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The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

Updated Sep 02, 2016 03:40pm

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Barbed wire fence at the Greece-Macedonia border to keep migrants and refugees out | Jodi Hilton
Barbed wire fence at the Greece-Macedonia border to keep migrants and refugees out | Jodi Hilton

When Mohammed Ismail was 11 years old, his maternal uncle disappeared from their village in Gujrat. Nobody heard from him; nobody knew where he had gone. Some worried he might have had an accident, or died, but Ismail’s mother was insistent that the dead don’t pack belongings for their graves.

Two months later, he called on a landline phone — the only one in the neighbourhood. It was a few streets away from Ismail’s home and was installed at the house of a woman whose husband worked as a labourer in Dubai.

Ismail’s uncle was in Greece. He had found work on the docks in one of the islands, he was safe, he was also sorry. He had to sell some family heirloom, jewellery, to be able to venture that far but he would be compensating his sister for that soon. He apologised for making everyone worry but there had been no time to explain. The immigration agent arranging his journey demanded immediate departure.

Travelling without official documentation required both secrecy and urgency.

For the next 10 years, Ismail heard stories about his uncle’s life abroad. His uncle would travel often, sometimes for work, sometimes on the run from immigration authorities; he moved around inside Greece, then left for France, eventually settling in Spain.

He opened a shop on the famous La Rambla street in central Barcelona, a place with such a dense population of migrant business owners from Pakistan that people from Punjab speak of finding long lost relatives there while buying cigarettes.

Ismail also came to know of other migrant settlements, like Southall in London, where some of his distant relatives were now running a grocery store. Just two years after starting college at the University of Gujrat as an engineering student, he dropped out, put together some money, packed his bags and decided to try his luck abroad as well. This was 2008; he was 21 at the time.

Back when he had both his legs.

When I met him in early 2016, Ismail was sitting on a chair supported by crutches. His left leg was in a resting position and his right was stumped above the knee.

“It still hurts sometimes even though the doctor says it’s just in my head,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. Ismail is 29 now but looks much older; his face has scraggy lines; he tells me he sits out in the sun all day, smoking, thinking.

“The bullet entered right here,” he points to where his kneecap would have been. “It was agonising.” Ismail was shot just inside the Turkish border a few nautical miles from Greece.

Eight years ago, he got a telephone number of an immigration agent from a friend whose brother had recently gone to Turkey. He saved it on his cell phone. For a week he did not call, every night he would lay on a charpoy in the courtyard of his house, staring at the stars, wondering whether some great destiny awaited him on foreign shores, whether to take the plunge like his uncle had.

Fifteen young men on a warm August morning: backpacks slung across their shoulders; all with the same instructions — to wait for a phone call.

What swayed him was the monotony of that week. The same tired old routine, the same tired old faces. He was young and full of energy; what was the point of wilting away like this? It would be another two years before he graduated. Then he would start the struggle to find a job. Some of the graduates from his village were now working as clerks.

Dead end vocations did not appeal to Ismail.

He started asking people for small loans; friends, relatives, anyone who could lend him a few thousand rupees. He needed to put together 300,000 rupees in total. Some of that he got from his father on the pretext of college semester fees. He sold his motorcycle and borrowed from his uncle, who assured him he would be taken care of in Europe. The money would get him three attempts to go abroad. There was no refund on a foiled attempt.

Also read: Closing the gates of Lahore

He sent the agent half the total in advance, through a visa consultancy on the Grand Trunk Road in Gujrat.

“My heart was pounding. It was a lot of money. I was afraid he might run away with it.”

Ismail got a call the next evening, confirming his deposit. He was told to get to Quetta in a week’s time. He got his train ticket and confided in some close friends so they may tell his parents after he had left. He did not want to tell them himself.

He left in the dead of the night. Just like his uncle. He took a night coach to Rawalpindi and then boarded the Jaffar Express to Quetta. The agent had told him to wear sneakers and jeans and to bring a jacket along with him. It gets cold in the mountains he would have to traverse. On the train, he spotted other people who carried backpacks as big as his. He recognised one of them as someone from a nearby village.

“Are you also here with Sheikh sahib’s man?” Ismail asked the other traveler, who nodded in affirmation.

Sheikh sahib was the reference through which to contact the agent, one of the many aliases and pseudonyms people in the immigration business use; agents come and go but aliases stay. It makes it easier for potential clients and harder for law enforcers to find them out.

Ismail stepped down onto the platform at Quetta’s railway station as the train whistled to a stop, and saw policemen standing close by. For a minute he panicked. Then he remembered he had others with him and quietly followed them out.

Fifteen young men on a warm August morning: backpacks slung across their shoulders; all with the same instructions — to wait for a phone call.

The agent called Ismail and told him to exit the station. There was a wedding hall opposite the main gate where a rickshaw driver was waiting, phone in hand.

“Where do you want to go, brother?” He asked, taking the phone off his ear.

"Very far," replied Ismail.

A view of a train platform in Quetta | Banaras Khan
A view of a train platform in Quetta | Banaras Khan

The rickshaw took Ismail to a dilapidated house; three other boys were already sitting there. There were mattresses on the floor; they could rest until nightfall when a rented car would come for them.

The car was a diesel saloon. They were to go through mountainous terrain.

“The road was terrible,” recalls Ismail. “The driver would sometimes turn off the lights and I wondered how he could see where he was going. What if we fell off the side of the mountain?”

The drive was long and treacherous.

Also Read: Who feels safe in Pakistan?

The distance between Quetta and Taftan, a town on Pakistan’s border with Iran, is about 650 kilometres. Summer rains wash away the makeshift roads, which are taken not just to avoid being apprehended – though, technically, no laws are being broken moving within Pakistan – but also to save money on bribes. The Frontier Corps (FC) personnel in charge of the western border regions have a reputation here; as do the local police.

The idea was to get to Taftan when the border gates open at dawn: to blend in with Shia pilgrims headed for Iran and local residents crossing the border to visit friends and families living on the other side. Ismail was told that he had a genuine visit visa to Iran; his handler in Quetta gave it to him in exchange for the other half of the money.

He did not know if this was true but he was about to find out.

They reached Taftan at daybreak and Ismail and his fellow migrants joined the swelling crowd. He walked up to the Iranian border guard, trembling; he produced his documents; there was a moment of silence; everything came to a standstill; he could hear his pulse in his ears, feel it in his neck, then the guard nodded dismissively and pointed him onwards.

Ismail could breathe again.

