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

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 say how many of those were Pakistanis, but Pakistani authorities are fearing the worst. 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 the 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% in 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 on end 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 elites has been a contributing factor to the economic crisis. With the IMF cautious to provide further loans to Pakistan, the government has imposed austerity measures and increased the general sales tax on goods and services.

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 the Pakistani migrant workforce is in the Gulf region – this is where Pakistan receives most of the 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.

Mourners console Raja Yousaf, right, whose son Raja Sajid is missing in the shipwreck off the Greek coast.
Nasir Mehmood/AP

Rackets of human traffickers mushrooming

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

Once they are on the dangerous journey, migrants can fall under the full control of the human smugglers, who subject them to all sorts of exploitation. In the tragic boat accident in the Mediterranean, the women and children were forced below deck to make space for 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 untrustworthy vessels, inadequate safety measures and harsh weather conditions, many of these endeavours end tragically, with sinking boats and loss of life.

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 continues to be another spur for people to leave their homelands.

With the latest boat tragedy, the government of Pakistan has only acted so far to crack down on 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.

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