Thousands of illegal migrants, including Pakistanis, take the risky land route through Balochistan to reach the West.
ON the road from Quetta to Naukundi in Balochistan, the news fixer is clearly worried. The reason: the main source of income in his hometown (population: 20,000) is human smuggling. In fact, he asks, “Are you trying to snatch people’s livelihood from them?” The question is not in jest: his own relatives are also part of the racket.
Black, mineral-rich mountains lie adjacent to Naukundi; the town is located in Chaghi, Pakistan’s largest district and the area to which Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani belongs. The well-known Reko Diq and Saindak gold and copper mines are situated in the vicinity. Despite the multi-million dollar proceeds from the Saindak project, there are no employment prospects for the locals — nothing but the business of human smuggling.
Balochistan, with its vast open spaces and contiguous borders with Iran and Afghanistan, has for decades hosted a huge human smuggling racket. According to an elderly Baloch who is himself involved in the business, “Even during the Bhutto years, we saw people, especially Bengalis and Sri Lankans, being smuggled out by the Naukundi route. We were children then, and we’d steal their bags, shoes, and other belongings!”
In an interview with Dawn shortly before his death, veteran journalist Siddiq Baloch explained that the practice took on an organised form in the 1980s. The migrants are now largely Afghans and Pakistanis — particularly Punjabis, but also many Baloch.
“Every year, between 30,000 to 40,000 Pakistanis attempt illegal passage to Europe as well as Turkey, Russia, and the Middle Eastern countries through Balochistan and by air,” says Sultan Afridi, former assistant director Federal Investigation Authority, who headed the FIA’s anti-human smuggling operations for 15 years.
Most illegal migrants get arrested while crossing the Pakistan-Iran border, or they are apprehended inside Iran, and other transit countries. Last year, according to the FIA’s record, around 26,000 Pakistanis were deported by Iran.
(The FIA’s mandate includes cross-border crimes such as human smuggling, money laundering, and human and organ trafficking. Incidentally, human smuggling and human trafficking are distinct from each other. The first, unlike trafficking, does not involve the element of coercion, and it is always trans national; in other words, it entails a person voluntarily entering into an agreement with a smuggler to gain illegal entry into a foreign country.)
According to the International Organisation for Migration, last year Pakistanis made up the 13th largest group trying to cross the Mediterranean, with 3,138 of them managing to reach Italy. This year, however, with an estimated 240 reaching Italy in January alone, compared to only nine during the corresponding period last year, they are already in third place.
Several routes are used to smuggle people through Balochistan (see map). One route goes from Karachi via the RCD Highway towards Taftan, then onward to Zahedan (capital of the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan) to the Turkish border and beyond. Another runs from Karachi to Sistan-Baluchistan via Lasbela and Kech districts. Yet another goes from Quetta towards western Balochistan to the border towns of Taftan, Mashkel or Rajay. “FIA personnel are only appointed at the official check posts [of which only one is operational on the Pak-Iran border]. We have no border patrol units and can’t police a porous 905km border along which there are multiple crossing points,” says Director FIA Punjab, Dr Usman Anwar.
Taking the sea route means first travelling to Gwadar district via the Coastal Highway from Karachi, which allows people to skirt the dangerous, insurgency-hit areas further inside Makran. “The agents hire small boats that migrants, sometimes after a daylong stopover in the port city of Gwadar, board along the shore at Pasni, Jiwani, Pishukan or Surbandan. From there they [travel through the Gulf of Oman to] reach Iran,” says Behram Baloch, Dawn’s correspondent in Gwadar.
Incidentally, coastguard personnel man multiple check posts in the area.
Death by drowning, or getting shot by border security forces after surviving an interminable trek through inhospitable terrain — these are just some of the hazards illegal migrants have to contend with. According to official sources, around 200 Pakistanis have been killed during the last decade while attempting to reach Europe.
Yet these dream chasers continue to incur grave risks in the hope of greener pastures in foreign lands such as Italy, Spain and Germany, with Greece as their gateway into Europe. Financial hardship or faith-based violence, such as that suffered by the Shia Hazaras in Balochistan, is the impetus for most of them. (Hazaras seeking asylum however, tend to go towards the East, and onward to Australia and New Zealand.)
