‘If I die, I die’: Pakistan's death-trap route to Europe

(Al Jazeera)

On a warm May evening, Touqeer Pervez packed two pairs of trousers, three shirts, a toothbrush and toothpaste into a small black backpack. The lanky 28-year-old with a neatly trimmed beard was getting ready to leave Bandli, his village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, on a three-country trip that would see him travelling across land, air and sea in the hope of reaching Italy.

His family’s unfinished house, partly roofless and with walls needing plaster, was bursting with chatter and laughter. Family members and friends sat under the open sky in the veranda, as a pedestal fan desperately tried, but failed, to beat the humidity in the air.

As they cracked jokes, Haseeb, the youngest of Touqeer’s siblings, reminded his brother that in Italy, he would struggle to indulge his favourite hobby, playing cricket.

Yet amid the banter, Touqeer’s nervous mother Tazeen was still trying to convince her son against leaving. Her eldest son Tanweer had already left for the United Arab Emirates to find work in January, and Tazeen was not ready to let go of her second, and most beloved, son.

Touqeer, however, was calm and adamant.

“If I die, I will die, but if I succeed and reach Italy, at least I could help our family. Let me go please,” he pleaded with his mother.

The next morning, on May 5, Touqeer and a few other village residents left on a 150km (93-mile) bus ride to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, where they caught a flight to the southern city of Karachi. The next leg took them to Dubai, from where they jumped on a connecting flight to Cairo, and eventually made their way to Libya on May 7.

Italy, just across the Mediterranean Sea, seemed to be almost within touching distance.

Left to right: Touqeer’s mother, Tazeen Pervez, and father, Muhammad Pervez [AbidHussain/Al Jazeera]
Left to right: Touqeer’s mother, Tazeen Pervez, and father, Muhammad Pervez [AbidHussain/Al Jazeera]

'People are cruel'

More than five weeks later, Touqeer’s father Muhammed Pervez was out on his evening stroll in the village market when the 63-year-old heard people talking about a boat that had sunk off the Greek coast.

“When I saw the ticker running on TV myself, I did not pay much attention to it,” Pervez recalls, in a conversation a few days later at his home. “I did not even register that this news would change my life.”

The next day, a villager told him that a Bandli resident was on the boat, and had survived - bearing bad news. “He confirmed the drowning of Touqeer, my son,” Pervez says.

The Adriana, a fishing trawler, was carrying more than 700 people when it sank on June 14 off the coast of the Greek coast, near the town of Pylos. On board were people from Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and many other countries - but one nation dominated the passenger manifest. The boat carried more than 300 Pakistanis, including Touqeer.

It departed from the Libyan port of Tobruk on June 9, and headed for the Italian coast, carrying the hopes and dreams of individuals, families and entire villages seeking a better future. Only 104 of its passengers survived, 12 of them from Pakistan.

(Al Jazeera)
(Al Jazeera)

Sitting outside on an old plastic chair in the same veranda that was bubbling with laughter the evening before Touqeer left, Pervez speaks quietly of the years of struggle that had led to that moment of heartbreak for the family.

Wearing a plain white shalwar kameez with a prayer cap, Pervez’s face is wrinkled, his hands rough and his eyes sunken, as he remembers Touqeer.

The father of four sons, Pervez suffers from chronic hepatitis C, which can cause persistent fatigue. Unable to work any more, he quit his job as a brick kiln worker five years ago.

Unemployed since then, Pervez has been unable to finish constructing his house, which has uncovered steel rods protruding from its sides. Surrounded by a maize field, that incomplete house, accessible only by foot, is where he lives with his wife, two younger sons and two daughters-in-law — including Touqeer’s pregnant wife.

Touqeer had completed college, but every attempt to find work - as a policeman, as a shop assistant, as a labourer - in his village failed. Once his elder brother Tanweer moved to the UAE to work as a labourer, Touqeer decided that he could no longer avoid sharing the family’s financial burden.

With a child on its way, an ailing father and two younger brothers, Touqeer pressed his parents to let him take a shot at getting to Europe.

“His mother kept resisting for the longest time, trying to dissuade him from going, but he was adamant,” Mirza Ramzan Jarral, Touqeer’s uncle, tells Al Jazeera. “Touqeer would break down often, just by seeing how his mother often had to work in the field despite old age, and due to his guilt of not being able to provide for family.”

