Every year, thousands of Pakistanis leave their homes to seek out fortunes in foreign lands. While hundreds arrive at their destinations through legal means, a far larger number tries to sneak across international borders to bypass the lengthy, and at times discriminatory and expensive, visa process. For most, this leads to an eventual discovery and subsequent deportation. For others, it can mean death.
Guncha Gul, a 21-year-old Pashtun resident of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, is one of the lucky ones. Earlier this year, frustrated with lack of employment, he joined three of his friends on a journey to Europe. Having been rejected for work visas, the four youth sought out an “agent”—a common euphemism for human smugglers—to secure passage for them. “He charged each of us Rs. 370,000 and assured us we would soon be earning 10 times that in Europe,” recalls a tearful Gul. The four friends weathered a brutal journey and near-starvation together before reaching the border between Turkey and Iran. It would be the last time Gul would see any of them alive.
“My entire life flashed before my eyes,” recalls Gul of the moment when his friends fell in front of him one by one, victims of Turkish border forces. He says the authorities had ordered them to surrender but they were too scared. “We never thought they’d shoot at us,” he said. But the Turks weren’t the only ones trying to stop them. According to Gul, the smuggler escorting them also opened fire—blocking off their escape route. “I don’t know how I survived. It was luck and the kindness of strangers.”
Gul is one of an estimated 300,000—at least—Pakistanis who try to illegally leave the country each year. Human traffickers profit off their desperation by forcing them to pay exorbitant amounts in exchange for what they claim will be a fast, and safe, exit from Pakistan. The journey is rarely either.
The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe has exposed many of the dangers that face illegal migrants. According to latest estimates by the United Nations, there are at least 15 million refugees from across the Middle East streaming into various European nations, hoping to find fortune or just plain security. From being locked inside windowless vehicles with little to no food or water, to being forced to traverse water channels with no safety equipment, the migrants are at the mercy of their traffickers from the moment they pay them to the moment they reach their destination—dead or alive.
Illegal migrants leaving Pakistan face similar circumstances. An annual U.S. report on human trafficking, released in July, notes that Pakistan is on a ‘Tier 2 Watch List’, or a “source, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” It gets worse, says human rights activist Ansar Burney. “Trafficking is like a cancer,” he says. “The worst aspect is that most of this business is being run by influential people who avail their links to the government [to get out of legal repercussions],” he added. The concerns are echoed by the U.S. report, which acknowledges Islamabad’s efforts to eliminate trafficking, but finds them insufficient.
According to would-be migrant Gul, the traffickers can often resort to violence to silence any vocal critics. He provided Newsweek with the phone number of one such “agent”. Initial calls went unanswered, as did a subsequent text in which I introduced myself as an unemployed man who wanted to find his fortune abroad. After several days of silence, the “agent” replied. Claiming he lived in the nearby village of Gojar Khan, he gave me directions to a hotel and told me to come meet him in person if I was interested in going abroad. We set up a meeting for the next day, with him promising that it was a very easy process—“if you have the money.”
In Gojar Khan, I was greeted by a young man who began our conversation by telling me he was not the “travel agent”. Instead, he said, he was here to gauge whether I was a genuine customer. The verification process, such as it was, relied entirely on my appearance and fictional backstory as an unemployed resident of Mardan. “We prefer people who seem educated and eager to reach foreign countries for employment,” he told me while we waited for the agent to confirm that I could finally meet him.
While the man, who identified himself as Ghafoor, wasn’t willing to share any personal details, he was more than eager to regale me with his employer’s success in helping Pakistanis escape abroad. “Don’t worry. It only takes Rs. 300,000 and you’re in Europe within a week,” he said, claiming his boss had “great relations” with border and embassy officials of several countries. “They can make it very easy for you to enter the country of your choice.”
When I questioned how it could be that easy, Ghafoor assured me that governments downplayed successful border crossings—which he maintained were the norm—to discourage illegal migration. “My own brother traveled to Italy just last year. Don’t worry about it,” he said as the trafficker called to approve a personal meeting.
The “agent,” who introduced himself as Rana Nadeem, met me at a local hotel. At the very outset, the middle-aged man assured me he had contacts everywhere and could help me travel anywhere I wanted to—even the U.S. Sensing my disbelief, he tried to sweeten the offer. “Look, I normally charge people Rs. 500,000 for my services, but since you look like a nice guy, I’ll charge you only Rs. 300,000,” he said, not realizing his facilitator had already promised me the same. “Of course, this doesn’t include the Rs. 80,000 you will have to pay my colleague for helping you at your destination,” Nadeem added, almost as an after-thought.
When I pressed him further, claiming I was unemployed and it was a large sum of money, he said I had to trust him. “This business relies on us trusting each other. You give me the cash; I get you out of Pakistan.” Nadeem also claimed it was much cheaper to travel by land than sea. “We can help you travel by boat if you’d like, but then you’d have to pay an additional Rs. 200,000 to pay off law enforcement personnel,” he said, adding that the money had to be paid in full within a week or the offer would expire.