The search for better economic prospects is not always the trigger. The civil war in Syria led to a surge in illegal migration from Pakistan, attracting both Shia and Sunni militants. According to local reporters, when Bashar al-Assad began losing ground in the civil war in 2013, Shia Hazaras also started getting themselves smuggled into Iran to fight alongside the Syrian army.
During 2015, thousands of Pakistanis — at least 35,000, according to an estimate — slipped across the border to blend into the exodus of Syrian refugees streaming out of their country to flee the civil war raging there, hoping to gain asylum in Germany and other European countries.
Muhammad Inayat, a retired Rangers cop, refuses to mourn his son Ismail until his body is recovered. The 32-year-old, along with his wife Azmat Bibi, five-year-old son Saad and infant daughter Fatima, was among 90 people who drowned when a boat carrying illegal migrants capsized in the Mediterranean sea off the Libyan coast on Feb 2. The 16 dead Pakistanis included 12 from Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin districts in Punjab.
Ismail’s quest was rooted in typical circumstances. Over the years, he and his three brothers had seen their father’s landholding dwindle from three acres to less than one, shared amongst the four of them. The entire extended family lived in a three-room house in the Raju Bhand village, Kharian tehsil, Gujrat. Seeking a better life outside Pakistan seemed an attractive option.
So, eight years ago, Ismail made his way to Libya via Dubai on a legal visa, selling his portion of land to pay for being smuggled out. About a year and a half back, he managed to get his wife and son across; their daughter was born in Libya. The young family’s attempt to enter Italy, however, ended in tragedy.
By far, most illegal migrants from Punjab — largely illiterate or semi-literate men between 15 to 40 years of age from rural and semi urban areas — originate from Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin districts. Only rarely do they, like Ismail, take their families with them.
Hardy rural folk, it is believed, possess the mental resolve and physical strength to sustain them in what is an extremely dangerous and arduous journey. Perhaps their relatively low exposure to the outside world also means they are more susceptible to being persuaded by the smugglers, also known as agents, to take the plunge, sometimes repeatedly. Indeed, most agents are said to be based in the rural areas — their ‘catchment’ area — rather than in urban centres.
Depending on the terms of the deal, they charge between Rs400,000 to Rs700,000 — to be paid upfront — per person. Some deals allow up to three attempts through the land route via Iran and Turkey to reach Greece. From there, other agents in the chain take over to push the illegal immigrants into the more coveted parts of Europe.
According to Tajammul Hussain from Fateh Pur village in Gujrat, who lived in Greece for 12 years as an illegal migrant, the network of human smugglers based in Gujrat extends to Tehran, Istanbul and the border areas of Greece, where agents live in big rented houses that serve as temporary shelters for illegal migrants on the move.
Tahir Ali, a young man recently deported from Turkey, told Dawn that many human smugglers from Gujranwala operate out of Turkey, Greece and Italy, and even handle Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees. They have ‘sub-agents’ in Gujrat, Phalia, Mandi Bahauddin, Sialkot and Gujranwala who book would-be migrants and collect payment from them.
“I was offered a free ride up to Europe by the agent if I could arrange at least three more clients,” he said. Thirty-two-year-old Mohammed Tanveer of Dinga city in Gujrat was deported from Greece a few months back, after having managed to reach Europe on his third attempt.
The journey was harrowing. There were human remains at several places along the route. The migrants had either been driven to their death by the physical exertion or been shot dead by border security forces. Also, on these journeys, the injured or unwell have to be abandoned. Their companions cannot take the risk of stopping to help them.
On one of his attempts to reach Greece, Tanveer took the sea route from Libya. The modus operandi, he says, goes something like this: the Libyan agents demand their fee in advance, following which the boat packed with migrants is taken out to sea. A little way out, the sailor in charge transfers to an empty boat and returns ashore, leaving the migrants at the mercy of the Mediterranean sea and, later, the Italian maritime security personnel — if they even reach the shores of Italy, that is.
