Text and photos by Mohammad Zia Adnan

As a child, *Rizwan Ali was often told not to wander far from home. If he did, his parents warned him, a truck driver would kidnap him. He had seen them — driving their big vehicles stacked with goods, sipping tea at roadside stalls. They looked scary with their handlebar moustaches, bloodshot eyes rimmed with kohl and bodies built to withstand rough roads and inclement weather.

Ali lived with his family in a village near Hafizabad city in central Punjab. His father and two brothers worked as farmers but wanted him to get an education. After passing his matriculation exam, he went to Lahore to study at a government-run institution, Islamia College. The move to the big city came with its own anxieties. He soon came to realise there were no decent jobs available to those who, like him, could not make it to either professional education institutions or to private colleges and universities. The only employment option, according to him, was to work in dead-end private sector positions that offered no financial stability. “No matter how hard you work, you cannot save anything [in those jobs],”Ali says in an interview in June 2017 in Italy. “So I decided either I die in Pakistan or move somewhere else.”

Before sunrise on a humid July morning, two days after Eidul Fitr in 2016, Ali was getting ready to leave his village — and his country. He had turned 17 only two weeks earlier. His mother smothered him with kisses and begged him not to leave. “I have to go,” he told her.

He packed a suitcase with his textbooks and a three-piece suit he had purchased for his new life abroad, and, accompanied by his elder brother, went to Mandi Bahauddin, a hub of human smugglers 84 kilometres north of Hafizabad.

There they met an agent whom their family had already paid 800,000 rupees. They promised to pay him another 100,000 rupees after Ali made it successfully and safely out of Pakistan. He would soon learn that such additional payments would have to be made throughout his journey in order for him to get through the ‘game’, as each leg of the route is called by the agents.

Scoffing at the suitcase, the agent told Ali to leave it behind. He was also told to carry as much cash with him as he could manage. Thus, he began his long journey that first took him to Quetta where he and more than a hundred other ‘parcels’ – as illegal migrants are referred to by the agents – were made to share a tiny room. They had their last meal in Pakistan there.

An agent took them across the border into Iran where they travelled from car to car — not as passengers but as luggage. The smaller ones would be stacked on top of each other in the boot. They never protested, fearful of being thrown away on the road to die by their chaperones who reminded Ali of the truck drivers he had feared as a child.

Days later, they reached Maku, a city in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran on the border with Turkey. They saw their supplies dwindle to a single bottle of water – to be shared by 50 men – as they walked through a mountainous terrain to cross the border via an unmonitored route. Human bones crunched under their feet. They spotted corpses at various stages of decomposition. These were the bodies of migrants who could not make it to Turkey before their food supplies ran out.

Ali and those with him were lucky to get into Turkey in time to replenish their provisions. He, however, caught tuberculosis, treated only after he reached Italy.

Ali was able to take a relatively safer route from Turkey onwards – passing through Greece and Macedonia – rather than a more precarious one through Bulgaria. This was made possible after his family paid another instalment of 100,000 rupees to the agent’s associates in Pakistan.

Ali reached Italy six months after leaving home. He first went to Verona, a medieval town in the north of Italy, where he stayed with a distant relative who had been living there for over a decade, working at a salad-packaging factory. A week later, he made his way to a quiet town named Udine, in a region that he had heard was a good place to apply for asylum.

A street named Via Pelliccerie in the centre of Udine, Italy
A street named Via Pelliccerie in the centre of Udine, Italy

Udine, with a population of around 100,000, is located in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy. Austria lies to the north, Slovenia to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the South. It is a perfect prototype of elegant, small-town Europe: women in pastel-coloured culottes ride bikes, their small dogs peeking out from golden wicker baskets in the front. Teenagers lounge by a fountain in a public square — chatting, with their arms lazily interlocked. Small crowds congregate by a hole-in-the-wall ice cream parlour serving classic flavours in waffle cones. Boutiques nearby sell the latest Prada and Valentino collections from Milan. The atmosphere is chic and sanitised.

Soon you begin to see their faces here and there — a Bangladeshi man trying to sell flowers to fashionable pedestrians who greet him with a curt “no, thank you”; the boys in polo shirts at a Zara store, speaking Punjabi as they try a cologne in the men’s section under the watchful eye of a salesgirl folding jeans.

