• Three inquiries initiated, several ‘agents’ held • Liaison cell set up to facilitate identification of Greece tragedy victims • MNAs seek answers over claims of collusion with agencies

ISLAMABAD / GUJRAT: The Federal Investigation Age­ncy (FIA) has detained more than five human traffickers in Gujrat, Gujran­wala, and Lahore and registered multiple cases against almost two dozen suspects, as the confirmed death toll of the Greece boat tragedy reached 80 after two more dead bodies were fished out of the sea.

The Italy-bound fishing trawler reportedly carrying at least 800 people, including hundreds of Pakistanis, capsized off Greece on Wednesday. Only 104 people are known to have survived. Greece was still scouring the sea on Monday, though the chance of finding more survivors was seen as virtually nil.

As the news of the tragedy unfolded, Pakistan observed a mourning day on Monday and the Ministry of Interior established a coordination cell to assist the families of victims of the boat accident. This cell would be responsible for initial screening to verify information of relatives of the boat passengers.

It will establish camp offices in Islamabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and any other places on a need basis. The cell has been asked to assist the families of the passengers in obtaining DNA samples as per the requisite parameters given by the Pakistani embassy of Pakistan in Greece.

Meanwhile, the interior minister said special legislation would be passed to prosecute those involved in human smuggling as the FIA cracked down on traffickers across the country.

• Three inquiries initiated, several ‘agents’ held • Liaison cell set up to facilitate identification of Greece tragedy victims • MNAs seek answers over claims of collusion with agencies

According to the FIA, teams have been established in major cities across the country to nab human smugglers. A spokesperson of the FIA said three inquiries had been initiated to probe the involvement of Pakistani smugglers in the boat tragedy while six cases were also registered.

“So far, cases have been lodged against more than 20 human smugglers and more than five traffickers have been arrested from Gujrat, Gujranwala and Lahore,” he said. One of the detained suspects, hailing from Sialkot, had allegedly received Rs1.7 million from Ahsan Seraz, who lost his life in the boat tragedy.

“To prevent such incidents in the future, the [FIA] director general has summoned a meeting of [the] inter-agency task force to discuss strategy to prevent such incidents in future,” the spokesperson said. He said that an effective strategy would be made with the help of institutions represented in the task force.

In Gujrat, almost all the main agents involved in the illegal human trafficking had been operating from Libya with the help of the local facilitators, also known as ‘sub-agents’. Some of these agents are local jewellers based in the Sarafa market and have been previously found involved in receiving money on behalf of overseas agents.

On the other hand, the local administrations in Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin have started approaching the families affected by the capsizing asking them to lodge formal complaints against human traffickers involved in sending their men abroad through illegal means. FIA officials claimed that the families are reluctant to approach the FIA since they “do not have a trust in the agency” because, in the past, traffickers would often secure their release due to shoddy investigations.

‘50 Gujrat men missing’

Meanwhile, at least 50 people who had left for Europe with the help of traffickers have been missing and their families feared that they were on the ill-fated that sank near Greece.

At least 11 of them belonged to Kharian, 16 belonged to Goleki, Qasimabad, and Kot Qutab Din villages in the jurisdiction of the Kunjah police, five hailed from the areas of Gujrat’s Sadar and Shaheen Chowk police stations, seven people belonged to localities in the jurisdiction of Rehmania and Kakrali police stations whereas at least 10 people belonged to different villages in Sara-i-Alamgir.

Official sources said efforts were underway to identify dead bodies of Pakistanis through DNA testing, which had kept the families in a state of uncertainty: they are not sure whether their kins were on the boat or in some camp in Libya waiting for the voyage towards Europe.

It may be noted that there were unconfirmed reports about the presence of illegal immigrants in camps of human traffickers in Libya, which was making the identification process complicated. Similarly, these illegal immigrants often travel without having identity documents which further added to complications. The FIA said that it might take weeks in tracing and confirming the identity of the missing victims.

Lawmakers demand probe

The tragedy in which hundreds of Pakistanis are feared dead also echoed in both houses of parliament on Monday. Lawmakers urged the government to take stern action, stating that such acts could not be committed without the involvement of the agencies and government institutions.

Defence minister Khawaja Asif, while giving a policy statement on the floor of the National Assembly, provided details about the boat tragedy and informed the house that those who died in the tragedy belonged to Azad Kashmir, Sialkot, Gujranwala and Gujrat. He said these people had paid heavy amounts up to Rs3.5 million to the agents for their migration. The minister said these people must have gone through airports in the form of groups. He said those in the embassy of Libya must be aware of such human trafficking. He called for a collective effort from the government and opposition parties to take stern action against human traffickers. While acknowledging the arrest of some individuals within the country, Mr Asif stressed that these human trafficking networks also existed in various other countries.

PPP’s Dr Nafisa Shah called for a formation of a commission on the issue of human trafficking. She said it was impossible to illegally send these people abroad without the connivance of “agencies.” She said now they were getting reports that the FIA was conducting raids whereas this agency should itself be under scrutiny.

National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf emphasised the government’s responsibility to take decisive action against human traffickers and stressed the importance of educating people about the risks associated with illegal immigration.

Lone Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) member Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali said there were some 25 agencies operating in the country which were responsible for border control management. He said the FIA had taken action within minutes against those who were involved in the human trafficking which showed that it was aware of the whereabouts of these people.

On the floor of the Senate, PML-N Senator Asif Kirmani expressed concerns over the committee formed by the government to probe the issue and said in the past dozens of committees were formed but they remained exercises in futility. Speaking about the people killed in the boat capsizing, he said, “They were the future of Pakistan looking for legitimate livelihood.”

Separately, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was evident that a lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies “continues to enable traffickers to operate with impunity”. It also sought comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation and training for relevant public officials to effectively identify, report, and hold perpetrators accountable for such crimes.

Ahmad Fraz Khan in Lahore and Amir Wasim in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2023

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