“I was given a SIM to use in Iran and another agent’s number. He told me to keep walking until I saw a line of Khodro pickups.”

He did not have to walk far. He saw them parked at a little distance and his fellow backpackers heading in that general direction. Some of the drivers were busy conversing with Iranian border guards.

He boarded one of the pickups; five others joined him in the back of the same vehicle and they took off for Tehran. It was a long drive. Ismail remembers feeling cramp, tired, hungry. They only stopped once for food, at a roadside stall, where the people in the front switched seats and the man who had been sleeping all day drove all night.

It took two days to get to a seedy rest house in Tehran.

A 2015 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the number of deportees sent back to Pakistan at more than 50,000 annually in recent years

They were again ushered into a tiny room where they had to improvise a good night’s sleep because now their real journey began: first to Bazargan (an Iranian town on the border with Turkey) and then on to Turkey. They would have to travel much of the way on foot.

The walking was the worst part of his journey. Their handlers kept a relentless pace. “We were carrying enormous weight on our backs; we could not keep up. But if we stopped for breath, they would shout at us, push us; they had sticks, one of them had a gun.”

There were 20 people in Ismail’s group — and three handlers. They walked for what seemed like an eternity, until his feet were covered in blisters and his calves burned. The handlers did not speak his language; they only knew a few phrases about food, rest and, most importantly, moving. By now, there were Afghans and Bengalis with him as well. They could not communicate with each other either — except about food, rest and the dread of having to continuously move.

Also read: Silk Road to (economic) heaven

They camped on rocky terrain for a few hours every night. Feeding on scraps. They slipped on mud and sleet, fell down, bruised their knees, tore their clothes; they walked to an abandoned looking trucking station where they were instructed to get into the back of a lorry and hide inside a container, it took them a while to realise they were just inside Turkey.

Ismail remembers the suffocating feeling, the claustrophobia. Sitting inside the metal box – scrunched up, body aching, the stifling darkness – and being terrified of never seeing daylight again. The truck would stop for ages in between its noisy motion, Ismail would hear loud conversations going on outside, sometimes hands would bang against the container door, and sounds of anger. He was told to remain silent and not cause a commotion; they all were.

Live merchandise had to slip through the inspection cracks just like other forms of smuggling. Bribes had to be paid here like everywhere else.

The agony lasted forever. When the doors opened again Ismail was almost in a state of delirium. Dehydrated, disoriented. New handlers waited to drive them to the outskirts of Istanbul, where they were fed again and put up in a shack, like cattle. The farther he got from home, the less human Ismail felt.

“I started regretting it then. But I was too far into it. I thought if I could just survive till Greece, I would be safe, I would be okay.”

In Istanbul, he was given two choices. “I could either sit in another container or I could go to Greece by speedboat.”

His handlers insisted on the container route through Bulgaria. They said the weather was rough and the Aegean Sea was perilous. There was a high chance that an overloaded speedboat with dozens of migrants would capsize. “But I chose the speedboat. I was exhausted. I did not want to go near another container. I wanted it to be over.”

A choice he would regret almost immediately.

Ismail was sent near the city of Canakkale from where he was to reach one of the Greek islands close by. The speedboat operators here make money off migrants and they readily abandon them if the going gets tough, having no personal stake in their lives.

As soon as Ismail’s speedboat left shore, it started swaying and swinging on the tides. It tilted several times and just stopped short of tipping over, the tumult of the sea forced the operator to turn around and head back to Turkey. It was not at the same spot from where they had left, having veered in the storm.

They had hardly touched back down when they heard the loud blast of a rifle.

An air shot, followed by sirens. The men in the speedboats shouted something to each other and started running away. Ismail and the others followed them in the confusion.

More shots were fired; their reverberations getting louder. Ismail heard a soft whooshing sound and felt searing pain in his leg. He let out a cry and collapsed. Nobody stopped to help him.

Pakistani migrants protest against deportation outside Moria detention centre at the Greek island of Lesbos in March 2016 | AFP
Pakistani migrants protest against deportation outside Moria detention centre at the Greek island of Lesbos in March 2016 | AFP

Ismail remembers uniformed men coming to pick him up; he remembers receiving medical attention and then he remembers sleeping a lot.

He was arrested and deported. First to Iran and then to Pakistan. By the time he got to Quetta again, his leg was constantly in pain and the medication he was given was not helping him at all.

There were mixed emotions on his return home: anger, relief, admonition, love. He was taken to a doctor in Gujrat. The doctor examined his leg and told him that it was badly infected and that the infection would spread if left unchecked. In the end, they decided to amputate it.

“It was hell, I came back with less than what I left with.” Would he have tried a second time had he not met with such a tragedy?

“No, never. I would have never tried again.”

But many do.

Unlike Ismail, most migrants travel to Greece in rubber dinghies from the coastal areas around Izmir, Turkey. Over 800,000 refugees and migrants traversed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to get to Greece in 2015, accounting for 80 per cent of the people arriving irregularly in Europe by sea.

This year, Pakistanis make up the fourth biggest group of undocumented migrants arriving in Greece — after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. When these migrants are registered in Greece, they get 30-day transit papers and are subsequently sent back. Usually they end up at the Turkish port of Dikili in Izmir.

Some of them apply for asylum in Greece to prolong their stay since they cannot be deported before their asylum request is processed. But what most are looking for is time, and an opportunity to run away to Italy, Germany, France, England and Spain.

Beginning in April this year, Greece began deporting asylum seekers whose applications were rejected; many of the deportees are Pakistani. Nearly 400 people have been sent back and 190 of them are Pakistanis. Others are from Morocco, Iran, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

This year, Pakistanis make up the fourth biggest group of undocumented migrants arriving in Greece — after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.

In violation of the terms of the Geneva Convention, European authorities appear to be judging asylum claims based on nationality, not individual cases. Pakistanis are generally being categorised as ‘economic migrants’ and not refugees. Simultaneously, Turkey has worked out a readmission agreement with Pakistan in order to deport Pakistanis back to their homeland.

A 2015 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the number of deportees sent back to Pakistan at more than 50,000 annually in recent years. It also puts applications for asylums by Pakistani nationals in Europe at an average of around 11,000 a year. Those who attempt to stay undocumented and are intercepted later also number at around 10,000 on average — with a considerable spike in 2012, when the figure jumped by nearly 50 per cent from 2011. Considering there are many who never get caught, it is safe to say that well over 71,000 people try to leave Pakistan annually.

