When Muhammad Nadeem left his home in eastern Pakistan, he asked his mother to pray that his long journey to Europe would go smoothly, then slipped away before she had time to object anything.
Originally like Muhammad from Gujrat, in the province of Punjab, Ali Hasnain prepared for the same journey by showing his relatives the clothes he took with him, towards a life he hoped for better.
But these two men, who did not know each other, died on the same clandestine route in February. Leaving by boat from Libya, they perished in the Mediterranean Sea, according to their families, victims of the deadliest migratory sea crossing in the world.
"It was like heaven fell when we heard the news," said Kausar Bibi, 54, Muhammad's mother, as the deceased's widow lamented in an adjoining room.
"The pain is unbearable," she told AFP in the family home.
The journey to Europe is long and perilous. But with Pakistan's economic difficulties - soaring prices and closing factories - there are many candidates to leave.
Muhammad Nadeem, 40, was earning only 500 to 1,000 rupees ($1.70 to $3.40) a day in a furniture store to support his wife and three boys when he left a few years ago. weeks for Italy, via Dubai, Egypt and Libya.
"I was happy that he was leaving for his children, that it would brighten up their future," said Muhammad Usman, his 20-year-old brother.
In a message to a friend to which he explained how he intended to repay him for the loan of 2.2 million rupees (7,400 euros) which had enabled him to finance his trip, Muhammad Nadeem said he was on a boat: "The sea is calm and there is no problem".
Two weeks later, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry confirmed his death.
The family of Ali Hasnain, 22, learned of his death through an image on social media, before it was officially announced.
"We also thought sending him (there) was the right thing to do," said Muhammad Inayat, his 72-year-old grandfather, after drying his tears. "It's getting hard to survive here."
Gujrat has long been a land of flight for migrant people.
In the 1960s, a British company built a gigantic hydroelectric dam in the region, causing the forced displacement of more than 100,000 people, many of whom were then invited to settle in the UK, then in need of labor. work.
They shared their wealth with families back home, who were thus able to lift themselves out of poverty. Members of the Pakistani diaspora then helped their relatives immigrate legally to Europe, where they established communities.
But after the September 11 attacks, migration controls were tightened and human traffickers took advantage of the windfall.
Today, Gujrat and its suburbs are a hotspot for "(travel) agents", a euphemism for smugglers.
Muhammad and Ali's last exchanges with their families suggest they may not have been in the same boat. But they are seen together in video apparently filmed by officers, sitting on blankets in a room with about 10 other men.
"You are being sent on a small boat. Are you leaving of your own free will, without anyone forcing you?" someone asks. “Nobody forced us,” the men respond in muffled unison. "God willing, we will reach Italy," they add.
For Usman, the brother of Muhammad Nadeem, the smugglers have "taken advantage" of the situation, Pakistan offering only too few opportunities to young people.
Gujrat agents see things differently. One of them believes with AFP to have a "positive impact".
"Do you have any other alternatives that can improve the lives of the locals so quickly?" he asks. "They come to us with dreams, and we do our best to make them come true, but there are associated risks."
Nearly 90% of Pakistanis who recently arrived in Italy entered it illegally, according to a 2022 study by the Mixed Migration Centre, a European research centre.
An official from Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency estimates that 40,000 attempts to enter Europe illegally are made by Pakistanis each year.
"No one wants to leave their country, but poverty, anarchy and hunger force people to migrate," said Farooq Afgan, a politician from Gujrat.
Those living abroad can give "a princely lifestyle" to their families back home, he said, which continues to entice people to try their luck.
Near Gujrat, the village of Bhakrevali offers pretty houses in white and pastel shades, stacked in the middle of wheat fields.
"You won't find a single house where they haven't tried to send one of their youngsters to Europe," said one resident.
Malik Haq Nawaz, a former farmer, had his own villa built, complete with a 4x4 parked outside and furniture encrusted with gold filigree, after sending three of his sons to Barcelona, where they now work legally.
By living frugally, they manage to save together up to 1.2 million rupees (4,040 euros) each month which they send to their father.
But his neighbor Faizan Saleem, 20, lost hundreds of dollars in a failed attempt to get to Spain.
He says he was "sad" when he recently heard that Pakistanis had died in the Mediterranean. "Their misery forced them to follow this path".
07/03/2023 08:40:28 - Gujrat (Pakistan) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP