Behind the Mist | Pakistan Today

Behind the Mist

The unimaginable cruelty of Human Trafficking

“I am doing a service to the people. I don’t force anyone to go abroad. People come to beg me to send them abroad” said Ashraf Gani Wala, from behind the bars, explaining his reasons for transporting people. He was one of the most wanted Human traffickers in Pakistan caught by Federal Investigation Agency.

“What is the future of a laborer in Pakistan? he lives like a beggar. I send to Europe where they earn well and can change the status of their families” said Gani Wala. When asked if he knew that it was illegal to cross international borders this way, besides being extremely dangerous he said, “Of course I know everything. I also tell everyone that it is dangerous but people still want to go. It’s their lives they want to risk.” But his words ranged hollow as he knew only too well that his business was selling a death trap, to unsuspecting young men ; false promises wrapped in an attractive packing , tied with deceit.

The human traffickers sell the promise of reaching Europe easily, travelling through land routes but omit the details that the journey would be made through dangerous mountain paths strewn with the bones of previous travellers, along the way.

The story of human trafficking is one of unimaginable cruelty, suffering and the insatiable greed of man.

The allure of reaching Europe has been the cause of human trafficking for a very long time in Pakistan. It all started in the nineteen sixties when Mangla Dam was built with the help of British Government and the displaced people were encouraged to immigrate to UK and europe.

Europe was rebuilding and the men found work and eventually made money. They built big houses in their ancestral villages and bought cars. To the locals this was a magical transformation which everybody wanted. Europe seemed like a golden land of opportunity where money was aplenty and getting rich was no problem.

But times do not remain static and the realities on ground change. With growing concerns for security, restrictions were made tighter, laws regarding immigration and asylum became stricter and it was no longer easy to move to Europe.

When visas became more difficult to obtain, people tried travelling on fake documents but with the advanced technology and biometric systems in place on airports it became an impossibility. Yet despite all these developments the young generation in Punjab from the early migrant areas, still wanted to go to Europe at all costs.

The only other desperate option left to them was to travel through land routes to Turkey and onwards to Greece by paying human traffickers. Human trafficking business thrived and became organized with developed routes, agents and networks in several countries.

In the past ten years, Pakistan Government and law enforcing agencies have cracked down on these mafias many times and made thousands of arrests. There is also very strict security check on all borders but pakistan has a 500 km long border with Iran and it is literally impossible to block the movement of people all along it.

Iran and Turkey have also imposed strict restrictions on its borders and several bilateral initiatives have been taken to curb human trafficking. The traffickers however, remain undeterred and they still find men who want to risk it all. These men are send in small groups. The payment is made in installments by the families back home after receiving confirmations of each crossing.

Their methods and procedures are coordinated and well established. From punjab the group travels to karachi and contacts the agent on the phone number provided to them. The agents there receives them and they travel towards any one of the selected Pak-Iran border in Baluchistan from where they make the attempt for crossing the border in the dead of the night.

Pakistan’s the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) is active on the Pak- Iran border for the very purpose of controlling human trafficking. It includes all key law enforcing agencies working in coordination. According to official data available, from 2014 to 2017, IAFT has intercepted eighteen thousand nine hundred men before they could cross border. Yet thousands of men were still able to cross illegally into Iran from various points as the data will demonstrate.

When and if the group successfully crosses over the border into Chabahar or Taftan , there is another set of agents waiting to receive them in vans . The group is handed over to the new agents.

Inside the Iranian border, they are taken to safe houses or “deras” where they are kept until it is safe to make the next leg of journey to Turkey. It can be a long wait. Usually the only food given to the group is stale bread with a piece of cheese or a few olives. The travel inside Iran is made in trucks to reach the border town.

From 2014 to 2017 there have been more than eighty thousand men deported from Iran back to Pakistan. if we compare the number of men intercepted by IAFT and the number of deported from Iran it is obvious that for every one caught, four made it across.

Even inside Iran not everybody makes it to the safe houses. The vans traveling in the dark of night are sometimes intercepted and men kidnapped for ransom by the Kurd criminal gangs present in the border areas. Most of them do not make it back alive.

From Iran-Turk border the group starts the long and arduous trek through Salmas pass. Some men die of hunger and sheer exhaustion enroute but nobody has the exact data regarding that.

In Turkey there are mafia agents present in several cities including Izmir, Ederni and Ankara who are part of international trafficking networks. These agents in Turkey are alerted and they wait for the group to receive and transport them to safe houses.

The Turkish National Police has caught thousands of Pakistanis crossing over illegally and from 2014 to 2017 the figure of deportees was more than ten thousand. The captives are kept in detention centers until someone back home pays for their travel expenses and they are deported.

Yet there are still many who make it to the safe houses or basements and are kept captive there for the most dangerous leg of the journey to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece. The men are kept in extremely unhygienic conditions. These basements are crammed with men, who sleep on the floor like matchsticks and use a single toilet. According to some deportees, there are horrible stories of abuse and that they have seen people lose their mental balance there and even die.

Eventually they are quietly brought out in small numbers to the shore, at night, loaded in rubber rafts and pushed to the sea.

Hundreds have died during the attempt to cross the sea. As soon as they are spotted from the Greek border the rafts are shot by Greek Security Guards and they overturn. There are no rescues.

The sea there has become the watery grave of countless young men who die in their quest for the European shores which remain but a shadow behind the mist.

The writer is a Lahore-based social development professional and environmentalist