Yet, if convincing his parents was tough, getting the village to back him - that too with hard cash - was easier. To make the trip, he needed to pay an agent 2.2 million rupees ($7,500).

“People are cruel. I have been asking for just 400,000 rupees ($1,300) from our neighbours for the last few years to loan me money so we could finish our roof, but nobody helped us. But when Touqeer asked for money that could allow him to go to Italy, people pitched in immediately,” a sobbing Tazeen says. “Now I don’t have a son any more, but I have a crippling debt added on.”

By May, he had collected the money he needed.

“People in our village, and our families, we have seen so many young men attempting to migrate to Europe and successfully repaying the loan,” says Mirza, who himself loaned his nephew 200,000 rupees ($700).

The calculus for those who loan money is simple. Giving cash to somebody to build a house carries a high risk that amid the poverty of Bandli, the recipient won’t be able to repay it.

By contrast, lending money to a young man attempting to reach Europe is a far more promising prospect. Once a villager reaches Europe, he is indebted to those who helped him get there - and often is expected to help the family members of loan-givers also make the journey out of Pakistan.

It was that dream that Touqeer and 11 other men from the village on board the Adriana were chasing - a dream that all of Bandli had invested in.

Only one survived to tell the village of the death of the others.

The 'Dunki' route

The four-hour drive from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad to Bandli passes along winding roads on the banks of the Jhelum river, in the autonomous mountainous region of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a disputed territory between Pakistan and India since the end of colonial rule in 1947.

Tall and lush green Chinar trees line a recently built two-way road from where the 720-megawatt Karot Hydropower Project, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is visible. Large villas painted in garish yellow, pink and green sit off the road, some still under construction.

Bandli is part of a larger belt – which includes some towns in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and adjoining areas of Punjab province, including the cities of Gujarat, Gujranwala, Jehlum and Mandi Bahauddin – that has historically been the country’s ground zero for economic migration to Europe, often via illegal means.

The trend began in the 1960s, with the construction of Mangla dam on the Jhelum river in Mirpur city, with the help of Binnie and Partners, a British engineering firm. More than 100,000 people were displaced as villages were submerged.

Many of them were given financial compensation by the government of Pakistan, but with job opportunities emerging in the United Kingdom, the British government also granted work permits, which allowed many in the region to emigrate. Those who had friends or relatives living in the UK at the time, in particular, utilised the compensation money given by the Pakistan government to relocate.

As the UK and other European nations tightened border control measures in the 1990s, legal migration levels dropped. By the turn of the 21st century, would-be economic migrants would primarily travel by land, reaching Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan and then crossing into Iran, then Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and onwards — without visas.

They would pay money to agents who would then arrange contacts in the areas the migrants would cross through, without any guarantees that they would reach their destination.

These agents, often locals who themselves had either previously attempted to illegally immigrate or knew somebody who did, are part of a wider network.

Providing their services through word of mouth as well as social media, they coordinate with their colleagues posted at different locations, offering travel tips and updates.

Rana Abdul Jabbar, the additional director general (north) at Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), says that this pattern of migration is colloquially called ‘Dunki’, a derivative of donkey. The animal was historically used as a means of transport for traders on this route. It was relatively easier for people to use the land route to Europe in the 1990s and even the early years of the 21st century, Jabbar says.

But in recent years, countries on the route to Europe, including Iran and Turkey, have also strengthened border controls, making land travel much harder. The FIA, too, has bolstered its exit controls: Rana says that more than 19,000 Pakistanis were stopped in 2022 from trying to leave the country without legal documents, with another 10,000 stopped in the first six months of 2023. More than 90 percent of these cases involved people trying to leave by land.

Instead, a new migration route has emerged, with Libya as a hotspot transit point. The civil war in the country, where different groups rule different parts of Libya, helps human trafficking networks bring Dunki travellers over, and allows them to take off from the nation’s Mediterranean coast for Europe, says Rana.  “This is why we have seen such a surge in people taking the sea route,” he says.

In many cases, travellers come to the airport in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad with a visa from the United Arab Emirates, which makes it harder for Pakistani authorities to stop them. Once in the UAE, a typical route involves travelling to Egypt before crossing over into Libya through the porous border between the North African nations.

Now, Rana says, the FIA is looking to revise its procedures to try to identify passengers who might be travelling to Libya — some have paper Libyan visas stapled to their passports even if they show a UAE or Egypt visa to immigration officers.

According to Frontex, the European Union’s border and coastguard agency, data shows a 10 percent increase in “irregular migrants” at the EU's external borders in the first six months of this year, with Pakistanis ranked fifth among those making the journey.

(Al Jazeera)

“Despite all the risks associated with making Dunki, people are willing to put their lives at stake. If they succeed, not only does it bring prosperity to them, but it also helps earn them social clout in the neighbourhood,” Rana says. “People consider it a matter of pride that their family member made it to Europe.”

For many families in Bandli, that pride has now been swamped by pain.


Muhammad Yousuf shows a picture of his third son, 26-year-old Sajid, who perished on the Adriana [AbidHussain/Al Jazeera]
Muhammad Yousuf shows a picture of his third son, 26-year-old Sajid, who perished on the Adriana [AbidHussain/Al Jazeera]

A house built, a son gone

A few hundred metres away from Touqeer’s run-down house in Bandli is a two-storey villa, with a Toyota sedan parked outside. Muhammad Yousuf’s house is at an elevation from where the Line of Control, the effective border between Pakistan and India, is visible, with radars marking the tense landscape.

A stream of guests visits the 55-year-old throughout the day, with commiserations. Later in the day, Yousuf sits alone in his drawing room, on a plush faux leather sofa, in a sky-blue shalwar kameez. He starts speaking gently, but then breaks down, sobbing.

What brought his family wealth is today the reason for his grief.

Yousuf owns a crockery business in the village. But it was only when two of his sons settled in Italy, after taking the Dunki route to migrate over the past decade, that the family’s living standards in Bandli improved.

“With my sons sending money from Italy, I was able to build the house, and my own business was doing well, and things were comfortable for us,” Yousuf says. The sons own a grocery store in southern Italy.

His third son, 26-year-old son Sajid, worked with him at his shop. But in recent years, as Pakistan’s economy collapsed, so did the footfall at his crockery store. Inflation rocketed to a record high of 38 percent earlier this year, as the country’s government barely avoided a default on its sovereign debt loans with a $3bn relief agreement from the International Monetary Fund.

The Pakistani currency has lost more than 60 percent of its value since April 2022. Where Yousuf would sell up to 25,000 rupees ($82) worth of crockery a day previously, he now earns less than 5,000 rupees ($16).

Sajid’s mother had passed away when he was 12, and the father and son had grown especially close since then. When Sajid said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brothers on a Dunki trip to Italy, Yousuf tried to dissuade him. “After his brothers left, he was the one who took care of me,” says Yousuf. But Sajid was adamant.

He never made it. Sajid, too, was on the Adriana.

“I understand that everybody has their time written, but I cannot get myself to accept he is no more. I miss him so much,” Yousuf says, as tears roll down his cheeks.

Yousuf says that he and his two other sons had collected the money for Sajid to undertake the journey. Now he has no answers for Sajid’s two infant sons.

“When he was going, we told his sons that your father is going to meet Chacha (Uncle). Now they ask, ‘When will Baba meet Chacha?’ and I don’t have anything to say to them.”

Interactive_Abuzar parents
Nasira and Pervaiz, Abuzar’s parents [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Nasira and Pervaiz, Abuzar’s parents [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

'Going to Italy is like going to Lahore'

Barely four hours south of Bandli, a dusty, winding path off the main highway leads to the village of Talib Sahb. Farmland and canals crisscross the edges of the village, as cows graze in the fields. The mighty Chenab river flows by, the water level high after India opened dams on its side of the shared river.

Larger, three-storey houses with ornamental gates mark out the addresses of families that have successfully sent relatives to Europe. The rest of the villagers live in dilapidated cement blocks and brick structures clustered on narrow paved streets along open gutter lines.

In a one-room home in the northern part of the village, Nasira and Pervaiz are mourning the loss of their 14-year-old son, Abuzar. His uncle Shamsher Ali, who was with Abuzar on the Adriana, is also presumed dead — neither body has been found.

The room has two charpoys and a bed, and metal trunks and appliances piled up to the roof.  Wearing a faded shalwar kameez frayed at the edges, Pervaiz sits on the charpoy next to his seven-year-old son who is unable to sit up or walk. His other son, aged six, sleeps on the bed with a pillow tucked under his arm.