Their presence in Udine is emblematic of the recent influx of asylum seekers to Europe in general and Italy in particular from all over South Asia, especially Pakistan. In 2015 and 2016, Pakistanis were the second largest group to seek asylum in Italy. They accounted for 10,403 and 13,660 asylum seekers in those two years, respectively. More than a third of new visas – 1,101 out of 3,048 – issued in Friuli-Venezia Giulia to refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 went to Pakistanis.

Under the European Union (EU) laws, there are approximately four possible outcomes of an asylum application: 1) rejection; 2) a visa issued on humanitarian grounds; 3) subsidiary protection which is granted to asylum seekers who are not able to prove that they are being personally persecuted but cannot return to their country without risking serious harm, 4) a refugee visa. If accepted under one of these circumstances, the applicants in most cases are eligible to work in the EU member countries.

Asylum seekers who have not yet reached the age of eighteen do not need the consent of their parents or guardians to apply. Their cases are assessed on a priority basis, immediately admitting them to dedicated reception centres that function as protected communities. They leave those centres only after they turn eighteen.

Doors and Portals, a programme aimed at adolescent asylum seekers and Italian high school students, is run in Udine by the National Trust, the local chapter of a state institution that operates under Italy’s Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities and Tourism. It brings together local students and asylum seekers living in a nearby reception centre through collaborative art and photography projects.

In June 2017, two of the trust’s employees introduce me to the participants of the programme who are sitting around a table in a whitewashed classroom with large windows. Ali is sitting directly opposite me. He is clad in a smart button-down shirt and jeans. Seated next to him are two other young men from Pakistan — *Amir and *Shakil. The former is a 17-year-old from Gujranwala; the latter was forced to flee from his native home in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) after threats from the Taliban.

A view of the Loggia del Lionello in Udine’s Piazza della Libertà
A view of the Loggia del Lionello in Udine’s Piazza della Libertà

Animated, they share the stories of their journey to Italy. They explained how human smugglers operate through cross-border networks, and often use generic names for themselves to mask their identities.

Already above eighteen, Shakil is the oldest – and also the quietest – of the three. He has left the reception centre and has started taking a pizza-making course in a nearby town. Jaded from his experience of finding a job and an apartment and sorting out his documents, he warns the others, “Just wait till you turn eighteen. Then you’ll see.”

Ali and Amir are fasting since it is the middle of the Islamic month of Ramzan. They invite me that evening to iftar – breaking of the fast – at their reception centre. Their Italian caretakers have adjusted meal timings and given full control of the kitchen to the Muslim residents of the centre for the month of Ramzan. They purchase halal meat from a Bangladeshi butcher to prepare their meals. “We are having pasta tonight,” Ali says and adds that, unlike Pakistani food which he sees as more filling, “Pasta isn’t good for our bodies.”

While walking to the centre, located on the outskirts of Udine, the boys recount their experiences in Italy. Amir is taking a bartending course and learning how to wait tables. Ali is turning eighteen in a few days and will be told to leave the reception centre.

“We’ve told [the Italian authorities] the truth,” says a 17-year-old from Lahore living at the centre. “There was no life-threatening problem [for us] in Pakistan. We came here because of poverty.”

His blunt admission is surprising. Most Pakistani asylum seekers cite persecution or the fear of violence back home as a reason for seeking asylum. But, as per a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a non-government entity that works closely with the United Nations, 76 per cent of Pakistani migrants interviewed in Italy in 2017 came from Punjab where persecution and the fear of violence are lower than in the rest of Pakistan. It remains unclear to me if he and other boys at the centre have actually told the authorities that they came to Italy for economic reasons because of the stigma surrounding economic migrants (and due to the obvious difficulty in getting a visa if economic reasons are given as the basis for a visa application).

The boys ask me about Pakistani girls in the United Kingdom and the United States — about how they dress, whether they wear a hijab or not. They express surprise at the way people in Europe approach relationships: one of their caretakers has fathered a child before marriage, they say.

