The boat crash that killed around 60 people, and counting, off the Italian coast of Calabria had Pakistanis on board. As the rescue mission was underway, bits of wood from the crashed boat floated ashore. Many of the approximately 150 people (although some rescue workers mentioned a higher figure) on the boat were women and children.
A newborn was included in the number of dead bodies retrieved from the water. Those alive were seen huddling under blankets on the shore – even more uncertain about their future than they had been when they first embarked on the dangerous journey.
The boat, which sank after it crashed onto the rocks near the tiny Italian town of Crotone, had been following what is known as the Calabrian route, instead of the other routes that bring migrants across the Mediterranean and to islands like the infamous Lampedusa. Those routes are popular with human smugglers. The only problem is that they are now policed very heavily by Italian border guards, making chances of sneaking into Italy undetected increasingly low.
So smugglers and migrants, such as the ones who huddled aboard this ill-fated boat, have now turned to the Calabrian route. According to estimates by humanitarian agencies, the numbers are constantly on the increase, despite the fact that this route is a treacherous one.
The journey begins in Turkey where migrants get on the boat and are hidden below the deck. Usually 100 to 150 people can be packed tightly in the hold.
There they endure days and days of the most horrific conditions, with little water and food and no actual toilet facilities. In fact, reports have cited some migrants as saying that during the voyage they had no option but to “drink seawater mixed with sugar”.
The boats sail around the Greek islands and then finally to the bottom tip of Italy’s Calabrian region and coastal outposts such as Crotone. If they are lucky, they arrive in the middle of the night; this allows the poor, dishevelled and disoriented human cargo to enter Italy undetected.
The less fortunate vessels encounter accidents at sea or are found out – their human cargo is either dead on arrival or detained by the authorities, the dreams of a better life crushed forever. One Afghan migrant fleeing the Taliban’s Afghanistan said the conditions on the boat were the worst he had ever experienced in his entire life.
But all hardship experienced by migrants has not deterred others from trying their luck; there are now many boats plying this route with their human cargo; the carcasses of the wrecked boats are lined up on the beach in coastal Calabrian towns.
It is alarming that Pakistanis have become so despondent about the future of Pakistan that they are willing to try this or any other route to get away from it. It is not a cheap proposition either; smugglers are known to charge as much as $10,000 per adult and $4,500 per child.
Those who make it to foreign shores undetected can look forward to being illegal, frightened and relegated to the hardest and worst jobs that Italy has to offer. Many line the tourist boulevards of Rome and other Italian cities hawking trinkets and souvenirs, with hollowed-out eyes and empty expressions. It truly does not seem like a better life.
A study based on interviews by Pakistanis recently arrived in Italy showed that a majority began their journey in Pakistan and travelled through Iran, Afghanistan, the Balkans and then Greece before arriving in Italy.
More than half said they were fleeing because of violence and conflict, while 36% mentioned lack of freedom and a lack of rights. Thirty-three per cent said they were migrating for economic reasons. Over 70% said it had taken them more than a year to make the journey from Pakistan to Italy, and 88% had enlisted the ‘services’ of a smuggler to reach their destination. A large number believed they had been misled by the smugglers about the nature, duration and hardships they would encounter during the journey.
One of the most troublesome findings of the study was that 75% of the Pakistanis interviewed said that there was nothing at all they could do about the insecurity and lack of freedom and rights that had caused them to leave their country in the first place.
It is a statistic that should give the leaders of Pakistan some pause. Imagine just how desperate a person has to be to sign up with a human smuggler to be pushed illegally through several countries and board a filthy boat prone to crashing. It is a hard and depressing truth that while the rich party on in Pakistan, the poor are so utterly without hope as to take such chances with their lives.
There is no shame in Pakistan; no rich man who has swindled the government, the ordinary people and scores of others ever feels bad about hosting a lavish party while people mere metres away yearn for some stability, some improvement in their condition.
The fact that Pakistanis have joined the ranks of countries like Somalia and Afghanistan in their willingness to take any risk at all to escape their country says a lot about where the country stands today. It is no wonder then that the world looks at our devalued currency, our suffering poor and our decaying morals – and simply shakes its head in pity. To be a Pakistani today means a stubborn lack of shame, fellow feeling and humility; there is a willful ignorance to the suffering of other Pakistanis who are so bereft of hope that they are prepared to take a hellish journey on the off chance that it may lead to a better life in a foreign land.
This article first appeared in Dawn.