Moria is a detention facility on the Greek island of Lesbos. Barbed wire fences surround a primitive tent camp that is guarded by the Greek police. Inside the camp, there are a dozen shipping containers surrounded by more fences. The immigrants call that place ‘jail’. There are frequent protests and fights here due to food shortages and squalid living conditions.

Hassan, a father of four from Lahore, reached through a cell phone inside the camp, explains that people are typically placed inside the ‘jail’ before being deported. Pakistanis, who make up a sizable portion of those locked inside Moria, have held many protests, including hunger strikes. A couple of months ago, one protest turned violent after a fire broke out in a cell where juvenile migrants were imprisoned. Asylum seekers threw rocks at the police who retaliated with tear gas. Some migrants escaped from the camp in the melee. After hours of clashes, police rounded up the escapees and brought them back to Moria. The chaos repeated itself on June 1. According to preliminary reports, the violence and ensuing fire erupted due to a clash between Afghan and Pakistani migrants.

Also read: Borders that separate—A daughter longs for the family she left behind after the 1971 war

Back home in Pakistan, Hassan’s life was under serious threat. He escaped multiple assassination attempts that stemmed from a family feud. He moved his family to a village for safety and then fled to Europe, hoping to bring his family later.

Pakistani migrants stranded in Greece sleep on the train tracks at Idomeni, an informal camp on the Macedonian border | Jodi Hilton
Pakistani migrants stranded in Greece sleep on the train tracks at Idomeni, an informal camp on the Macedonian border | Jodi Hilton

In Istanbul, Hassan was taken hostage. He was locked in a basement for more than a month, along with other migrant prisoners, beaten and told he would be killed. He was finally released after his family paid 3000 Euros in ransom. “Turkey is not a safe country,” he says.

Pakistanis living at an informal camp – called No Borders Kitchen – on the island of Lesbos repeated different versions of the same story. No Borders Kitchen was raided by the police in late April this year and more than 300 immigrants living there, mostly Pakistani, were moved to Moria.

Pakistanis and other immigrants in Greece are feeling increasingly desperate. Michael Eder, a psychologist from Austria volunteering at No Borders Kitchen, believes half of the migrants are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “If [the police] use force, the people can be re-traumatised. In severe cases, this can lead to suicide,” he explains.

In April, Naser Baloch, in his twenties, climbed an electric pole at Moria and threatened to hang himself with a scarf. Hassan is an eyewitness to this. Eventually, other immigrants coaxed Baloch down but he fainted and was transferred to a hospital. After a medical examination, he was sent back to Moria where he is imprisoned with Pakistanis, North Africans and other immigrants not likely to get asylum.

Another Baloch man – Omer, 35 – is in a jail in the Greek town of Kavalla and is suffering from some psychological disorder: he does not speak any more.

Last December in Idomeni camp, on the Greek side of the Greece-Macedonia border, hundreds of pop-up tents littered fields running adjacent to the border and train rails. During the cold nights, immigrants from many countries burned whatever combustible materials they could find, ripping branches from trees and burning dirty clothes, plastic and blankets. Denied permission to cross the border, dozens of Iranians and Pakistanis held daily protests that sometimes turned violent.

A week after the protests, Greek authorities forcibly moved the men to large camps in Athens. Greece now has dozens of camps spread across the country. Several are in Athens while many others are located in other cities, villages and remote areas. Many are run by the Greek military where the migrants are provided with military-type food rations and army tents.

The more desirable camps consist of empty shipping containers. At least one container camp exists near Athens and another in Lesbos. These camps are filled with Syrians and Iraqis. Others, who are less likely to get asylum, like Afghans and Pakistanis, are living in cramped camps like the one at Eliniko, the abandoned former Athens airport, or at the ferry port of Piraeus where they wait — their fate unknown.

At an asylum office in Athens, Qadeer Sagar Baloch, 27, and his friends tried to explain their situation to an asylum officer. They carried with them a letter written by one Faiz Mohammed Baloch who runs the International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons from an office in London. It read: “We are convinced if these individuals are forced to return to Balochistan … they will be arrested, tortured and killed by Pakistani army and security agencies. Therefore, we request the government and immigration authorities of Greece not deport these individuals to Pakistan.”

“It is a really sensitive case,” says Danish activist Henriette Holm who is trying to help them. Their lives are in danger in Balochistan, she says.

The security situation in Balochistan has deteriorated in the past years, says Faiz. His group investigates claims about disappeared persons who he says number more than 20,000 (the government in Pakistan insists the number is not more than a few hundred). “We want to provide some comfort to their families, even if they are killed, so that their relatives do not have to live in limbo.”

Michael Eder, a psychologist from Austria volunteering at No Borders Kitchen, believes half of the migrants are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Faiz has prepared a list of ten Baloch activists who arrived in Greece around the same time as Sagar did earlier this year. He knows of another ten who tried to go to Italy. Countless others have been trying to reach Western Europe but he cannot determine their numbers unless they reach out to his organisation.

A group of Baloch men, including Shahrukh, 23, was staying in the camp at Idomeni in December, 2015. He says he was treated as an alien in his own country and claims to have lost 36 family members in the violence that plagues Balochistan.

Sagar and his three Baloch companions share a room with six Punjabi men in a dirty and drug-infested neighbourhood of Athens. Each pays 50 Euros monthly in rent. The room is dark and there are mattresses on the floor. A single light illuminates the corroded walls. Days are spent in desperation, as they consume their diminishing savings and see the door to Western Europe closed. Still, they hope that the EU authorities will come to understand their plight, their reason for leaving home and their legitimate fears of being targeted for imprisonment, torture and death at home. For Sagar and his friends, the chances of reaching Germany or the United Kingdom are increasingly remote.

He [Sagar] insists he did not leave his homeland for economic reasons but because of real threats he experienced due to his political work.

Sagar has been active in the Baloch National Movement, an organization which aims to create an independent state for the Baloch, divided in areas that are part of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. For years, the Baloch have received asylum protection in European countries but nowadays Sagar and his companions, along with many others, are stuck in Greece, a country suffering from widespread unemployment and in deep economic crisis.

Baloch migrants in Athens | Jodi Hilton
Baloch migrants in Athens | Jodi Hilton

With the largest annual influx of immigrants to Europe in recent history recorded in 2015, the EU countries have closed their borders in March, and made agreements with other countries to be able to deport asylum seekers. The Baloch are worried about being categorised as citizens of Pakistan which the EU considers a safe country.

“Here in Greece,” Sagar says, “we are in deep trouble.”

He insists he did not leave his homeland for economic reasons but because of real threats he experienced due to his political work. “I was threatened by phone,” he recalls. The voice on the other end said, “I will kill you.” A month later, two men entered the metal shop he owned in Mand town in Turbat, carrying Kalashnikovs. Sagar hid and then ran out through the back of the shop. He changed his mobile phone number and stopped going to the shop, which he later sold for about 10,000 Euros in order to finance his trip to Europe.

When Sagar left home in January 2016, he was informed that the European borders were open and it would be possible to travel to Germany or even the United Kingdom. Leaving behind his wife and 11-month-old son, he traveled from Pakistan to Iran, and then into Turkey. “We walked nine hours through the mountains in order to get to Turkey. It was cold and icy and Turkish police were firing at us. One of our friends was caught near the border and sent back to Iran.” He made it across Iran in his third attempt.

From Turkey, they took a rubber dinghy across the sea to the Greek islands. The journey was grueling and dangerous. The small boat was packed with immigrants. The driver, an Afghan and an immigrant himself, had never before captained a boat. Halfway across, the petrol ran out. They were stuck in the water, battling waves and wind. After dialing an emergency number, they were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard. They were taken to the island of Lesbos where they boarded a ferry to Athens and then they could move no farther.

Also read: Train to Balochistan

Weeks before Sagar’s arrival in Greece, the European borders were closed to many asylum seekers. About 54,000 migrants of various ethnicities are stuck in Greece.

The concept of transit migration really emerged in the last two decades as stricter migration policies and airport security in destination countries forced people to take dangerous routes, travelling through places that could offer shared borders with their European destinations.

Pakistan has served as a source, transit and destination country for migrants and human traffickers due to its porous western borders.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) claims to have arrested as many as 1,310 human smugglers last year, mostly facilitators and sub-agents...

The effects of great upheavals in the region, like the 1979 revolution in Iran, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, have had tremendous impact on human movement. The mass exodus of asylum seekers and political refugees from Iran, both legal and illegal, opened routes to Europe and connected them all the way to villages in northern and central Punjab.

Many transit migrants also end up settling in Turkey and Greece, unable to afford going further. This is the explanation proffered by authorities in Pakistan when asked why networks of immigration agents are so widespread and efficient: The agents were originally migrants, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. They have contacts both in their home countries and their adopted ones.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) claims to have arrested as many as 1,310 human smugglers last year, mostly facilitators and sub-agents, launched 7,500 enquiries and recovered 11 billion rupees as a result. It also claims to have intercepted around 6,600 intending migrants in 2015. A mere trickle in the deluge of outward migration.

America’s State Department publishes an annual Trafficking In Person (TIP) report which ranks countries on a three-tier rating system based on their compliance with international human trafficking regulations. In 2014, Pakistan was demoted from its long-standing Tier 2 rank (which includes countries where human smuggling and trafficking originates from, like India) down to the Tier 2 Watch List, joining a group of some 44 countries including Afghanistan — a rank which is only a small step above Tier 3, which includes countries that exercise no border control, like Syria.

Iran, incidentally, is also ranked in Tier 3.

Pakistani migrants sit around a fire at Idomeni camp on a cold morning in November 2015 | Jodi Hilton
Pakistani migrants sit around a fire at Idomeni camp on a cold morning in November 2015 | Jodi Hilton

There is, therefore, mounting international pressure on Pakistan, the Ministry of Interior and through it the FIA, to curb attempted migration and improve border control, clamping down on both human trafficking and smuggling. This pressure does not translate into performance for a multitude of reasons, says Mahr Usman, the FIA’s additional director for immigration.

He is functionally in charge of a dedicated immigration desk at the FIA headquarters in Islamabad. Its regular function is to collate data from all FIA circles around the country and coordinate with the Ministry of Interior which oversees the FIA and signs repatriation and extradition treaties with other countries.

Usman has three years of field experience working at the FIA’s airport checkpoints. His job was to check suspicious documents and make judgment calls based on tip-offs; these could come from any source — neighbours, relatives, even agents themselves at times. The FIA officials at airports work closely with customs offices, airport security forces and civil aviation authorities. People with suspect documentation are detained and interrogated on the airport premises.

Immigration was first made an FIA concern in 1974, after the first wave of overseas employment agreements saw thousands of Pakistanis migrating to the Gulf states, Usman explains. The sheer volume of migration encouraged illicit means of traveling that allowed paperwork to be circumvented and travel and visa costs paid in installments; thus came about the demand for illegal immigration agents.

Law enforcement lagged far behind these developments. It was only in 2002 that the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance was passed. Usman explains that no specific law existed prior to the promulgation of this ordinance to deal with offences and culprits related to human trafficking and human smuggling.

The FIA was largely toothless before this ordinance, Usman contends. It still is in many ways.

Usman recalls the migratory swell of people from Mirpur (in Azad Kashmir), Mandi Bahauddin, Gujrat and Jhelum (all in Punjab) in the 1970s and 1980s when labourers first went abroad en masse. They started sending remittance, their families back home bought lands and cemented their houses. Their neighbours and relatives would see the material improvement and wish it for themselves.

Able-bodied young men willing to travel to another country became a family dream. They were family investments, and immigration agents were suddenly much sought after.

Usman says Dubai’s construction boom started the cascade. Contractors needed cheap labour which was imported from countries like Pakistan, legally at first, through overseas employment visas, but the demand for a larger and even cheaper workforce grew at a faster pace than the legal supply. Many migrants, since they knew the process, became agents to cater to this demand. The contractors did not care how the labourers arrived.

The global network of travel agents, visa consultants and human smugglers traverses lines of legality and illegality with consummate ease.

“A lot of people still get genuine visas to Iran, Dubai, even Turkey, and then try to abscond from there into Europe,” Usman explains.

Facilitators, sub-agents, document forgers, they are everywhere. “It is not just our problem. Has Iran or Turkey managed to eradicate their agent networks? It takes two to tango. If people go from here, they also get help from the places they are traveling to.”

This is a valid point. Earlier last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a press conference about the perennially ongoing negotiations between Turkey and the EU over what the latter feels is insufficient border policing by the former. Erdogan made it clear that Turkey would improve border control only if the EU allowed free movement for Turkish citizens inside Europe. It is clear from the statement that Turkey can do more; it just wants more incentives to do so.

Pakistan likewise does not have great incentives to better police its borders, says Usman. There is a distinct perception among official circles that it is a case of ‘better their problem than ours’. A huge expatriate population that contributes to the economy via remittances is an advantage that Pakistan wants to maintain even if parts of it are functioning beyond legal channels.