What about cross-border travel, I asked. “You’ll be traveling in a vehicle driven by one of my men. We’ll take you from Quetta to Iran, where another colleague will drive you up to Turkey. Through Turkey, you can go to any eastern European nation you like,” he said. “You shouldn’t go to the U.K. though,” he warned. “The laws there are now too strict and you will find it very hard to find a job. Several men who used our services to get there have been deported in recent months.”
Nadeem seemed especially rehearsed when discussing the potential legal repercussions. “There is no danger,” he said with a smile. “You’re not the first man we’re sending abroad and I’m not the only agent here. There are scores of people like you and me. The success of my business depends on me developing good ties with border forces. They don’t stop us.”
Gul says he was convinced to leave Pakistan with similar promises. Finding no employment prospects two years after completing his matriculation, he initially applied for a visa to the U.K., where a few of his friends had migrated a few years earlier. “They convinced me to take out a loan for the application fees and after a lot of convincing, my father gave me money he had borrowed from an influential landlord.”
Unfortunately Gul, like many in Pakistan, was rejected by U.K. immigration. “I had the visa loan hanging over my head and with no chance of leaving Pakistan, I had no idea how I would repay it,” he said. Dejected, Gul asked friends if they knew of any employment but found no luck. Finally, one of them suggested he leave Pakistan—through an “agent.”
“He told me to pay Rs. 300,000 to any agent, assuring me that I could reach any European country within that amount,” says Gul, adding that he had no idea about any agents and asked for contacts. “He got me in touch with a local agent, who told me to meet him the next day.”
According to Gul, a middle-aged man identifying himself as Mukhtar Chaudhry invited him for a meeting at a local hotel. “He told me he worked for a private company that sends young men to the U.K., the U.S. and other countries for jobs,” he said. “He said all I had to do was pay Rs. 300,000 in Pakistan and another Rs. 100,000 in Iran and I would be taken care of.”
Gul found the offer too good to be true, but couldn’t resist the possibility of finally finding his way to a foreign land where he was still being promised employment. “I didn’t want to tell my parents that I was attempting something illegal so I told them I had received a visa and would be leaving within the week. They were so relieved that I would be able to repay the loan they had taken, they didn’t ask for any other details and just urged me to call them every day,” recalls Gul while tearing up. He says the sight of his mother crying that night almost convinced him to abandon his plans. But the lure of money proved far more powerful.
“That night I convinced myself that I had no other choice. I had no job, I had been rejected for a legal visa and I owed a substantial amount of money. I knew I had to leave.”
The Difficult Journey
A few days later, says Gul, he reached a house on the outskirts of Peshawar where he had been promised his journey would begin. He was greeted by a veritable swarm of people. “There were so many of us. Punjabis, Pashtun, Afghans. It seemed like hundreds,” says Gul. “The agent asked us all to pay him Rs. 20,000 immediately or leave. He claimed he would use this money to pay off border officials and told us we would need to use the remaining Rs. 80,000 to pay another agent in Iran. At that point, I had no choice but to comply.”
According to Gul, the would-be migrants were then directed to climb into a container with no visible light source. “The agent told us the container had to be kept dark so border forces would not notice it. It was like being in jail. The only light we could see came from tiny holes in the sides of the container,” he said, adding that at times he felt like he would suffocate due to lack of air supply.
The next shock came during the journey. Gul says he had been assured the container would take them all the way into Iran, but the agent now told them they would disembark 15km from it and would be forced to walk the rest of the way. “I knew then that I had made a serious mistake.”
But Gul’s torment was just starting. When the passengers disembarked from the container, three of them were unable to breath properly due to the cramped conditions and asked for a brief rest. In response, the human trafficker accompanying them shot them dead. “Don’t stop. Don’t think. Either you make it to Iran or you end up dead,” he warned the remaining migrants, who were too shocked to even bother putting up a token resistance.
Twelve hours into the journey, the men reached the Iranian border and, after a brief stop while the agent haggled with some border security, were allowed to enter the neighboring country—on foot. Gul says the trafficker warned them against identifying themselves as Pakistanis. This is a common tactic used by human smugglers, who urge their customers to identify themselves as Afghan refugees. “If you claim you’re from Afghanistan, you get dropped off near Herat and can make your way back into Pakistan through the Torkham border crossing,” says Gul, adding that he was told Pakistanis are either thrown into jail or placed in the custody of border officials—who often treat them as spies.
Gul says none of the passengers were allowed to eat or drink during this journey and after another two hours of walking, several men started showing signs of exhaustion. “The agent led us to another container in Iran and told us to get in for the final leg of our journey,” says Gul. “We lost two more men there when they were unable to climb into the container. The agent just left them there.”
After several more hours—Gul says he lost track of time at that point—the container stopped and the trafficker told his passengers they were at the border with Turkey.
“This is your chance,” he told them. “Run as fast as you can, as far as you can. Don’t stop. Don’t listen to any warnings. Once you’re inside, you can go anywhere.” The exhausted—and at this point starving—men had no choice. They ran.
“Until that point, we all still felt we would soon be in Europe. We would find success. We had no idea,” says Gul. As the large group entered Turkey, the border security forces opened fire on them.
