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Pakistani Village Reeling From Migrant Boat Disaster, But Smugglers' Routes Abroad Remain A Risk Worth Taking

The Mai Toti shrine in the Pakistani village of Bandli, where worried residents have been gathering to pray for 28 local men who were lost when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean on June 14, leaving hundreds missing, feared dead.
The Mai Toti shrine in the Pakistani village of Bandli, where worried residents have been gathering to pray for 28 local men who were lost when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean on June 14, leaving hundreds missing, feared dead.

Owais Tariq was living out a dream shared by many young men in his poverty-stricken and restive hometown in northeastern Pakistan when he boarded a plane in January and left for good.

Months later, residents of Bandli are mourning the loss of dozens of their native sons who, like Tariq, escaped in search of a better life in Europe.

Some 28 young men from Bandli are feared to have been aboard an overcrowded fishing vessel that sank off the coast of Greece on June 10. Weeks later, the official death count stands at just over 80 people, with 104 survivors. But as many as 750 migrants, including women and children, are believed to have been on the Messenia.

As officials collect DNA samples as part of the effort to identify the dead, Bandli residents have been left fearing the worst, angry over the thriving business of human smuggling, and demanding that steps be taken to ensure such a disaster never happens again.

Family Tragedy

Tariq was with four of his relatives on board the Messenia, which left port in Libya for what was to be the last leg of their arduous journey to the West.

Tariq’s other family members, all of them young men looking to escape poverty and the prospect of getting caught up in militant activity in Kashmir, were imprisoned by the Libyan authorities along the illegal smuggling route that runs through the North African country.

Owais Tariq
Owais Tariq

Muhammad Faizan, Tariq’s cousin, recalls driving him to an airport in Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province in January so the 22-year-old could embark on his third attempt at reaching the shores of Europe.

Tariq and his fellow family members each paid 2.2 million Pakistan rupees (about $7,600) to human traffickers, according to Faizan. After an initial installment of 700,000 rupees (about $2,400) to a local smuggling "agent" who arranged the escape abroad, Tariq and his kin were to fly to the United Arab Emirates and then Egypt before arriving in Libya, where they would pay the rest to board what Faizan believes to be the Messenia.

Lamenting the family's collective decision to borrow money from relatives in Dubai and Europe to fund the young men's trips, Faizan told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal by telephone that "we paid traffickers to send them to their deaths or to jail."

Dangerous Business

Human smuggling is a big business in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where residents of Bandli say that many young men are desperate to escape low employment prospects and the real possibility of getting swept into violence -- whether through enlistment into the military, which has fought with India over control of the region, or militant groups active in the region.

Locals say that life near the line of control with India has disadvantages for young people trying to establish a stable life. Since 2004, locals have not had the right to build permanent homes or establish businesses in Bandli or other villages along the line of control, with many facing the choice of whether to stay or go.

Unemployed young men who decide to stay risk falling into the hands of Islamist militant groups like Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which recruit and operate in Kashmir.

Those whose families can find a way to pay for it are more likely to take the Europe option.

Mohammad Imran is also feared dead.
Mohammad Imran is also feared dead.

Waheed Ahmad's brother, 23-year-old Muhammad Imran, made the decision this spring to leave and is believed to have been on the ill-fated Messenia.

"He was so sure that he would reach Europe safely because they would cross into Europe in a big ship," Ahmad told Radio Mashaal. "[Smuggling] agents were telling everyone that this was an incredibly good chance and they had arranged a big ship."

Ahmad's apparent death has devastated the family, Ahmad said, leaving the young man's 70-year-old father in shock and unable to accept the loss.

In the wake of the boating tragedy, the Pakistani government had called for a high-level inquiry and the authorities had rounded up 14 suspected smugglers.

Members of Ahmad's family have called for harsh justice -- including public hangings -- to ensure that "nobody dares to do such a thing in the future."

Worth The Risk

The apparent loss of so many of the village's young men has led some, like Faizan, to reconsider using smuggling routes to get to Europe. Faizain said that the sinking of the Messenia eliminated any chance of him taking a similar approach and he is now pursuing legal means of moving abroad.

But many other Bandli residents remain willing to take the risk. After all, Faizain said in explaining the mindset of the village's youth, "it's better to try their luck for Europe instead of dying from hunger and poverty in Pakistan."

Khurum Shehzad, a 32-year-old from Bandli who said he was friends of Tariq and his cousins, seconded that sentiment.

"Everyone wants to leave, no one wants to remain in Bandli," Shehzad said. "Every young man from this village or from the entire Kashmir region is struggling."

The local Mai Toti Shrine has become a gathering place for worried residents to pray for the young men's safe return.

Not knowing for certain whether loved ones are dead or alive has cast a pall on the village, Faizan said.

"When you walk through the streets of Bandli you can hear sobbing and crying from afar," he said. "It feels like everyone is crying."

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