Then there are turf battles over jurisdiction within government departments.

“Firstly, the FIA does not control the border. The FC controls the land border. The Coast Guard is in charge of the marine border. The FIA has only two border checkpoints along 3000 kilometres of land border with Afghanistan and Iran. Even these checkpoints are understaffed,” Usman says. “The FIA does not have the resources to pursue people inland. We have no legal authority to arrest anyone before they have attempted to leave the country.”

The FIA also does not have the capacity to detain all the migrants who come back on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The detainees are produced before a magistrate who then imposes a nominal fine on them for attempting illegal migration. The fine may range anywhere between 500 rupees and 2,500 rupees. In accordance with the existing laws, they are then set free.

This lack of punishment is one major reason why most migrants make second and third attempts when the first is foiled, argues Usman. “The FIA does not have the human resources to keep tabs on them, their numbers being so high.”

He also explains how economic downturn in Pakistan directly raises migration rates. “Sialkot has become a huge exporter of illegal migrants after the manufacturing industry has regressed. Migration is not just a problem of policing borders, it’s also a matter of internal conditions and policies.”

Usman states that an alarming number of students are being deported these days because of stricter visa regulations in Europe and the United States. “There is no rehabilitation programme for these deportees. We do not have the infrastructure to deal with them. They come back, have nothing to do and some of them turn to street crime, target killing or even terrorism.”

When I visited the FIA Gujranwala office in January this year, the officials there had just arrested 14 intending migrants from a nearby railway station. Three entire families were trying to escape to Muscat.

They were all in detention. They had paid 250,000 rupees each to an immigration officer who provided them fake birth certificates, family registration forms, bank statements and forged travel documents.

After paying nominal fines, all these people will go back to Quetta, some to take trains home, others to turn around and head straight back to Taftan to make another attempt.

Going to Muscat from Karachi was a popular route during the heyday of labour migration. The Gulf of Oman is still the conduit for a sizeable amount of human trafficking. The agent named by the detainees, Naeem Sarwar, was picked up by the FIA officials in a raid at his house. Many visa stamps were found on the premises for South Korea, Bangkok, Indonesia, Iran, South Africa and even Libya.

The eastern routes take migrants to Sri Lanka or Bangkok and then onwards to Indonesia and Australia. Getting asylum in Australia is reportedly easier than in Europe. The FIA officers confirm that embattled religious minorities in Pakistan and political activists with genuine threats to their lives prefer to venture this way.

Sarwar, also under investigation for an earlier nomination in a human trafficking case, had an unexplained 36 million rupees in his bank account. The account, frozen on the FIA’s request, was later made operational on a court order. Though the raid on his house had produced some documentary evidence, the court required witnesses too, and none were willing to testify.

These people still wanted to go abroad — and Sarwar was still their best bet.

Khalid Anees, deputy director at the FIA Gujranwala office, is furiously shouting away orders at his subordinates. He is a busy man and does not have time to entertain queries from his staff, something that he establishes by continuously swearing at them. In between phone calls, he is interrogating one Akram Mughal who has been in the FIA’s custody for a week.

Islamabad airport security escorts Pakistani deportees in 2007 | AFP
Islamabad airport security escorts Pakistani deportees in 2007 | AFP

Anees refers to him as ishtihaari mujrim — a proclaimed offender. The FIA put out his photo in local newspapers as a suspected felon and they found him during a raid on a travel agency after receiving an anonymous tip-off. He has been nominated in 26 complaints, all stating that he received hundreds of thousands of rupees, promising migration to as many as six different countries.

No witnesses came forward to testify against Mughal in the first four days of his detention. Then a woman, Amna Bibi, contacted Anees and offered herself as a witness. She told him that Mughal posed as a travel agent and took 140,000 rupees from her, promising her a visa to Dubai, but he never delivered on this promise. She claimed she still had a piece of paper signed by Mughal that was meant to act as a receipt, and that he had her passport in his possession.

Bald, with a creased forehead and grey stubble on his face, Mughal has the kind of constant cough that betrays a lifelong smoking habit. He asks sullenly for a cigarette, which he is promised after he is back in lockup. He is sitting on the wooden bench on one side of the deputy director’s desk and is leaning against the wall, staring at the floor with sunken eyes, half mumbling his words.

Amna Bibi is sitting on the other end of the same bench.

While there is only one witness, all 26 complainants want their money back from Mughal. The FIA is struggling to comply. Mughal does not have much in his bank account. He will have to sell his house to return all the money.

With one ear on his telephone receiver, Anees dangles the carrot of cooperation in front of Mughal’s eyes. His house does not need to be sold if he names his accomplices and tells the FIA where they are hiding. Mughal says he does not have any accomplices.

Migration route | Designed by Rohail Safdar and S Asif Ali
Migration route | Designed by Rohail Safdar and S Asif Ali

Anees is convinced that Mughal is a sub-agent for someone known as Mithoo whom he suspects of having fled to Muscat since Mughal’s arrest, taking all the money with him. He calls Mughal crazy for not cooperating with the FIA. “He will ruin his own life but will not name others. What are we to do? There is no convincing these people.”

Mughal’s reticence compels Anees to call in the next batch of complainants. A group of 10 burly men accuse one Ikram Butt from Shakargarh, Punjab, of absconding with 60 million rupees he received from them and many others for umrah visas. Anees shakes his head at them and asks if they ever bother to do background checks when giving money to agents. “Why do you just hand over money to anyone? Don’t you watch news? Read newspapers? Thousands lose their money every year. Why doesn’t anybody learn from other people’s mistakes?”

Anees is going to have another long day at work.

The FIA Quetta office is right in the eye of the immigration storm. Intending migrants from Punjab flood to Quetta before going onto Taftan where, the FIA estimates, 500 to 1000 people cross the border every day. A fair few of them are illegal trespassers. Some are stopped at the border but many filter through.

When I visited the circle office in January this year, 450 migrants had just been deported from Iran. A little while ago, this would have been a logistical catastrophe. The FIA’s old detention centre in Quetta had space for 15-20 people. This is true for most FIA circles across Pakistan.

Now, though, the FIA has built a sizable detention centre at Taftan border. The deportees are being kept there, waiting for their appearance before a magistrate who also sits at Taftan now to avoid a huge backlog of cases.

After paying nominal fines, all these people will go back to Quetta, some to take trains home, others to turn around and head straight back to Taftan to make another attempt.

An FIA additional sub-inspector at the Quetta office tells me about the problems his department faces because of the sheer number of migrants that flow through here. “We get the same resources as any other FIA circle but our work burden is tenfold.”

