When Muhammad Nadeem left home in eastern Pakistan, he asked his mother to pray for his safe passage to Europe, then slipped away before she could object.
Ali Hasnain showed off the new clothes he would wear as he prepared for the long journey west to a better life.
Both men departed from Gujrat, in Punjab province, and although they did not know each other, became fellow travellers on the human trafficking trail, escaping Pakistan’s rapidly deteriorating economy.
They died on the continent’s doorstep last month, relatives say, after boarding a boat in Libya and floundering in Mediterranean waters – the latest lives dashed on the world’s deadliest migrant route.
“It was like heaven had fallen when we first heard the news,” said Nadeem’s mother Kausar Bibi, as his wife keened in another room.
“I cannot bear this pain,” she told AFP in their family home, a basic concrete husk.
Pakistan is in economic freefall. A dire downturn – caused by decades of mismanagement and political instability – has drained dollar reserves, spurred runaway inflation and caused widespread factory closures.
The desperate situation is creating an incentive for Pakistanis to take perilous, illegal routes to Europe.
Nadeem, 40, was making only 500 to 1,000 rupees (RM8 to RM16) a day in a furniture shop to support his wife and three boys when he left for Italy via Dubai, Egypt and Libya a few weeks ago.
“I was happy he was going for his children, that it would brighten their future,” said his 20-year-old brother, Muhammad Usman.
After coordinating the 2.2 million rupee (RM35,123) loan to pay the agent, Nadeem told a friend he anticipated a smooth passage.
“The sea is calm and there is no problem. I am in the game,” he said, using a euphemism adopted for the illegal odysseys.
Pakistan’s foreign office confirmed his death nearly two weeks later.
Hasnain’s family, meanwhile, learned of the 22-year-old’s death from an image of their dead son before it was officially reported.
“We also believed in sending him,” said his grandfather, 72-year-old Muhammad Inayat, after taming wails of grief.
“It’s becoming hard to survive here.”
Gujrat has long been a springboard for migrants.
In the 1960s, a British firm built a gargantuan hydroelectric dam in the region, displacing more than 100,000 people who were invited to Britain as labourers.
The wealth was shared back home, giving families a footstep out of poverty, and the Pakistan diaspora organised legal migration for relatives, establishing communities in Europe.
But after the 9/11 attacks, controls were tightened and human traffickers began to thrive.
Today, Gujrat city and its suburbs are known as a hotspot for “agents” – shady middlemen who smuggle customers by land, sea and air.
Nadeem and Hasnain’s final communications suggest they may not have been on the same boat, but they are seen together in a video, seemingly recorded by agents, sitting on blankets in a whitewashed room with around a dozen other South Asian men.
“We are sending you on a small ship. Are you going by your own will and nobody forced you?” a voice asks.
“Nobody forced us,” the men answer in muddled unison. “God willing, we will reach Italy.”
Nadeem’s brother Usman says smugglers “took advantage” of the scarce opportunities in Pakistan.
But a Gujrat agent, speaking anonymously, claimed to be making a “positive impact”.
“Do you have any other alternative that can improve the lives of locals so quickly?” he asked.
“They come to us with dreams, and we do our best to fulfil them, but there are inherent risks involved.”
Nearly 90% of Pakistanis who recently arrived in Italy used a human smuggler, according to a 2022 survey by the Mixed Migration Centre, a Europe-based research group.
An official from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, speaking anonymously, estimated 40,000 illegal trips are attempted every year.
Spain recently announced those living in the country for two years could seek temporary residency and officially enter the workforce, while Italy has also introduced a scheme to “regularise” the employment of undocumented migrants.
“It frustrates us and it’s shameful,” said Farooq Afgan, a local politician in Gujrat.
“Nobody wants to leave his country, but poverty, lawlessness and hunger force people to migrate.”
Those living abroad can create a “princely lifestyle” for relatives back home, he said, enticing new migrants to try their luck.
Outside Gujrat, the village of Bhakrevali is an outcrop of white and pastel-coloured mansions, tiered like wedding cakes, amid wheat fields sputtering with irrigation pumps.
“You will not find a single house where they have not tried to send one of their youngsters to Europe,” remarked one local.
Malik Haq Nawaz, once a farmer, built his own villa, with a new 4x4 parked out front and gold filigreed furniture inside, after despatching three sons to Barcelona.
One travelled legally, the others via agents in 2006 and 2020, and all now have the right to work, Nawaz says.
By living frugally, they can pool up to 1.2 million rupees (RM19,150) to send home every month.
But neighbour Faizan Saleem’s migration attempt to Spain saw him deported multiple times from Turkey at a loss of hundreds of dollars.
“When I heard the news about the boat capsizing, I felt sad,” the 20-year-old said.
“Their miseries forced them to follow that path.” – AFP/Zain Janjua and Joe Stenson