Everything the family owns is within this space, the size of half a badminton court. It’s been that way for more than 20 years, says Pervaiz, deep lines marking his tired face.

A school van driver, his monthly salary of Rs 20,000 ($70) is insufficient to take care of the family’s expenses, he says.  “If there were clothes, there were no shoes, if there were shoes, then no clothes.” The legal minimum wage in Pakistan is Rs 32,000 ($110) per month.

Abuzar decided to change that by trying to reach Europe through Libya, like at least a dozen young men and boys from Talib Sahb who had successfully made that trip in recent months, says Pervaiz. “For the village here, it's been like going to Italy is like going to Lahore. It's been made so easy. They become refugees there, are allowed to work and they send money home.”

Nasira and Pervaiz weren’t convinced about Abuzar’s plan.

“We told him not to go, but look at the state of our house. I have a disabled son,” Pervaiz says, crying into a scarf thrown over his shoulder. “My heart didn't agree, and after all, even if my son was home late in the evening, my heart would start sinking with worry, and this was going to be so far.”

In Libya, the agents didn’t give Abuzar and others food for days. “Abuzar was starving in Libya. He messaged to tell me he ate after four days. All those boys — they were kept hungry in Libya,” says Pervaiz.

Yet through it all, Abuzar would send daily audio notes and videos to his family, trying to lift their spirits.

In one video, he is talking to his mother while he washes clothes in a small plastic bucket, trying to show her that he can take care of himself. In another, he is playfully sticking his tongue out and making faces to entertain his disabled brother.

In his final series of messages, Abuzar tells his father to pray as they are being transported from a safe house to the dock in a container. In his last audio note, barely two seconds long, his voice quivers as he says he is on the ship and asks his parents to keep praying for him.

It was the last Pervaiz and Nasira heard from their eldest son.

Interactive_Haider's mother_horizontal
Shamim, Haider’s mother [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]
Shamim, Haider’s mother [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Premature celebrations

Further south in the village of Karyal Kalan, near the city of Gujranwala, Shamim spends her days and nights with her prayer beads in the hope that her 21-year-old son Haider is alive.

She sits on a charpoy in her single-room, bare cement block house, with her daughter’s newborn slung in a makeshift swing tied to the metal frame of the bed.

After completing the first two years of college, Haider looked for jobs to support his family - but couldn’t find any. So earlier in the year, he joined other young men from the village on the journey to Europe.

Then, in early June, the agent they had each paid 21 lakh rupees (US$7,300) for the illegal passage to Europe told the families in Karyal Kalan that their sons had left on the ship from Libya.

That squared with what Haider had just told Shamim. “The last time we spoke, Haider said to me the agents have said we are about to leave any minute now, and I want you to be brave, sometimes it takes over a month or two before I'll be able to call, so I want you to not worry,” says Shamim.

The agent told the families it was time to start distributing sweets. He was a local resident who wielded influence, as he was seen as the person who could help change destinies by getting the boys to Europe. When he announced it was time to celebrate, no one questioned him.

The news spread through the village like wildfire, and because seven households had sent their sons on the journey to Europe on the same ship as Haider, almost everyone in the village knew at least one of the families.

Shamim cooked a big pot of chicken and rice “to distribute in the name of Allah as thanks for Haider,” she says. She also asked women in the village to come over to read the Quran.

Rimsha, Haider’s 24-year-old sister, says that while her mother was still cooking, neighbours and relatives started visiting, congratulating her on her good fortune. Shamim and her family gave every person who visited a little bag of chicken and rice to take with them, as a token of gratitude.

“There were so many people that visited that day, we didn’t have enough space in our small house for everyone,” Rimsha says.

Children from the neighbourhood who ran by the house were given piping hot bags of chicken and rice to pass on to shopkeepers in the local stores, to the holy men in the mosque and to other houses.

Then, five days after the Adriana departed, the news came: the ship had capsized. The agent disappeared overnight.

“We sold the house we are living in and went on rent and sold all our agricultural land to pay for Haider’s passage. We have nothing left,” Shamim says.

His mother still believes Haider is alive. She says she can feel in her heart that he isn’t dead.

That belief is fuelled in part by mysterious calls from unknown international numbers that the family has been receiving, on Rimsha’s phone, and on a cousin’s phone where Haider often called from Libya.

