Pakistan has again come face to face with the criminal dimension of human trafficking. Of the hundreds of drowned in last Wednesday’s shipwreck off Greece, more than half were their fellow citizens. That is why Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has declared this Monday a day of mourning and has promised a strong hand against the mafias that lubricate the emigration of undocumented Pakistanis.
At least fourteen traffickers have already been arrested, including three directly involved in the tragedy. They would have charged between 7,000 and 8,000 euros per person with the promise of circumventing the borders of Italy. One of these “agents” was arrested in Karachi when he had already boarded a plane bound for Azerbaijan. The other two, in Gujrat and Sialkot.
Although the Greek authorities managed to rescue 104 survivors and 78 bodies, witnesses speak of up to 750 passengers crammed into the Egyptian fishing boat used by traffickers. The Pakistani police, after questioning relatives and detainees, consider the figure of four hundred Pakistani emigrants on the boat. Nine out of ten would have disappeared without a trace, since there are a dozen survivors and only twenty-seven bodies have been found.
To further local outrage, it has been revealed that Pakistanis have died at a much higher rate than Egyptians or Syrians -who crowded the deck-, having been relegated to the least visible and remote places on the ship, therefore more dangerous in case of sinking. The vast majority of Pakistanis also do not know how to swim. Although the women had it even worse, locked up with the children in the hold to avoid groping, during the four days of traveling to nowhere. None have survived.
Although the film of the events is still being reconstructed, with divergent versions, it seems that the engine had been stopped for hours at the time of the sinking and the captain has not appeared. In other operations of the same type, following instructions, he has purposely left the ship adrift, in a desperate situation, to force a humanitarian intervention. A Russian roulette that this time would have claimed far more victims than usual, in the worst catastrophe near Greek waters in more than seven years.
The Pakistani Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, stated this Monday in Parliament that these mafias have been operating “for forty or fifty years”. He has also denounced that the “agents” promote this type of immigration in very specific rural districts – basically, non-Kashmir Kashmir occupied by Pakistan and Gujrat and its surroundings, taking advantage of ignorance and economic prostration. At the same time, the prevailing caciquismo is reinforced with the lands or houses that these families have to part with to pay for their tickets.
This disregard for human life is what has led Pakistan to create a commission of inquiry and to promise greater prosecution of this crime. Although few trust it. Actually, anti-trafficking laws already exist and provide for jail terms of up to five years. Seven in case of recidivism. However, 99% of trials result in acquittal or a fine, so sometimes there is not a single prisoner for these crimes in Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, given that a political family accused of facilitating irregular emigration from its home district of Gujrat, currently holds the presidency of two parliamentary parties, one in government and one in opposition. Cryptically, today the Defense Minister has called on the opposition -rather than the government- to pitch in to put a stop to irregular emigration and its tragedies.
It should be added that a Pakistani newspaper has revealed that last July, the same day that Chaudry Pervez Elahi was sworn in as head of government of Punjab, his son bought properties in Barcelona -and the Canary Islands- worth 1,675,000 euros -including a taxi service – capping off more than two decades of investment, with labor almost always coming from their own district in Pakistan.
Today Pervez Elahi chairs the party of the ousted Imran Khan and is in jail. But it is temporary. His cousin, brother-in-law and ex-religionist Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, who visited him this Monday, continues to be close to power as president of the PML-Q -always close to the security forces- and the replacements in the family are already prepared. The Chaudhry cousins, better known as “the Gujrat Chaudhrys”, have behind them decades of cacique control of one of the two great sources of Pakistani emigration (the first in Catalonia). What for some is a drama, for others is a source of power and a profitable business.