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He is a smart, energetic man, sporting a moustache and an air of congeniality. It is raining outside; he points to the weather and explains. “They are not cattle. They are human beings. They are citizens of Pakistan. The state in which we find them after they are sent back is often deplorable.”

He says the FIA should have much more power if the government is serious in putting an end to illegal migration. “We want to get to the smugglers, the traffickers, but all we are doing is dealing with the deportees.”

There are bad days and worse days when it comes to dealing with deportations. There are never any good days. “I’ll give you a recent example,” he pauses as he looks out the window. “A dead body came back from Iran a few months ago. The man had died inside a container. His body lay there for two days at the train station. Nobody came to claim it.”

The dead can often go unclaimed. It takes time for news to get back to their families, if it ever does. Some do not even have identification documents with them. They have to be buried in unmarked graves in Quetta.

Workers at the local train station dread shrunken corpses that sometimes accompany the deported migrants.

Turkey wants Pakistan to penalise both agents and illegal migrants, something it feels Pakistan has not been doing. Just before a fresh round of talks over a repatriation treaty between Ankara and Islamabad early last year, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said human traffickers defamed Pakistan abroad and took advantage of poverty stricken citizens.

He failed to realise that Turkey was not talking about human trafficking; it was talking about illegal migration. Even if human traffickers and illegal migrants largely end up using the same networks, they represent distinctly different phenomena.

Migrants deported from Oman arrive in Karachi in 2005 | AP
Migrants deported from Oman arrive in Karachi in 2005 | AP

Human trafficking victims are transported under coercion. Illegal migrants act out of their volition. Intending migrants are primarily male, from northern and central Punjab; whereas around 60 per cent of trafficking victims are women, from all over Pakistan, sold into forced prostitution or paper marriages.

Migrants get bullied and blackmailed too, but they retain some form of agency: to continue on or turn back. Trafficking is plain abduction.

The FIA, by all independent accounts, has in the recent past overcome one particularly brutal form of human trafficking: camel jockeys. Children under 14 years of age were sold to rich Arab camel racers in the Gulf to spur the animals on – without encumbering them under their own meager weight – during competitions. These children often received serious injuries. Many were left traumatised for life. Some even died.

According to the FIA’s Red Book, the number of most-wanted Pakistani human traffickers was 141 in 2013, up from 95 in 2011. A majority of them belonged to Gujrat and Gujranwala districts of Punjab.

An overwhelming majority of people shown by the FIA as traffickers are, however, agents for illegal migrants. The top 20 human traffickers on the FIA Karachi’s most-wanted list are all migration agents and fake visa consultants — most of them operating through the Mand-Bullo border between Iran and Pakistan, others using the route between Jiwani and Muscat.

The lack of distinction between people complicit in their own tragedies and those who are mercilessly exploited for profit has been one of the major hurdles in the implementation of the internationally accepted Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

“These people are arrested as human traffickers but the charges against them are mostly of document forgery and fraud,” Anees tells me on the phone. They get bail, abscond, and their cases linger. “Often they go back to their consultancies and businesses.”

He tells me about a recent raid against alleged human smugglers working at the Pakistan Overseas Employment Promoters Association. As the FIA officials reached the association’s office, they met with a massive protest, launched against the FIA’s own investigations. “Human smuggling is connected with so many other things. It is difficult to issue arrest and search warrants and to have a clear cut case that holds up in court. We need better laws,” Anees says.

An even bigger problem is the involvement of government officials themselves. In 2014, Shahzad Gul, an FIA immigration official in Islamabad, was arrested along with a Pakistan International Airline (PIA) officer, Khurram Shahzad, for issuing boarding cards to three passengers later caught with visibly fake documents at London’s Heathrow Airport.

In 2015, five officials of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) were arrested for issuing fake national identity cards to Afghan nationals. In May of this year, a Foreign Office director, Shafqat Ali Cheema, was arrested for owning assets whose worth is well above his declared sources of income. He was also accused of aiding human trafficking and smuggling.

A National Accountability Bureau (NAB) investigator says that Cheema was accused of facilitating human smuggling back in 2000 and was almost expelled from the Foreign Office but he managed to procure a restraining order from a court. He worked at Pakistan’s embassy in Spain and was accused of passport fraud by the Spanish authorities. He allegedly faced similar charges when he got a subsequent posting in Korea.

Security checkpoint at Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman | Matiullah Achakzai, White Star
Security checkpoint at Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman | Matiullah Achakzai, White Star

Pakistan is planning to issue biometric passports from next year to halt the outflow of undocumented human beings. This follows an earlier effort to improve border monitoring through Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) and may turn out to be another futile exercise. As the case of recently slain Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour shows, owning a Pakistani CNIC for any Afghan is not a difficult thing. As long as illegal migrants and human smugglers are able to enlist the help of complicit government officials, chances of border trespassers being discovered with forged or illegally obtained biometric passports will not necessarily diminish.

If migration is such a socioeconomic and political headache across the globe that these can impact the outcomes of elections – as London’s mayoral and the United States’ presidential campaigns can attest – then why are international borders so open? Smuggled goods, smuggled armaments, exported ideologies and militancy — there are many problems associated with porous borders and yet the solutions never go beyond placing razor wires and erecting flimsy walls.

In a manner of speaking, the answers to this predicament are in the borders themselves. The imaginary lines that look arbitrary on a map become even more whimsical when you arrive at a border checkpoint, say the one between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The border in Chaman surreally divides families, houses and villages, making people from the same communities residents of two different countries.

There are labourers who work on one side of the fence and sleep on the other; some cross the border just to grab a cup of tea.

Their movement is regulated under the age old rahdari system. Under agreements in place since the time of the British Raj, local communities do not need federally approved travel documents or visas to commute across the border. They can travel on rahdari, a border pass, issued by local authorities.

This makes sense from a sociological point of view, but it causes problems in regulating cross-border movement. Thousands of Afghans cross over into Pakistan through the Chaman border under the rahdari system, before they attempt migration to Europe or Australia.

Passing through the Iran border is similarly easy, even though passports and visas come into play there. This is because of ziarat visas, meant for Shia pilgrims from Pakistan wanting to visit holy shrines in Iran. Thousands of non-Shias get this visa, often from the Iranian consulate in Quetta, to try and get to Turkey.

Complicated? It gets better.

On my first day in Jiwani, a town on the southwestern coastal edge of Balochistan and only 25 kilometres from the coast of Iran, I saw a boy sitting on beach stones next to the sea. He seemed to be waiting for someone, I assumed someone who had taken a boat out for fishing, but my assumption was a bit off the mark.

