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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Senior Research Fellow, Deakin University


Pakistan is experiencing a confluence of crises attributed to a decline in governance standards. Security challenges, chiefly posed by terrorism, have exacerbated the country’s economic deterioration, which in turn has given rise to energy shortages, rampant unemployment and soaring inflation rates.

As the nation’s economic predicament worsens, unscrupulous human traffickers are capitalising on the vulnerabilities of thousands of aspiring migrants who hope for better prospects in Europe. It is in this context that the overloaded ship sank into the waters off Greece.

The BBC has claimed Greek authorities failed to save the migrants vessel, which was not moving for at least seven hours before it capsized.

Initial estimates suggest that about 80 people died. It is too early to suggest how many of those were Pakistanis, but Pakistani authorities are fearing the worse. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif declared June 19 a national mourning day.

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Economic meltdown driving Pakistanis towards the deadly journey

As authorities move to act against human traffickers, there is a need to look at push factors behind this exploitation of economic migrants from Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy faces serious challenges. Its GDP growth rate is expected to drop to 0.5% in 2023, compared to 6% in 2022. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund has estimated the inflation rate might rise to 27% during 2023. The unemployment rate has also increased from 6.6% in 2020 to 7% in April 2023.

These economic hardships have led to some unprecedented scenes. Free food distribution points in major cities, organised by charities, are inundated. Such is the desperation that several people died earlier this year while fighting to receive free food.

Migrants often walk miles for days and night and pass through tough terrain to reach their destinations.

The Pakistani government has asked for economic help from the IMF and its close friends like China and the Gulf states. But it does not have enough resources to meet the needs of its growing population.

The traditional lenders like the IMF are also very careful dealing with Pakistan where the endemic corruption of the elite has been a contributing factor to the economic crisis. While the IMF is cautious to provide further loans to Pakistan, it has imposed austerity measures and increasing general sales tax on goods and serviceslike reducing government spending.

Under such circumstances and with limited employment opportunities, millions of Pakistanis have been migrating from the country on a regular basis. Common destinations include the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Most of Pakistani migrant workforce 98 percent is in the Gulf region, from where Pakistan receives most of its remittances that support the economy.

This trend has grown sharply in recent years due to Pakistan’s economic meltdown. Because of strict rules and lengthy procedures associated with legal migration, many are opting for illegal migration instead.

People offer their support to Raja Yousaf, right, whose son Raja Sajid is missing after a shipwreck off the Greek coast, in Bindian village in Kotli, a district of Pakistan’s administrator Kashmir.
Nasir Mehmood/AP

Rackets of human traffickers mushrooming

The desperate situation has led to the mushroom growth of people smugglers in Pakistan. In exchange for a large amount of money, they offer people transportation, fake documentation and other resources for a swift departure from the country.

Once on board the dangerous journey, the migrants can fall under the full control of the human smugglers, who can subject them to all sorts of exploitation. In the tragic boat accident in the Mediterranean, the women and children were forced below the deck to make space for more and more migrants on the old and rusty fishing boat.

The Mediterranean Sea has been a major route for migrants attempting to reach Europe from various countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. But due to overcrowded and unworthy vessels, inadequate safety measures, and harsh weather conditions, many of these endeavours end tragically, with sinking boats and loss of life. According to the International Organization of Migration, 174 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2022 alone.

picture of protesters holding anti human trafficking slogans
Greece has declared three days of mourning for the shipwreck that killed at least 78 people.
Petros Giannakouris/ AP

Efforts have been made by international organisations and governments to address these issues. They include enhancing border controls and surveillance, implementing rescue operations, providing humanitarian aid, improving legal pathways for migration and addressing the root causes of migration. However, this might not be enough without addressing the underlying reasons millions are forced to leave their homelands.

While conflicts remain a major push factor, the grim economic situation in many countries continue to be another spur for people to leave their homelands.

Considering the latest boat tragedy, the government of Pakistan has demonstrated a reactive response only towards the issue of people smuggling.

However, it is imperative for the government to adopt a more proactive approach by formulating and implementing a comprehensive strategy that effectively addresses this complex problem.

Primarily, the government can prioritise the development of ample job opportunities at home. This can be achieved through enhanced investments in local industries and small scale enterprises, fostering economic growth and curtailing the allure of desperate measures to seek a life elsewhere.

Read more:
Is terrorism returning to Pakistan?

The Conversation

Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a chief investigator in a research project called ‘Religious populism, emotions and political mobilisation’, funded by the Australian Research Council (DP220100829).

ref. Deadly tragedy off the coast of Greece exposes how human traffickers are exploiting Pakistan’s economic meltdown –