REVIEW: Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration

Published January 26, 2014
Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan take part in a hunger strike at a church in Vienna. 	— Reuters
Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan take part in a hunger strike at a church in Vienna. — Reuters

“What happens when a child tries to dam a rivulet by piling up rocks?” Tanveer asks me rhetorically. “Of course it will just overflow somewhere else; it won’t return back up the way it came.” His description of what is wrong at the very core of the current European responses to illegal immigrants comes plainly and is probably of more significance than scores of statistics and volumes of writing on the issue.

Tanveer left the Swat Valley and Pakistan many years ago and has since travelled and worked his way to and through Central Europe. In Vienna, where we sit while conducting one of several interviews, he has recently become involved in a protest that has gained wide attention. Because of his seniority, he has turned into the spokesperson for the group. For the mostly younger men around him, he explains, there are hopes and urges that push them to go and see the world and make something of their lives.

When active protests against the country’s asylum policies started in Vienna, little did people know about the immigrants’ places of origin — nearly all of them hail from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Fata in Pakistan — or the reasons for them leaving their home country. Today, more than a year later, with numerous articles written, television and radio shows and discussions on their background, this state of ignorance has hardly changed.

Opponents of more generous asylum policies — among them the country’s government and a large swathe of the population — portray the men largely as economic migrants and, being Muslim, supposedly incompatible with the culture of Europe. Supporters — individual groups as well as many larger media outlets — on the other hand manage to back up the common image of Pakistan as a failed state with terrorism reigning everywhere with a few selected stories of men they manage to interview. In either case, men one talks and listens to (once language and trust barriers have fallen) are simply used as a face for preconceived notions which are supposed to explain the current challenge of migrants entering the EU in increased numbers. Individual and personal stories that do not fit these notions or can simply not be boiled down to some dates and numbers are disregarded.

In a recent movie by Luc Schaedler, Watermarks: Three Letters from China, partly about migrant workers in China, one protagonist explains the urge for young men to move away quickly: “young men want to go and see the world.” And in a book on the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, Magnus Marsden describes the motivation of young Chitrali men to leave for Afghanistan, Tajikistan or further with their own term, “jahanbini,” to go and see the world. A perfectly understandable motivation, especially for people in Europe where no one is held back by a foreign border and most can afford to travel at least to neighbouring countries. However, migrants to Europe are seemingly denied this possibility.

Ali Nobil Ahmad, currently teaching at LUMS, argues that even scholarly work fails to account for motives other than economic or conflict-induced ones. “The manner in which analysis is conducted in most sociological studies of migration networks and transnational economic practices effectively bypasses the individual; it assumes all actors within the ‘migration network’ to be objective rational actors […]. Most do not address the question of motivation in sending contexts at all.” His book, Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration: Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe, is of a quality that is markedly missing in the current discourse on the issue.

Ahmad conducted interviews with early migrants to London from the 1960s, the “old school,” as well as “freshies” who arrived in the 1990s and early 2000s, and men who ended up in Northern Italy, having arrived there around the turn of the century. While the earlier generation generally came on work permits, the younger generation came to London mainly on student visas and stayed on; migrants to Italy largely entered the country illegally. The book is based on 56 interviews for which Ahmad provides a tabular overview including origin, profession, education and marital status.

Conspicuously, the only five women interviewed were of the “old school” and came to Britain for marriage. Ahmad admits that his focus on men was due to easier access. However, it also represents the fact that nearly all Pakistani migrants, especially those illegally reaching Europe, are indeed men. During the last year, among hundreds of Pakistani men who reached Austria illegally, I heard of just one woman who came with her children.

This leaves Ahmad the space to look at responses in detail rather than packing them into simple statistics. These range from the desire to see the world — or “seeing what is behind the purdah,” as one respondent puts it — to the urge to leave the competitive shaadi market at home and parental control in general. “The professed desire to experience ‘freedom’ here aligns migration with subversion and the assertion of one’s youthful, generational identity,” writes Ahmad. “The decision to migrate is made, as with the old-timers, by and amongst a male community of friends, not by the household. The latter, if anything, is perceived as standing in the way of the individual’s life designs.”

Another important aspect is the risk illegal migrants are willing to take on their journey. The dangerous trip of illegal Pakistani migrants to Europe starts from Karachi, goes through Balochistan to Iran and on to Turkey and Greece, and includes many risks, especially in crossing natural and national borders.

The men I spoke with referred to migration as “game khelna” (playing a game) that includes both risks and opportunities. Ahmad has a similar interaction: “[He] had no answer when I asked him why he chose to play this ‘game of death’ (his words). The question is particularly pertinent in cases where migrants understand and consciously take mortal risks. Are we to believe that migrants who attempt to walk across minefields along Greece’s northern border with Turkey are making utilitarian calculations about future financial security?”

In these interpretations, and as the title of the book suggests, Ahmad often links responses to sexuality or desire and, true to the scholarly approach of the book, backs this up with numerous sources from psychology and philosophy. To a lay reader, this may at times be an overload. And even if used to such type of reading, some forays become quite questionable. Ahmad now and again himself notes that this is “all very speculative.” However, such speculations, the willingness to ask questions backed with not only one, but a number of accounts, are crucially important to get a closer understanding of the motivations for Pakistanis to undertake such an arduous trip.

The group of Pakistanis I have been interviewing in Austria during the last year is different from the group interviewed by Ahmad. While the youngest generation in the book left Pakistan in the ’80s and ’90s, most migrants today have left behind a somewhat different country. Many men today assert that they would have had ample opportunities to work and earn a good living in Pakistan.

Illegal male migrants today are largely from the middle classes with good education. But violence has undoubtedly sharply increased and phenomena like kidnappings as well as threats from the state and non-state agencies are more likely to be reasons to leave today than more than 20 years ago. And while earlier most men smuggled were from Northern Punjab (largely from the Gujranwala, Jhelum and Mandi Bahauddin triangle), today men from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa make up at least an equal share. Many refugees to Australia are from Balochistan, probably also owing to an increasing crisis there.

Undoubtedly, there has been a change in pattern. However, from what I have heard from those who reached Europe, and people who know of others leaving, the reasons and motivations are still often much more complex than “threat” or “money” and often include neither. Not only is it grossly unfair to deny illegal migrants other motives than those mentioned in the EU’s handbook of asylum laws, it also dangerously bypasses a genuine solution to the real problem. And sometimes, daring publications like Ali Nobil Ahmad’s, especially considering that the issue has been around for decades, are long overdue.

Masculinity, Sexuality and Illegal Migration: Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe


By Ali Nobil Ahmad

Ashgate, UK

ISBN 9781409409755



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