“I am waiting for my cousin,” he explained.

Where was this cousin coming from?

“Iran.”

Iran?

“He goes there to study.”

Every day?

“Every day. His mother’s family lives over there but he lives here with us. I am waiting for him to come back so we can go play football.”

Their life is one of toil and turmoil and their only reward is to be able to send money home to their families.

Jiwani was a high-traffic route to Iran before the Coast Guard set up a permanent outpost here. Local clinics and hospices talked about the injured and the dead that washed back ashore. They were running out of beds for the locals.

In the FIA office in Gwadar, 20 men from northern Punjab sit huddled in the courtyard over a white sheet of cloth. The lockup where they ought to be is occupied by other, more serious offenders. These migrants will sleep out in the open tonight. They are being given dinner as I approach them, each sitting with his backpack in front of him and sneakers placed on one side. Their forlorn faces speak of regret — some for having tried to flee abroad, others for getting caught.

You can tell the first-timers from their terrified faces. The second and third-timers are calmer, they know they will be free in a few days.

The person I talk to first is barely 19 years old. He is from Sialkot. He is educated and he attempted to migrate with his father’s help and permission. The agent offered him only the sea route.

He was told to take the Shalimar Express to Karachi and get to Yousuf Goth bus station. “I was to call the agent when I got there. When I did he told me to board a certain bus going to Gwadar. I saw many others like myself, phones in hand, bags on their backs, boarding the same bus so I figured that it was the right one.”

A Baloch migrant protests along with other migrants at the Greece-Macedonia border after being denied entry in December 2015
A Baloch migrant protests along with other migrants at the Greece-Macedonia border after being denied entry in December 2015

He remembers an uneventful journey into Balochistan before problems emerged. They were stopped at a checkpoint and uniformed personnel came on board for inspection. Intending migrants are not hard to spot, especially when they are travelling in groups of over a dozen. “They asked for money, 1,500 per person. There was a man on the bus who negotiated with them.”

Before long, it was late in the evening and the bus driver was getting agitated. “He said this wasn’t supposed to happen. He had a short argument with the negotiator.” Something in the negotiations was breaking down. Some of the migrants, including the young man from Sialkot, tried calling the agent but his number was switched off.

After a lengthy sojourn, the bus started moving again. The negotiator got off at the next stop. “I knew something was wrong; I was getting very tense. The agent called us one by one a little afterwards. He said there was a change of plans. We would have to get off the bus at a certain stop and walk to the shore where speed boats were waiting. Somebody would be there to show us the way.”

This is how most attempted migrations get foiled. The failure of one agent to pay another, or the failure to negotiate with the relevant authorities. The boy from Sialkot was a nervous wreck by the time they made it to the coast. “When I first saw the sea rise and fall, I felt dizzy. I had never seen the sea before. I did not even know how to swim.”

He wanted to turn back but his companions egged him on. Someone took his arm and settled him into a speedboat. He started praying more and more fervently as the motor started and the boat began its uneven movement.

“I thought I was going to be sick. I didn’t notice when the lights started flashing at us.”

The Coast Guard intercepted their boat before the coast of Balochistan was out of sight. They arrested the intending migrants and handed them over to the FIA.

Drenched, defeated, scared, he had been sitting in the detention centre for a day now and had contacted his family back in Sialkot. “I just want to go home,” he says.

The investigating officer of the FIA Gwadar circle begs to differ, quite cynically. “He will be back. He has already paid the money.” The officer’s tone is harsh, dismissive of the boy’s plight. “I have seen hundreds like him; they are a little scared after the first time but the fear never lasts.”

He takes me to the people making their second and third attempts. He starts interrogating them about the hows, whys and where froms. “What did you do back in Mandi Bahauddin?” he asks a 31-year-old man.

“I have some agricultural land and buffaloes. I am a farmer.”

“So why do you want to go abroad. Here you have a home, a family, a living, self-respect. Why do you want to throw it all away to be a beggar in another land?” The officer’s tone gets harsher as he moves from one person to another.

“What about you?” he addresses a younger man.

“I am a civil engineer.”

“Did you have a job here? A home? A decent life?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“There it is,” the officer looks at me, shaking his head and smirking at the same time. “They are all well-fed, living comfortably. They are just fools.”

He interrogates every person he passes by. College graduates, shop owners, clerks. There were only two seasonal labourers among the group and few of them were illiterate. It did not quite fit in with the classical narrative concerned with the economic migration of unskilled labour.

There was a time before the world’s migration migraine when crossing borders was not as tricky as it is today.

In the 1980s, Mudassir Nazir was an unemployed member of a lower middle class family in a village near Gujranwala. His father was a headmaster in a government school. One of his friends was an emerging bureaucrat in Lahore and was part of a trade delegation being sent by the government to the United Kingdom.

Nazir begged his friend to take him along. A large number of unwarranted aides and attaches accompanied the delegates.

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The official trip ended in two weeks but Nazir never boarded the flight home. There was not much to come back to in his village. “I saw clean cities and beautiful women. I wanted to stay there and make a life,” he tells me in December last year during one of his infrequent trips to Pakistan. He is a short, stout man with soft, pudgy hands. He is also an expert chef.

With nowhere to go in England and carrying little money, he set about finding some distant relatives who had legally migrated a few years before his arrival. He hid in their house for a few months, helping with domestic chores and cooking. He would eventually be hired as a store clerk by a Bangladeshi proprietor. He earned below minimum wage and slept behind the counter.

In a couple of years, he saved enough to open a small food stall of his own, with a little financial help from other established immigrants he had become friends with. He sent word back home through these friends that he was fine and in good health; when his family wrote back asking when he would come home, he could only offer silence.

Going back was not an option. Not in those first ten years. Such are the travails of living as an undocumented migrant. He would get into trouble at times; somebody he might have upset, somebody who didn’t get along with him, or did not like the colour of his skin would call the immigration authorities to inform on him; he was forced to move his establishment twice.

A decade after he had taken that flight to England, he saved enough money to open a desi cuisine restaurant in Manchester. It was a surprising hit with the locals. In time, his economic fortunes took a turn for the better. He got married to a British national, bought a house in her name, hired an immigration lawyer and started his naturalisation process.

He could demonstrate good character and a history of paying taxes on his business. It still took another three years and some token palm greasing for his application to be approved.

“It was the happiest moment of my life. That constant fear of everything being taken away one day, all of a sudden was finally gone.”