Their rooms at the centre are comfortable: they have beds, desks and dressers — like a typical college dorm. The windows in Ali’s room overlook a field where he and some other residents of the centre play cricket. They have divided their weekly chores and clean the shared bathroom in the hallway on rotation.

In the dining room, the boys sit in self-segregated clusters — Pakistanis on one end, with Bangladeshis next to them and Kosovans and Albanians on a separate table. Country flags decorate one wall. A 13-year-old Albanian boy with light blue eyes serves everyone chicken legs, spaghetti and beans. Bottles of Pepsi and a jug of Rooh Afza with milk, that matched the lilac tablecloths, go around.

After the meal, we sit on plastic chairs in the field, the unkempt grass creeping up our ankles. Some of the Albanian boys sit in a circle near us, listening to a pop song, swaying back and forth and smoking cigarettes.

I ask Ali if he regrets coming to Italy.

“I regret it so much [that] I fall asleep crying at night,” he says.

An outside view of the Refugee Public School in Udine
An outside view of the Refugee Public School in Udine

When it is almost time for their daily curfew, a caretaker asks them to drop me off. We walk back to town through a park where couples are still out enjoying drinks and conversing on a warm summer’s night. A girl gets off a white scooter and kisses her date goodnight as we pass her by.

“This is what it sounded like during the journey,” one of the boys mutters, recalling the walk on the bones near Maku, as the gravel beneath our feet crunches with each step.

The exploitation of young migrants by the agents is rife.

“There are so many cases where these agents deliberately get these young men arrested at borders. In other cases, the agents lock them up in warehouses to extort money from their families,” says Chaudhry Ashfaq, who has been serving as a deputy director at the anti-human trafficking unit of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for the past four years.

Many officials of Iranian and Turkish border forces are also involved in trafficking, he claims, surrounded by a small group of inattentive colleagues in a dilapidated office by the Islamabad Highway. “They coerce money out of helpless migrants,” he says. Those whose families manage to pay the demanded sums keep moving on but those who cannot are kept in custody until they pay up, he adds. “They are deported if they are found to be unable to pay.”

In the worst cases, they are left in a far-off place without food and shelter — often to die without so much as an intimation to their families. “Many others drown in the sea, die [while being transported] in cargo containers or get shot by border guards.”

Ashfaq thoughtfully runs two stubby fingers over a bristly moustache when asked about how, in the first place, tens of thousands of young Pakistanis leave their own country every year illegally in order to get into Europe. He responds by saying that a majority of illegal migrants leave Pakistan via a land route that starts from Quetta and moves through Iran, Turkey and Greece before entering western European countries. There is another – but less frequented – land route that passes through Afghanistan and Central Asia before leading to Europe via Russia, he says. A sea route through Oman also exists though, according to him, it is not taken by many these days.

The historical Loggia del Lionello building in Udine
The historical Loggia del Lionello building in Udine

The traffickers charge illegal migrants around 20,000 rupees to help them cross the Pak-Iran border which is over 900 kilometres long but has only a handful of checkpoints, Ashfaq explains.

Once in Iran, many migrants are immediately arrested and deported. In the first ten months or so of 2017 alone, the Iranian government is reported to have deported 19,000 Pakistanis who were caught trying to cross the border illegally. In the past four years – according to FIA – 80,040 Pakistani migrants have been sent back from Iran.

Thousands of others get deported from other countries along the route — and their numbers have been increasing. The total number of Pakistanis deported from various parts of the world, according to an FIA report, was 513,231 in eight years between 2007 and 2015. This jumped to 544,105 in five years between 2012 and 2017.

One major reason for this increase is that the overall number of people leaving Pakistan illegally is also increasing.

In November last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered FIA to submit a report after 15 bullet-riddled bodies of illegal immigrants were found in the Kech district of Balochistan. The report ranked Pakistanis as the fourth largest group to attempt illegal entry into the European Union.

A 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that Pakistanis constituted the fifth largest group of people arriving in Europe on boats through the Mediterranean — just behind Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans.

