had shattered under my feet,” she recalls shaking hands with the shawl.

Eventually, Muhammad was released and managed to contact his family and tell them that he was alive.

His mother, 76-year-old Razia Latif, swears: Her family will never take such a risk again.

“We thought others were coming to Europe, so why not send it?” she comments. “If we had known it was going to be so difficult, we would have preferred to beg.”

The Mediterranean Sea crossing has been described by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the most dangerous migration route in the world.

At least 1,728 migrants have already gone missing this year, after 1,417 in the whole of 2022.

But families who smuggle their young men to Europe can prosper financially from the money sent back.

Zafar Iqbal Ghazi, a member of the Kashmir Human Rights Forum, believes that the difference in income between families who have relatives in Europe or not is obvious and it breeds jealousy.

– A temporary break –

He says, “If one has a one-storey house, next door you will find a three-storey house, then big havelis and so on.”

And the promise of new wealth overseas attracts even those who are fairly affluent by local standards.

Hamza Bhatti, 29, earned 200,000 rupees (630 euros) a month as a driver in Saudi Arabia, enough money to provide a comfortable life for his wife and their eight-month-old son. But he still wanted to try his luck in Europe.

He said, “I thought life in Europe would be more vibrant and exciting than what I experienced in Saudi Arabia.”

Muhammad Naeem Butt loads sand onto a truck in Khuiratta, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (AFP - Amir Qureshi)
Muhammad Naeem Butt loads sand onto a truck in Khuiratta, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (AFP – Amir Qureshi)

He was also imprisoned after Libyan authorities brought his boat back to port. He was with Muhammad when the news of sinking in Greece came.

He says, “It was my greed that brought me very close to death.”

According to Mr. Ghazi, last year more than 175 youths left Khuiratta to try to reach Europe. He believes the recent hiatus will only be temporary.

Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has announced that it has arrested 69 smugglers since the crash in Greece, but convictions will be difficult.

“The problem is that most of these youths had valid visas for Dubai, which they use as a starting point to reach Libya,” an FIA official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

His guess is, “This is not a new phenomenon and it will not stop with the boat accident in Greece.”

Muhammad will never attempt this journey again, assures his wife Mehwish. “As long as he is with me, I am happy even in poverty.”

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