He came back to Gujranwala 13 years after he had left. He wore an expensive Marks & Spencers suit, put on gold cufflinks and a gold watch and rented a car from Lahore. It was more a coronation than a visit, an announcement of his newfound status.

The restaurant exists to this day and is reasonably popular but behind the exotic food it offers to what Nazir says are largely white and drunk patrons, there is a secret story of migration. “Over the course of my twenty years in the restaurant business, I have facilitated hundreds of migrants from Pakistan to Britain; young men from my village, from nearby villages. When I first got a cell phone, I used to get calls all day from people begging me to help their sons, brothers, fathers to get abroad.”

Nazir contributed to agent fees and provided the migrants shelter and refuge in his restaurant after their arrival in Manchester. He did not do so out of mere sympathy, though he insists sympathy was also a motivation. Undocumented migrants make a pliable work force; longer working hours, smaller wages, no place to complain and the threat of deportation always looming large.

The reasons to leave are plenty; the reasons to stay not quite so.

“They used to sleep on wooden slabs above the pantry, like I did when I first went there — half a dozen of them in a space small enough to be yours or mine bed.”

Nazir has no qualms. “But what else was there? They couldn’t be out in the public; they could hardly speak the language; they had nowhere else to go; they had no money. I was their only hope.”

He insists he did nothing wrong. “I did it to help them and to help myself. People say I did not pay them enough but I paid them more than what they would have earned elsewhere. More than they would have earned back home.”

British authorities raid shops, restaurants and general stores regularly for stowaways and undocumented people living in the United Kingdom. Nazir has had run-ins with law enforcement officials for hosting and employing illegal migrants. He has faced charges. His restaurant has been fined. And yet he takes everything in his stride. “These things happen. I wouldn’t have made so much money on the back of a legal workforce. So you take these risks,” he laughs.

Not everybody is as lucky as Nazir. A dozen people who waited tables at his eatery as well as two of his managers and one accountant were all deported back to Pakistan. Nazir lends them money now and again. Some of them are trying to make their way back into Europe; others are unsure how to continue their interrupted lives.

Death, mutilation, humiliation, monetary loss and incarceration; the reasons never to attempt unlawful migration are many. On the other hand, the reasons to do so become more convoluted the more research is conducted.

The basic economic argument still holds much merit, the idea that even if nothing else changes, it is better to be a poor person in a rich country than a poor person in a poor country.

A large number of people who have genuine concerns for safety in their home countries often do not have the luxury of time to put together legal documents before going abroad to seek asylum. They flee in emergency, under duress.

There are Baloch nationalists escaping abductions and disappearances and targeted attacks. There are Pakhtuns escaping from the war-torn north. There are journalists and social activists escaping threats to their lives. There are people escaping family feuds and enmities. There are Christians, Ahmedis and Hazaras escaping religious and sectarian discrimination.

The Pakistani winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace is in self-exile as are many of the top intellectuals, politicians, activists, even religious leaders.

But beyond security and economic compulsions, academic research and popular depictions of migration increasingly suggest complex motives.

Ali Nobil Ahmad is a professor at the Lahore University of Management Science (Lums). He has written a book recently, Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration, arguing that the primary reason for migration might be rooted more in ideas of masculinity and sexuality than economy.

He interviewed dozens of migrants, both who had spent considerable amount of time abroad and those whose attempts had been aborted. His queries produced vague, uncertain replies, but always coming back to women and a liberal lifestyle. The major recurring theme was a sense of personal betterment out ‘there’ — not economic betterment but independence, sexual freedoms, self-discovery and the conquest of the unknown.

Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman | Banaras Khan
Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman | Banaras Khan

Atther W Qureshi, a Pakistani migrant now settled in Switzerland, is an educated migrant who went abroad to find adventure and a new life, to start form zero; to remake himself. He is a writer now, something he would never have been able to achieve here. A Refugee in Switzerland, his semi-fictional account of landing in Switzerland, seeking asylum and sharing a refugee camp with other migrants is instructive as far as the migrant experience is concerned.

He describes the sense of calm that prevails in a refugee camp — an otherwise seemingly hopeless situation: cordoned off from the rest of the world, migrants wait patiently for their applications to be processed. It serves to illustrate how getting ‘there’ alone is half the achievement: being there and not being ‘here’ — the ‘here’ they are trying to escape.

It seems a counterintuitive idea: willingly uprooting oneself from home, family, identity and culture; to take apart all these things and start all over again in an alien land, as an alien person. Adrift, anchorless. But it is also a powerful one.

The 2012 film Zinda Bhaag is about the unrelenting appeal of this idea. It tells the story of three unhappy young men from Lahore, trying to migrate abroad. It shows them unable to find any outlet here for their energy and spirit. It shows them skirting the law with a gambling ring. It shows them making ambitious plans beyond what their social stations permit. It finally shows them paying for forged documents to travel abroad, the same forged documents that a friend of theirs used to try his luck, and died.

The last scene of this otherwise tongue in cheek film is a harrowing focus shot of one of the young men as he is asked whether he still wants his picture on his deceased friend’s passport, knowing that he may meet the same fate. He stares straight into the camera, somber as if at a funeral - his own - and says yes. The film’s title means ‘run away alive’, a comment on what it means to migrate.

The film was a hit with local audiences who have seen these expressions on many young faces. This ambivalent attitude towards migration is a far cry from the migration experience shown in cinemas only a couple of decades ago. Dubai Chalo was a cinematic appropriation of the labour export mania. It advertised working class life in Dubai as this exotic, bountiful dream. The idea was to generate enthusiasm for labour exchange agreements signed by the Pakistani government at the time.

Such ideas, as we have now come to know, were far removed from reality. Pakistani labourers working in the Gulf live in appalling conditions, as second-class citizens, with barely any basic rights or social security. Their life is one of toil and turmoil and their only reward is to be able to send money home to their families.

But this erosion in the popular imagination of the good life abroad has not stemmed the tides of migration. In fact, migration has hit its highest rates ever. Part of the problem is confirmation bias. An intending migrant here in Pakistan only sees or hears of the success stories — fewer in number but with a disproportionate qualitative impact.

The message accompanying these stories is too inviting to be refused.

“Just get here and I’ll take care of everything,” was what Ismail’s uncle said to him. The reasons to leave are plenty; the reasons to stay not quite so.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the migrants.


This was originally published in the Herald's June 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


Haseeb Asif is a staffer at the Herald. Jodi Hilton is a photojournalist and a grant recipient from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.