By Rafia Zakaria
On November 3, 2018 a group of about 81 Pakistanis disembarked from an illegal vessel on the shores of the town of Salento in the southern part of Italy. The Pakistanis, like the over 90,000 migrants that have tried to make the migrant crossing earlier this year, were simply searching for a better life. Increasingly of course, and particularly so for Pakistanis, this search for a better life is futile. The rejection rate of asylum petitions filed by Pakistani migrants in Italy (and generally hold true for most of European Union countries) is a little over 90 percent. Such a high percentage would generally mean that not many people would be willing to risk their lives and finances by paying smugglers to take them to foreign shores for the small chance that they may make it. Yet, the most recent group of Pakistanis that arrived in Italy just this month is proof of the fact that where the search of asylum is concerned, no chance is a chance too small.
Many Pakistanis would be surprised to find that Pakistanis make up a large number of asylum seekers in Italy which received the highest number of asylum applications in all of the European Union in 2017. The highest number were migrants from Nigeria, followed by those from Bangladesh and then finally, Pakistan. Even while some Pakistani migrants have been told false tales of being provided safety and shelter right away, this is far from the truth. In one particular horror story from November of last year, hundreds of migrants (many of them Pakistani) were shown to be living inside a tunnel because they were not being given the permission to actually disembark on Italian soil
The Italian Government has in fact resorted to much more severe means when it comes to cracking down on migrants. One recent photo essay compiled by the Briish newspaper The Guardian provides a peek into just how bad things can get in the southern Italian migrant camps in San Fernando and Campobello. In one of the photographs, a group of migrant men are inside a makeshift shanty that passes for a shelter, barbed wire and bins of rubbish surround them. Others show similarly makeshift lives with odd pieces of cloth all functioning variously as room partitions, storage or in the odd case that they actually function for the purpose for which they were intended, actual stoves or coverings. Most people who live in the migrant camps, which are themselves taken apart and bulldozed by authorities in periodic intervals, have little to do. They cannot legally work in Italy and their movement is limited, Because of this, they just sit around the camps all day working on their makeshift shelters and realizing that life is far more difficult after reaching their destination alive.
Things are about to get even worse for migrants in Italy. The hardline Government that is now in power has vowed to be even tougher on migrants than previous administrations. Already, locals who help migrants and bring them food and services in places like the island of Lampedusa where many migrants first disembark from their flimsy boats can be charged with the crime of “abetting illegal migration” if they provide, food or shelter or any form of assistance to the migrants on the island. So stringent are these regulations that the few people who are still wanting to come to the aid of migrants have been forced to go underground. While they are still trying to provide assistance, the increased strictures faced suggest an emerging zero tolerance toward migrants no matter how difficult the conditions faced by the migrants may be.
Of course, a good number of migrants never even make it that far. Many of them die en route to places in Europe, either in the ocean crossing or while traveling various land routes at the mercy of smugglers who face just about zero accountability if one or more migrants die before they ever get to where they were trying to go. The fact that many of the migrants, even those who are lucky enough to have their applications processed by authorities cannot usually work is a bigger problem. Many have expected to find employment right away and expect to be sending money home to their families. Faced with the near impossibility of this task, many plunge into depression, go missing, and possibly even commit suicide.
As human rights lawyer Zia Awan pointed out in a recent interview given to Deutsche Welle, Pakistan does not have the resources to control illegal migration abroad. Given that Pakistan is a labour-exporting country where many millions rely on the money that is sent back from employment abroad, it is not surprising that people continue to try and leave the country to find jobs, regardless of whether they can do it legally or otherwise. With rising levels of poverty and unemployment in Pakistan itself, many are willing to gamble and take a shot at whatever chance they may have.
In the case of Italy, which has an inordinately large number of Pakistanis seeking asylum, Pakistani authorities may not be able to control or completely prevent individuals from leaving and risking their lives. However, it is the duty of the Pakistani state to provide better information regarding rights and obstacles that they will confront. Informing would be-migrants about the fact that they will not be able to work right away, that they may face prolonged periods of detention or legal limbo, and that they have a very small chance of actually succeeding in obtaining asylum could go a long way toward convincing them that the risk and the danger are simply not worth it.
(Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. Twitter: @rafiazakaria. Article courtesy – Arab News)