QUIRATA, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, June 23 (Reuters) – Hamid Iqbal’s grandmother worked in Saudi Arabia for two decades, but after returning to Pakistan three years ago, she became disillusioned.
The economy was hit by the epidemic and his restaurant business closed. With job opportunities drying up and inflation rising, the 47-year-old collected $7,600 from a smuggler and smuggled her to Europe, where she hopes to rebuild the life she once had. Patty, 53, told Reuters.
„He told me he would start over for his children’s future and the life he wanted for them,” said the elderly grandmother at the family home in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
A boat carrying the young grandmother and hundreds of others capsized off Greece last week, leaving Libya, in one of the worst migrant disasters in recent years. He is missing and presumed dead, according to his brother, highlighting the dangers faced by people trying to enter Europe illegally.
Pakistanis have been increasing these trips in recent months because of the country’s economic crisis, according to a dozen migrants and their relatives, experts and data reviewed by Reuters.
Cash-strapped Pakistan’s $350 billion economy is in decline, with inflation at a record 38%. With a rapidly depreciating currency and external deficit, the government took drastic measures to avoid debt defaults in the past year.
But it has had a huge impact on growth and employment opportunities. Pakistan’s economic engine, manufacturing, temporarily shrank by almost 3% in the current fiscal year – adding more than 2 million new workers to the labor force annually for a nation of 230 million.
Official unemployment data has not been released for two years. Hafiz Pasha, a former finance minister and an economist known for his work on Pakistan’s labor force, recorded the unemployment rate at „11-12%, conservatively”.
Pakistan’s information ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters about the economic factors driving migration.
pushed to the brink
The detection of 102,000 irregular migrants at the EU’s external borders between January and May was 12% more than the previous year and the most since 2016, according to Frontex, the bloc’s border and coastal protection agency.
Transects of the central Mediterranean through Libya, mainly Italy and Greece, almost doubled, accounting for half of the total. Currently, after Egyptians and Bangladeshis, the number of people registered in Italy coming from Libya. 3 are Pakistani nationals, a Frontex spokesman told Reuters in an email.
According to Frontex data dating back to 2009, of those detected till May this year, 4,971 were from Pakistan.
Mourning was observed in Pakistan on Monday after the latest boat accident. At least 209 Pakistanis are believed to have been on board, according to official figures based on information provided by relatives.
Before last week’s sinking, scores of Pakistanis have died in the Mediterranean this year.
Muhammad Nadeem, 38, died when a boat sank in Libya in February, killing more than 70 people.
Nadeem, from Gujarat’s eastern city, supported three children and his younger sister and mother. He worked as a salesman in a furniture store, but his wages were modest and rising inflation made their situation precarious, says his mother Kosar Bibi.
„We made ends meet and he could feed his family. But it has become impossible”, he told Reuters in their narrow three-room house that houses seven people.
Bibi said his son paid someone he knew to arrange a trip to Italy via Libya.
„He said, 'Amma, our conditions will improve’. He said he would send me to perform Hajj and get me married to his sister,” BB recalled.
Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told Reuters that most of those making the trip are unskilled or laborers and find it difficult to obtain work visas. But by living frugally in Europe they can save money and send it home – a prospect made all the more attractive by the Pakistani rupee’s 35% depreciation against the euro and dollar over the past 18 months.
„In the current situation here, people think that the value of foreign currency is increasing, so when they send back what they have earned, it will multiply,” said Sarwar Waraich, an FIA official from Gujarat.
Passionate about working abroad
Nadeem had to look around his local area to see what Europe could offer.
„He saw his friends and neighbors go. He saw them succeed and believed that God would make him succeed too,” Nadeem’s cousin Muhammad Zubair said.
A few kilometers from Nadeem’s home, Muhammad Nazim was building a multi-storey holiday home in Gujarat when Reuters visited in the spring. Nazim, 54, said he lives in Ferrara, Italy and runs a construction business, but was visiting Pakistan.
„Our houses are also built (in Italy) and we stay there, but the reason for building them in Pakistan is that after a year or two we come here to spend a few months with our children and relax,” Nazim said.
„Here in Gujarat, every household has at least one person living abroad, either in Europe or Arab countries.”
Nazim, who said he entered Europe illegally through Turkey in the 1990s and eventually became a citizen, said he understands why people want to leave Pakistan. „What can a poor man do,” he said. This is the situation in the country now.
Mohammad Ali (21) from Bhojpur in Gujarat district was among those who died in Nadeem’s ill-fated vessel.
In Pakistan „even the educated class faces problems in getting jobs,” Ali’s cousin Anish Raza told Reuters at their family home. „A person’s desires make one desperate.”
Across the lane, Haji Ilyas, 70, was building a palatial house. Ilyas, who owns four vehicles, including an imported SUV and two tractors, said three of his sons had gone abroad illegally, while two had gone to Spain.
„People who get money from abroad, they can survive,” said Ilyas, puffing on his hookah.
The FIA said it had clamped down on unauthorized crossings of Pakistan’s borders, but noted that many who seek to enter Europe illegally go to Turkey or Libya before departing with valid visas.
Limited data shared by the agency with Reuters showed 401 people crossed Pakistan’s borders illegally in the four months to 2023, about 50% more than the previous year, while 15,371 deportees were sent back, mostly from Turkey and Greece.
’Back to the Beginning’
With foreign exchange reserves covering less than a month’s worth of imports, Pakistan is at risk of running out of cash. The IMF’s plan expires this month, and the government must enter a new plan within the calendar year or face default.
Pakistan is a leading exporter of labour, and remittances have helped keep the country afloat. Nearly 830,000 people registered as foreign workers last year, the highest since 2016, according to official data.
But legal migration opportunities are limited, and many migrants arrange through agents, who often use irregular migration as the quickest, cheapest or only way to reach Europe, according to the Migrant Resource Centre, an EU-funded organization that provides information and advice. For immigrants.
Israr Mirza, 29, said he was desperate enough to risk a trip west after he was fired from his job at a textile factory in Lahore last year.
„When local jobs are available the pay is not enough to support my wife, three children and father who has cancer,” he said.
Mirza, a college student, took out a loan, bought a plane ticket to Turkey, and paid a smuggler who arranged for him to fly overland to Greece in September. He made it but was caught and sent back to Turkey, then detained and eventually deported to Pakistan, where he described the ordeal to Reuters at Islamabad airport in March.
I don’t know if I’m happy to be back alive. „I was back to square one with no income and now having to pay off debts.”
Gibran Beshimam report; Additional reporting by Ariba Shahid. Editing by David Crashaw.
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