“I saw 20 men fall down as the first salvo hit. Everyone started panicking. Some of us tried to go back, hoping we’d be saved [by the trafficker],” says Gul. Their hopes were shattered within seconds. “As we neared the container, a man ahead of me fell. It was then I realized that both the Turkish authorities and the agent were firing on us. It became clear they didn’t want to leave any evidence.”
Gul says he pretended to be shot and dropped to the ground. Using the cover of darkness, he started crawling away, hoping no one would see him. “I stayed like that for two hours. Eventually, I reached a road and stopped a passing truck.”
The truck driver happened to be a Pakistani who recognized Gul’s plight and drove him to another fellow migrant—a shopkeeper in Iran. “The shopkeeper helped me recover and took care of me for two weeks. He then helped me slip into Afghanistan from where I returned to Pakistan.”
Authorities in Islamabad admit Gul’s story isn’t unique. A senior Federal Investigation Agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek the government was working to eradicate the menace. “The National Action Plan has been a Godsend,” he said. “In the last year alone, we have arrested several individuals involved in human trafficking, including foreigners from Iran and other neighboring states,” he said.
Under the NAP, the Government of Pakistan has adopted a zero tolerance policy against human smuggling. While laws against the abhorrent crime have been on the books since 1975, their application has been spotty, at best. The government has repeatedly failed in proactively identifying vulnerable groups and has often relied on trafficking victims to seek aid themselves—a dubious plan, as illegal migrants fear deportation while returning victims fear legal action for breaking state laws. Under the National Action Plan, however, the FIA claims to have arrested hundreds of human traffickers in the past month alone.
“In September, our Karachi Anti-Trafficking Unit arrested six Iranians, along with two Pakistanis, who were collecting Rs. 300,000 or more from locals in exchange for fake passports and passage to Europe,” said the official. “Around 157 Pakistani passports were also recovered during the raid,” he added.
Local media has also reported on the trafficking crackdown. On Oct. 6, the FIA claimed to have arrested 261 human smugglers from Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Security officials also claimed to have recovered 1,212 fake passports during the same raids.
But the smuggling network is vast and will not be brought to heel any time soon, the FIA official concedes. “Over a thousand networks of human traffickers are believed to be operational in Pakistan,” he said. “Most of them work outside their home provinces so no locals can accurately identify them. So you’ll often have Punjabi agents in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; Pashtuns in Punjab; and so on,” he added. “These agents rely on the greedy and naïve,” he said. “There are those that believe they will reach a foreign state, marry a foreigner and find money and security. But there are just as many who genuinely believe they are going through a knowledgeable travel agent before discovering the reality of their situation.”
The official admitted that there were concerns about corrupt officials within the FIA helping human smugglers, saying Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was treating such reports very seriously. “We are currently probing several suspected individuals,” he added.
The government response, while welcome, is of little comfort to the hundreds of families who have lost loved ones to human smuggling. “Only a parent can know the agony of losing their child. The agent took away my son, my life,” wept Mazhar Ali, 70, whose son Shamas Ali died while trying to reach Europe. “I would never have allowed him to leave if I’d known I would never see him again. The government needs to act against these criminals so future generations cannot be led astray by their false promises,” added the resident of Gujrat.
Nasir Mehmood has a similar story. A resident of Daska, he lent his brother Aamir Rs. 50,000 to reach Hungary. “We didn’t fully trust the agent, but received a phone call from Hungary confirming that arrangements for his journey had been completed. The man on the other line also claimed he’d help Aamir get a job as soon as he reached his destination,” recalls Mehmood. The next day Aamir left as his family waited to hear about his safe arrival. It never came.
“A few days later, I got a call informing me that my brother had died while trying to cross the border into Hungary. I was still in shock when the man told me I needed to pay him thousands of rupees to get my brother’s body back.” Mehmood sought the FIA’s help and has since recovered his brother’s body. The FIA official confirms such appeals are becoming more common as people become educated about the risks of illegal cross-border travel. “When would-be migrants disappear, their relatives sometimes approach us to investigate. We can’t always help them but if we can recover the bodies, we try our best to return them to their families.”
Rights activist Burney says most families never even get the confirmation of a loved one’s demise. “Scores of Pakistanis have been killed while trying to illegally cross into foreign countries,” he told Newsweek. “In 2011, 21 Pakistanis suffocated inside a container traveling through Iran. A year earlier, 50 Afghans suffocated after their agent locked them inside a container and abandoned it outside Quetta.”
He said the majority of illegal border crossings ended in tragedy. “The agents don’t care about them. They just want the money. Even after people die, they extort their relatives for more money, promising to return their loved ones’ bodies in exchange.” The senior lawyer says estimates vary, but Islamabad has no means of determining how many people die in illegal crossings each year. “Most of the bodies disappear. We’ll never know.”
Gul says his friends’ bodies were among those that are never recovered. In the months since his return, he’s found employment, gotten married, and plans to start a family soon. “If there’s one lesson I learnt, its that there are no shortcuts. I might be struggling to make a living here, but at least I’m alive. I’m blessed.”