Thousands of Pakistanis are taking the Libya route to seek work in Europe. It involves a boat journey, the perils of which were highlighted when an overcrowded vessel sank off Greece in June with huge loss of life. Of nearly 13,000 Pakistanis who headed for Libya and Egypt this year, most haven’t returned – including two teenagers whose last words to their mother were not to worry.
At the police station in Punjab province it is 35C (95F), humid and still. Sweat runs down our backs; the officer’s temple shines with it.
Down a short open corridor, past rooms filled with precariously balanced papers, we are shown a small cell. Sixteen men sit side by side on the cement floor, damp is seeping through the walls, a single fan whirs behind the cell bars, and there is one toilet behind a low wall.
All these men are alleged to have been involved in human smuggling, the majority directly in connection with the migrant ship that left Libya and sank off Greece on 14 June. Nearly 300 Pakistanis thought to have been on board are missing, feared dead.
We ask if anyone wants to speak. Most avert their eyes, but one man, Husnain Shah, jumps up. This is his third arrest; he has been a smuggler for more than a decade, he says, although he denies he played a large role in the shipwreck off the coast of Greece.
“There is so much unemployment here people show up to our houses and ask us to put them in touch with someone who can take their brothers and sons abroad,” he says. He believes he has taken thousands of people in his years operating.
“I started this because there was no other business. I don’t have a main role, it’s the people who are sitting in Libya who are very big and rich; we don’t even get the main share, not even a tenth of the amount.”
When I ask if he feels a sense of guilt at what has happened to those who have died taking these routes, his tone changes.
“I felt very sorry, we are really ashamed over this. But what can we do? If I don’t do this, someone else will do it.”
With the economy teetering on the edge, inflation reaching nearly 40% and the Pakistani rupee dropping in value, many here are looking to go abroad, where even a low salary will likely exceed anything they can earn if they stay.
A survey at the end of last year found that 62% of boys and young men aged 15-24 wanted to leave. While some will try to go legally, others will find alternative routes.
By its nature, illegal migration is difficult to quantify, but the Pakistani authorities told us that the recent Greek shipwreck did highlight a newly popular route for Pakistanis; flying via Dubai to Egypt or Libya, then taking a large boat from eastern Libya across to Europe.
Pakistan now has fewer deportees from other routes, such as across Iran, as fewer people are taking the journeys after countries like Turkey cracked down on illegal arrivals, says Mohammed Alam Shinwari, who is in charge of Pakistan’s investigation into what happened with the Greek shipwreck.
He told the BBC nearly 13,000 people left Pakistan to go to Libya or Egypt in the first six months of 2023, compared with around 7,000 in the whole of 2022. Of those 13,000, 10,000 have not returned.
“We don’t know whether they are still in Libya or if they have gone to any of the European countries.”
It seems surprising it has taken the police until the shipwreck to realise how many Pakistanis were taking this route. In February, Pakistanis were on board a ship which sank off the coast of Italy having travelled from Turkey via Libya.
But Mr Shinwari argues that investigating these routes is complicated when families do not come to the police about what has happened.
“People don’t come forward to complain, instead they will go to out of court settlements,” he says. “It becomes very difficult for us to pursue those cases and gather information because that has to come from the families and in most cases they won’t tell us.”
There are added complications too; many of these travellers he says flew on valid documents with valid visas for Dubai or Egypt, making it hard to stop them. This also means that the journey is more expensive than previous routes – between 2.5-3m rupees (£6,780-8,140; $8,725-10,470) showing the amounts many are willing to pay to get out.
Pakistan does work to stop illegal migration; Mr Shinwari tells me that they stopped 19,000 people from going abroad last year as they feared they could be victims of people smuggling, and they had 20,000 Pakistanis deported back.
“As to how many people are going,” he says. “We don’t have any idea.”
Some of those who have made this journey are now stranded in Libya. In one village in Punjab, we stop to speak to one family, but are quickly joined by men from across the area.
Several of their young men travelled out to Libya weeks before and are still there. They send their relatives and friends voice notes and videos, begging for more money.
One father shows us a video of more than 100 men in a windowless room with white walls and white floors. Most of the men are stripped down to their underwear to withstand the heat, several are pleading to the camera to get them out.
The situation is so confused, their families don’t know if they are being still held by smugglers, by Libyan authorities or by someone else. They asked us not to reveal their identities in case there is retaliation against the men still held.
“They only give them food once every two to three days,” one father tells me. “My son cries a lot, he is only 18 years old. He says what kind of trouble have we landed into, we gave the money and we are dying here.”
Even given these conditions, the families aren’t consistent about what they want to happen next. Initially when asked, they said they wanted a safe way for the young men to continue to Europe, but then later said they wanted them to return home.
Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry is aware and is working on this, police say.
Despite the risks and the police crackdown, we spoke to numerous people across Pakistan who said they were actively still looking to travel illegally.
One smuggler, based in Europe, said routes were still operating out of Pakistan. Even the police authorities acknowledged that they know people are still leaving the country illegally.
Of the many people we spoke to who either wanted to go or had willingly sent their sons, all spoke of hope for a better life.
Some talked about social pressure; one man said most of his cousins and brothers had already made the crossing, and that now at social occasions he was pushed to explain why he hadn’t gone.
Others talked about seeing the homes built with money earned abroad, of pressure put on them by the smugglers who lived near them to do what would be best for their children’s future.
Some even had personal experience of making the journey themselves.
Fareed Hussain went to Germany illegally eight years ago, travelling through Turkey via Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. After four years he returned when his father became ill and he needed to take care of the family. Then he was persuaded by the same smuggler to send his teenage sons.
“He used to make us believe that Europe was just in front of us,” Fareed says. “That the kids are going to go and make a life for themselves and then you can buy whatever you want.
“I thought we are poor people, even if they get educated here they won’t find a job and we don’t have much land. I thought they will go, get educated and work.”
Fareed sold his family plot and then his two boys, Farhad and Touheed, travelled to Libya via Egypt and Dubai. Their parents have videos of them excitedly boarding the plane; of the safe house in Libya, sleeping on the floor with dozens of other boys and young men; and a voice note sent at 04:00 on the morning they left, telling their mother not to worry.
A few days later, the smugglers contacted the family telling them to distribute sweets, that their children had made it. They began celebrating.
The following day, their cousins called. They had read an international news article about a migrant ship sinking. By then the smugglers had left.
The family never heard from the boys again. Both are believed to have drowned in Greece’s waters on 14 June. They were 18 and 15 years old. Their parents may never have their bodies to bury.
Now their mother says she listens to their voice messages and cries for hours.
“Even if there is poverty here and they die from hunger, you shouldn’t go,” says Fareed. ” It doesn’t matter how much anyone convinces you.”