“This number is from Albania, I looked it up. And this number is from California. I don't know where these places are,” Rimsha says. “We've gotten four calls. The first call we got was at 1:30pm and then another one later on. And two calls came to my cousin's number. When we call back, it doesn’t go through.”


A deadly dream, still alive

Hope also lives in Kalamata, Greece, where the survivors of the Adriana sinking were taken by rescuers to a temporary camp. Among them is 21-year-old Mehtab Ali, a resident of Mandi Bahauddin, a small city near Gujarat.

Mehtab plans to travel towards Athens: he is hopeful of receiving temporary documentation, which would allow him to work in Greece. Mehtab was also the last person who saw Haider alive, as the two jumped into the sea together as the boat capsized.

“I was on the second floor of the fish trawler, not on the top, and not locked downstairs. Many Pakistanis were on the top floor as well. It was all about who paid what,” he says, via a telephone call.

Mehtab corroborated accounts by many other survivors and the findings of other investigations that suggest that the ship was floating until the Greek coastguard tied a rope and pulled the vessel, which rocked the boat. As it capsized, those in rooms or on the lower floors couldn’t get out, but Mehtab, who knows how to swim, fell into the water. “I swam like I've never swum before,” he says.

To Mehtab, the risks have been worth it. Many of his friends have in the past taken the risky journey to reach Europe, but for Mehtab, leaving Pakistan was also a matter of life and death.

“I had to get out of Pakistan because I was caught in a complicated issue,” he says, referring to a family feud that threatened to turn deadly. “I was shot at twice, once in the leg, and once in the arm. I left to save my life. And I was unemployed, with no job and no way to make money. I thought it was best to leave and start over.”

It’s a sentiment that survives back in the village of Bandli, too.

Many residents there say they have no intentions to leave the country, or at least not go via Dunki and instead choose a legitimate, safe route.

But as Pakistan’s economic conditions continue to worsen, for a vast number of men — and they are always men — the lure of Europe far surpasses any risks that they may have to face. Moving within Pakistan, or even Middle Eastern countries, is not considered good enough any more, even if they don’t have to put their lives in peril.

As they see neighbours build new houses, buy big cars and climb the social ladder because members of their families have made it to Europe, the dreams of the next wave of Dunki travellers take firm root — even after losing friends and fellow villagers to boats capsizing in the Mediterranean.

Ans Sikander, 19, lost his cousin Awais Asif when the Adriana sank. The bespectacled Sikander says he was very close to Awais, who was two years older.

“You don’t always get along with all your cousins but Awais was different. There was only a little age difference, and we grew up together and would spend all the time with each other,” Ans says.

They would often speak about a lack of opportunities in their village, and how worried Awais was about the faltering health of his father, a labourer in the United Arab Emirates. After graduating from high school, Awais couldn’t get admission to the local university for two years — Ans claims officials asked for bribes. He also couldn’t find work in the village.

“We all often talked about attempting to take Dunki, knowing there is no hope for us.”

None of Awais’s friends or cousins attempted to deter him when he told them he was planning to make the trip to Europe.

“When he was planning to leave, we all just wished him luck and hoped he would succeed. Because he was going to chart a path for the rest of us who want to follow in his footsteps,” Ans says.

Ans, who finished high school in 2022, wants to become a mechanical engineer. But his applications for scholarships to study outside Pakistan haven’t been successful, and repeated visa rejections have left him cynical.

“It has been one year since I have been sitting at home wasting my time. The only way out is through Dunki, and I have started saving money for it with the help of my brother who works in England,” he says.

With two out of his 10 siblings already working outside Pakistan, Ans has role models within his own household. His father also used to work as a labourer in Saudi Arabia before returning to Bandli 12 years ago, where he runs a wood shop.

Ans is convinced that any pause in Dunki travel from the village will be temporary.

“You return here after six months, seven months. I am certain you will meet families who will tell you that their members are either collecting money for agents, or have already left,” he says.

His own father has been encouraging him to undertake the journey, suggesting that he try to get a visa to Turkey and then attempt Dunki to Greece or Italy.

“Look at me. I am doing well in my studies. I would like to stay but what opportunity do I have?” Ans says, his voice steady and matter of fact. “I don’t even have a functional, reliable internet which I could use to earn freelance income.

“What scope do I have here?”

Source: Al Jazeera