Tragedy at Sea 3,000 Miles Away Resonates in Pakistani Village

Village women consoling Nusrat Bibi, center, whose son Mazhar Hussain died trying to migrate to Italy.

GUJRAT, Pakistan — The family, faces torn with grief, huddled around their phones, replaying voice messages sent from 3,000 miles away.

“I can’t talk too loudly or they’ll take my phone away,” said a panicked, hushed voice in one. “Don’t call me because it will make the ringer go off, they’ll hear it and I’ll get caught,” it cautioned in another. And finally, “Please tell the agent to send the money to Libya.”

The voice in the messages was that of Babar Shabir, a 19-year-old Pakistani. His relatives fear he is dead, among roughly 90 people who drowned this month when a boat smuggling migrants from Libya to Italy capsized. A majority, including a newborn, appear to have been from Pakistan.

The 16 bodies that have been found arrived in Pakistan earlier this month. Seven of the confirmed dead were, like Mr. Shabir, from tiny Gujrat, in northern Punjab Province, which has been rocked by the disaster.

Though Libya has become a notorious transit hub for illegal migration to Europe — some 180,000 migrants used that route to cross to Italy in 2016 alone — Pakistanis have in the past rarely been among them. But desperate Pakistanis will now go far in search of better lives.

Mr. Shabir left his hometown here, near Pakistan’s border with India, with his 24-year-old cousin, Mazhar Hussain, in December. Their families say the pair collected around $13,000, a fortune for even the well-to-do, to pay a local smuggler who guaranteed safe passage to Europe. When news of the capsizing trickled back to Gujrat, the young men’s families tried frantically, but unsuccessfully, to reach them.

Azhar Hussain says he knew his brother Mazhar was dead when he saw a photo of his body posted on Facebook, circulated by Pakistanis in Libya to help confirm victims’ identities.

Azhar Hussain covered his face with his shawl as Mr. Shabir’s older brother, looked at the picture of Mazhar Hussain’s grayish body, covered in sand. With Mr. Shabir’s death not certain, the men remained glued to their phones, scouring gruesome photos for his face.

Local laborers in this largely agrarian area have streamed overseas in sizable numbers since the 1970s. For years, legal migration was such a force that little towns here were given nicknames like Little Norway and Little Britain, for where their people had gone.

Homes here hint at the mass migration. Tidy mud-brick village houses, surrounded by wheat and rice fields, have been increasingly replaced by mansions with gaudy ironwork and colorful tiles, built with money from overseas relatives. In 2014, almost 30 percent of local households reportedly received foreign remittances.

The houses serve in a sense as billboards for smugglers, proof of money to be made abroad. Ansar Burney, a Pakistani civil rights activist who works to end people smuggling, said the message was persuasive. “If I’m living in these rural towns, I’d be convinced I should go, too,” he said.

For Mr. Shabir, the appeal was hypnotic. “We begged him not to go,” his mother, Hamida Bibi, said between desperate prayers for her son. “But he had made up his mind long ago.”

His cousin, Mazhar Hussain, the oldest son in his family, also was drawn by the lure of fantastic wealth and hoped to send money home. “Now, we’re left with nothing,” his brother Azhar said. “We sold what land we had to collect money for his ticket to Europe. My parents are old, and I can’t find steady work. It’s like we lost everything when we lost him.”

Legal migration from Pakistan peaked in 2015 when just under one million Pakistanis left to work overseas. It has since dropped almost by half, Mr. Burney said, with migrants seeking visas squeezed by concerns about terrorism in Europe and economic belt-tightening in the Persian Gulf.

“The Saudis took an initiative to reduce all overseas labor, Pakistanis included,” said Jabbar Chaudry of Pakistan’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, adding, “The educated and semi-educated youth no longer have legal windows of opportunity.”

An increasing number of Pakistanis, 14,000, applied for asylum in 2016 in Italy alone, most asserting persecution or fear of violence. Others fleeing in recent years included almost 7,000 ethnic Hazaras who gained asylum in Australia in 2013.

With legal options for migrant workers shrinking, the Libyan route to Europe has become popular. According to the International Organization for Migration, in January about 240 Pakistanis crossed into Italy from Libya, making them the third largest nationality represented. By comparison, only nine were reported in January 2017.

The cousins reached Libya by air and, according to their families, had legitimate visas. “They took a flight from Lahore to Dubai, then Kuwait to Turkey, then they reached Libya,” Azhar Hussain said. “They would call us from a different airport every day for a few days.”

In Libya they joined the tens of thousands trying to reach Europe, and fell into the hands of smugglers demanding more money. Some of the men’s last messages relayed the horror of being captive and beaten while others around them were tortured. Pressed for money, their families begged the smuggler in Gujrat to help and eventually came up with $1,000 more to secure the men’s journey onward.

This new path through Libya should get more scrutiny, said Mohsin Waheed Butt, an officer with the Pakistani Federal Intelligence Agency. “Immigration officers, they need to inquire why people are going to Libya,” he said. “What kind of a person is going to Libya right now? It’s obvious these guys are going for only one thing.”

But Mr. Burney, the rights advocate, believes the government is on some level complicit, saying: “These smugglers are flush with cash. They’re getting Libyan visas in the dozens, and they’ve bought off the immigration officers sitting at the airport, too.”

The director general of the Federal Intelligence Agency, Bashir Memon, confirmed that all of the Pakistanis whose bodies were recovered after the capsizing had gone to Libya legally. He said law enforcement agencies “try their best” to counter “a whole mafia of smuggling” in the region.

A short drive from where the cousins lived, Muhammad Khan held court recently in his ancestral house. Villagers came to offer condolences after learning that his nephew died in the capsizing with his wife and children, the younger less than 2 months old.

The nephew, Ismail Khan, moved his family to Libya two years ago, hoping to find work as a laborer. His uncle said he had not known the younger Mr. Khan wanted to go to Europe until after the family had died.

The uncle said he emigrated to Britain legally 30 years ago, and had been back in Gujrat on vacation when he learned about the deaths. “My family lives in Manchester now, and we have a good life,” he said.

Mr. Khan said he left Pakistan for the same reason his nephew Ismail did. “When you live here, you lose hope,” he said. “You don’t see hope for years on end. So, when someone presents you with an opportunity, a small window of hope, you’ll risk it all.”

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