The Refugee Public School in Udine
The Refugee Public School in Udine

The increase in illegal departures from Pakistan has been so alarming that the United States earlier this year started thinking of downgrading Pakistan on its human trafficking watchlist from tier two to tier three. This relegation would have put Pakistan in such unenviable company as North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela — countries that are “not making significant efforts” to curb human trafficking.

This “crisis-like” situation prompted Pakistan’s ambassador to Greece to write a letter to the Foreign Office in Islamabad in January this year, stating that unchecked human smuggling was hurting Pakistan’s interests abroad. Not only could it damage our image and relations with the EU, he said, “the issue could have a negative bearing” on the special export concessions granted to Pakistan. He pointed out that the situation was becoming “unmanageable” and suggested that “the tap has to be closed on [Pakistan’s] end”.

One reason why Pakistan has been failing to do so is that lack of information the law enforcement agencies have about the network of traffickers and their agents. Ashfaq blames it on a conspiracy of silence. Recently, after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast, killing 32 Pakistanis who were on board to travel to Europe, the authorities could secure no information from their families about who had taken them to Libya and put them on an overloaded boat.

The deportees too do not divulge any information voluntarily. “At first, they refuse to share any information and give us vague names,” says Ashfaq, “but we extract some information only after we arrest and interrogate them.”

This information is used in compiling the Red Book, a list of the most wanted human traffickers. Its 2016 edition has 92 names on it — only two of them are women. A large number of them belong to northern and central Punjab districts of Rawalpindi, Gujrat, Gujranwala, Mandi Bahauddin, Sialkot and Lahore. A dozen of them operate from other countries including the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Turkey and Thailand. A second part of the list includes the names of another 58 “most wanted human traffickers who have been arrested by FIA”.

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

Ashfaq claims that conviction rate of the arrested traffickers has been high due to what he calls the strenuous efforts of his department. “There have been 463 convictions in 2017 and 391 in 2016.”

According to the information available at Islamabad’s anti-human trafficking circle, FIA launched 482 enquiries in 2017 against suspected agents; 145 of them were converted into cases, leading to the arrest of 73 suspects.

Pakistan is also setting up FIA’s offices in Greece and Iran to collaborate with local authorities there. This is how Ashfaq offers the rationale for these offices: since we cannot arrest human traffickers operating in other countries and other countries cannot act against agents operating from Pakistan, the entire work against illegal migration becomes ineffective in the absence of a collaborative effort.

Folding the cuffs of a grey safari shirt matching the colour of his combed-over hair, Ashfaq explains the rush for illegal migration increased after 9/11. “The decreased economic opportunities internally and increased travel restrictions externally caused desperation among people,” he says. “Otherwise why would you put yourself through so much [pain] to leave your own country?”

It is also the younger lot, according to Ashfaq, who are not satisfied with their lives here. “Nobody over the age of 45 ever wants to leave.”

A majority of the migrants originate from the region spread over Gujranwala, Mandi Bahauddin, Gujrat, Hafizabad and Sialkot districts. “When people from a community go abroad and seem to be doing well as a result of that, others around them are tantalised into believing they should also go abroad at any cost,” says Ashfaq.“Lack of education and exposure creates a fascination among youth about the life they can have in the West.”

A 2017 report by IMO indicates that nine per cent of Pakistani migrants to Europe in that year were completely uneducated; another 26 per cent had a primary level education only and 59 per cent had attended a high school. Only five per cent had studied at a college or a university.

Summer afternoons in Udine feel endless. The hours snake around you like secondhand smoke until you realise that it is too late and dusk has fallen. Buildings here reflect the city’s past as a transit point. The Huns, the Venetians, the Austrians — all came, conquered and left.

One afternoon last year, I meet Alberto Terasso, veteran journalist-turned-TV host, at a local cafe in the shadow of a Venetian Gothic building on Udine’s Piazza della Libertà. He is a local resident and a former editor of Il Gazzettino, a daily newspaper.

Terasso explains that Udine is hosting 898 refugees and asylum seekers, whereas – in proportion to its population – that number should be 250. “There is this idea among local people that an invasion has taken place,” he says. The fact that some asylum seekers are settled in hotels and have access to free wifi at their reception centres has provoked outrage in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region where youth unemployment rates are climbing. And the media, he argues, is exploiting these sentiments.

