A sea of troubles

Why the tragedy happened

There is a certain appropriateness in Pakistan experiencing one of its worst disasters in the waters of the Mediterranean, thousands of miles away, when a fishing boat carrying over 750 illegal migrants from Libya to Italy capsized and sank off the Greek coast, near Messenia. There were 104 survivors rescued, which meant that there were about 650 people who perished, of which only 78 bodies were recovered. The survivors included Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Palestinians.

There is also a rightness in the exact number of Pakistanis killed not being known, with the best estimate being of 300. What is known is the boat’s crew tried to ensure that Pakistanis went below deck, where they would have less chance of survival if the boat sank— as it did. Women and children, including upto 100 children were placed in the hold. Their survival is virtually impossible, and they would have been trapped in the hold when water flooded at the time of capsizing.

Political leaders must remember that no one migrates unless there is no choice. Within this context, they must try and offer a better life to their people. A minor improvement in Mandi Bahauddin might not stop some migrating, but at the same time, migrating should not mean risking one’s life

The argument could be made that this is typical, as typical as the fact that Pakistan exports heroin. It also exports illegal immigrants. Yet the view of heroin as a problem created by the West also applies to illegal migration. The demand for drugs exists in the West, and Pakistan just fills that demand. In the same way, the West offers the prospect of a certain lifestyle, and illegal migrants aspire to that.

However, it should be noted that the West offering a better lifestyle is because it got ahead from  wealth looted from the colonies. After the end of formal colonialism, the process has continued under neo-colonialism.

The illegal immigrants from Pakistan are all solidly economic migrants. The other illegal immigrants in the Messenia boat disaster included Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians, all from countries where lives are routinely threatened. However, even they were probably economic migrants, who found they could not make a livelihood in their own countries, and hoped better opportunities would be available in  Europe.

Those are the Pakistanis to whom the PTI made an appeal. The PTI simplified what was an immensely complicated issue, by claiming that Pakistan was not able to offer its people the lifestyle they wanted because of the corruption of the rulers on top. It also claimed that Imran Khan, an economic migrant himself (for his cricketing abilities would have not earned him much if he had not gone to the UK), would turn the country around.

Pakistanis have a complex relationship with the whole immigration concept. One of the primary reasons is that the relationship with the ‘mother country’ has been maintained by the elites of the ex-colonies. The elites were originally those who had been handed over power when the coloniser left, but they have recruited others since, and they continue to look to the ‘mother country’ for education, expertise and a safe haven for their wealth (obtained from the ex-colony, more or less by corruption) and their persons.

Those who are not part of the elite aspire to join it, or to migrate. They are encouraged to do so by the behaviour of the elite, which spends so much time in the West. It should not be assumed that economic migrants make the decision lightly. The intending immigrant knows only too well what he is letting himself in for. One of the reasons for migration is the lack of opportunity at home. They did not face starvation, but they probably did not see how to get a better life.

It should not be forgotten that Pakistan faces population pressures, well as a shrinking of opportunities due to climate change. On top of it all, it is now becoming increasingly urbanized, and therefore more demanding, of the facilities available in the West. There are apparently certain pressure points, certain hot spots, where immigrants, legal and illegal, originate from. These points were unveiled in this episode. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the first arrests made in Pakistan is of an agent from Wazirabad.

District Gujrat has a notoriety in human-trafficking circles that leaves others behind, Neighbouring Mirpur is in AJK, but is also a centre of migration. These are areas where landholdings have subdivided too much to be sustainable, and now migration is a way out not just for the immigrant, but his family back home, because foreign remittances are a major support for the country as a whole.

One of the effects of migration is exposure to new ideas. One result has been the increase in honour killings, as parents try to impose their values on a generation born in the West, and girls rebel, seeking the support of the state they were born in.

Another effect has been that Gujrat and surrounding areas are PTI supporters’ strongholds, because of the influence of PTI supporters abroad. This is said to be the reason why Ch Pervaiz Elahi and his son Moonis Elahi are said to be so firm on the alliance with the PTI, to the extent that they have apparently overlooked the May 9 episode, even though Ch Pervaiz has built his political career on close cooperation with the military. Father and son have to contest from Gujrat, and need PTI support to do so. That support has become all the more necessary after the family split with Ch Shujat Hussain.

Ch Moonis illustrates another development in Pakistani migrants: they have spread beyond the mother country. Pakistanis have done well enough in the UK to have the sons of immigrants  Mayor of London and the First Minister of Scotland. However, now they are to be found all over Europe. Though the UK has now left the European Union, while it was a member, Pakistanis spread out over its members, and it is no surprise that Ch Moonis is these days in Barcelona, Spain, while Mian

Nawaz Sharif and his sons are more traditional in using London as their base. The ill-fated immigrants were going to land in Italy, and though some may well have intended to go onward, some would have remained in Italy.

As it is, it was a little surprising, though it should not have been, to learn that the Greek port of Kalamata, hardly the centre of the universe, where all the search and rescue operations were focused, and where the survivors were kept by the Greek authorities, has a small Pakistani community. The distances from which Pakistannis, presumably there legally, travelled from all over Europe, also illustrated how Pakistanis had penetrated into Europe. The variety of places also showed that there was no love of the ‘home country’ involved. Pakistanis (and others from the Third World) were willing to settle wherever they could. Pakistanis have overcome the language barrier, and now learn to mangle Greek,Italian and Spanish as much as they mangled English for a century.

Political leaders must remember that no one migrates unless there is no choice. Within this context, they must try and offer a better life to their people. A minor improvement in Mandi Bahauddin might not stop some migrating, but at the same time, migrating should not mean risking one’s life.


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