A talk show, featuring prominent right-wing participants, airs daily on a private television channel owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s family. It often focuses on immigration and propagates populist – at times xenophobic – narratives, Terasso says.

Though there have been no instances of public hostility towards asylum seekers in Udine, the debate in Italian politics and Italian media has the potential to become more sinister, he argues. In August 2017, two months after we meet, two Italian boys from the city of Acqui Terme in the Piedmont region beat up an asylum seeker. They also film the act and later upload the video on Facebook.

A street in Udine
A street in Udine

A short walk from the centre of Udine is the Refugee Public School, started and run by local activists, where asylum seekers are taught Italian. It is housed in a small room with a foosball table and child-sized chairs. I go there on a summer afternoon last year, hoping that Pakistani students will be willing to talk to me after their class. Around 10 or so students are lounging outside in a playground adjacent to the school. A few of them are sporting crocheted skullcaps and wearing kurtas. Most of them are older than those housed at the reception centre on the other side of town.

I approach them for an interview but Pakistanis are reluctant to talk. Some of them are wearing wristbands that include a barcode to identify them as regular residents of a refugee reception centre run by the local Red Cross (that can house 300-350 people at a time). Some of the asylum seekers have been living there for two years, waiting for a response on their applications. Outsiders are not allowed to visit the centre without prior permission from state authorities in Udine and the Red Cross.

Such restrictions have raised concerns about living conditions at the centre. Elly Schlein, an Italian politician and a member of the European Parliament, visited it on July 29, 2016 and reported that the rooms were smelly and hot and that hygiene conditions were unsatisfactory. “… five showers are unfit for use. Some washbasins leak and hot water flows intermittently,” she stated in a report.

Luigi Manconi, who chairs the Commission for Human Rights of the Senate in Italy, visited the centre on January 26, 2017 and released a report stating that the bathrooms were “almost beyond endurance”. The residents of the centre, according to the report, were “reluctant to talk”. A cultural counsellor “shush[ed] several times a group of people who want[ed] to talk with us”. Some asylum seekers were quoted to have said that the “Red Cross threatens them with ejection, should they talk with ‘outsiders’ of what happens therein”.

The Red Cross rejected both the reports. It called the centre in Udine as a “model for the resettlement of asylum seekers”.

Three days before Ali turns eighteen on June 20, 2017 I ask him how he is feeling about having to leave Udine and his friends behind. “There was peace at the centre; it was like home. The only thing absent was the love of my parents,” he says. He is worried if he will be able to get a job in time for him to apply for a work visa and is wondering what it will be like to stay with his relative in Verona. “Now there is a huge mountain in front of me that I have to climb.”

Ali needs a legal job in order to remain in Italy on a long-term basis. As an unskilled worker with no officially recognised education and little command of the Italian language, the odds are not in his favour. When we meet for the last time before his departure from Udine, his regret about abandoning his education in Pakistan looms large in our conversations. “I wish I had managed to complete [my education] somehow,” he says again and again.

We have stayed in touch since that meeting. He messages me from time to time about the problems he has been facing in applying for a work visa. Sometimes, he forwards me a motivational quote or a greeting in Urdu on a religious holiday. He also often complains about the Kafkaesque working of Pakistan’s embassy in Rome.

In September last year, he tells me in a phone conversation that he has found part-time work at a Chinese restaurant but it pays little. Less than four months later, he quits and starts picking tomatoes on a farm — agricultural work not dissimilar to the manual labour he wanted to escape from in Pakistan.

Ali lives with eight other men, including his distant relative, in a two-room flat in Verona. They share a single bathroom and kitchen. It is not very comfortable, he says.

But he is glad that he can practice his English with tourists seeking out sites in the historic city, known to the outside world as the locale for Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. “I thought it would be like the movies here,” he says, regretting, one more time, for having left his education incomplete.

“Do you talk to your family?”

“Not every day. If I did, I would feel like going back.”

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

Additional reporting by Danyal Adam Khan in Islamabad.

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

The writer is a freelance journalist and has written for The New York Times and the daily Dawn.

This was originally published in Herald's May 2018 issue under the headline 'Exit Strategy'. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.