The boat is filled with barely enough fuel to get to its intended destination. Sometimes it is little more than a shabby rubber dinghy. “Even the life vests are in such poor condition that they would be of no help in case of an emergency,” he says. The demand for this route has of late declined considerably because of the many deaths at sea. The land route through Balochistan remains by far the most popular.
After Iran erected a 15-foot high wall along its border with Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, Afghans also began to get smuggled out via Balochistan.
Duk, a deserted area near the Pak-Afghan border in Chaghi, is the point where they cross over into Pakistan. A temporary bazaar reportedly springs up here with the arrival of the human cargo. “A bottle filled with water from nearby wells sells for Rs100, while a meal costs Rs800,” says a source. From Duk, the Afghans are taken 100kms away in the direction of Naukundi along katcha roads and onward to Mashkel or Rajay, which are their gateway into Iran and onwards to Turkey and Europe.
Interestingly, the smugglers who deal with Afghan would-be migrants are Baloch; they operate in Nimruz, as well as in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. These smuggling rings — whose leaders are based mostly in Kabul’s Shahr-e-Naw commercial area — operate independently of those dealing with Pakistani customers, which are most often headed by Punjabis.
Their modus operandi is also different. Long convoys of pickups, sometimes comprising 50 or more vehicles filled with Afghan migrants, set out for the border in the evenings from areas near Naukundi: travelling during the day is too risky in case they are stopped and questioned by security personnel.
Drivers are paid between Rs3,000 to Rs 3,500 per ‘shift’, as each trip is called. Many concede it is an unethical business. One agent, Haji Murad, who owns around five pickups to transport migrants, ruefully says there is no “barkat” (blessing) in earnings from human smuggling. That sentiment, however, has not dissuaded him from being in the business for more than a decade.
In Naukundi, there are many Kabuli vehicles (as vehicles smuggled from Afghanistan are called) — more than people, quips one resident — because these, especially the Zamyad single- and double-cabin pickups, are the most commonly used in smuggling Afghans to the border.
“Each time one of my drivers completes the journey, the nomainda [as the heads of human smuggling rings are called] pays me Rs20,000 through the hawalgi system [payment after delivery]. But that can take up to two or three months. Meanwhile, I have to pay the driver Rs3,500 and Rs8,000 in bribes to the Levies, Frontier Corps etc per trip, and the rest on maintaining my vehicles that cover long distances on katcha tracks and bad roads from one corner of Balochistan to the other.”
After three or four dozen trips, the nomainda pays him in the form of a Kabuli vehicle.
The journey to the border is fraught with danger. Highway robbers steal travellers’ cellphones and valuables. The convoys are also targets for gangs of kidnappers — often Uzbeks, as are most of the Afghan migrants — who take their hostages back into Afghanistan and hold them for ransom.
“I have six vehicles in this business,” says Ghulam Mohammad who lives in Taftan, along the Iran-Balochistan border. “Not long ago, five Afghans travelling in one of my pickups were kidnapped for a ransom of Rs500,000. The same thing happened on the very next trip. These thugs beat up our drivers, remove the tyres from our vehicles, and abandon them in remote areas.”
For Pakistanis from Punjab who seek to cross the border illegally, Quetta is the first port of call. Their agents arrange for them to travel to the border, usually by bus through the western parts of the province. Kech, Gwadar and Panjgur districts in the restive Makran region towards the south were once also much frequented by migrants, but no longer, because that is where they are most likely to encounter Baloch insurgents. And these outlaws are particularly hostile towards Punjabis.
The massacre in November last year by Baloch militants of 15 would-be migrants — all of them young men from Gujrat, Sialkot, Mandi Bahauddin and Gujranwala — travelling through Kech district was a gruesome reminder of the perils.
From Quetta, it takes about four days by bus to reach the border town of Taftan, some 600 kilometres away through Chaghi or Washuk districts. As Pakistani citizens, there is of course no reason for anyone to stop them at checkpoints. A bus driver in Quetta says: “They tell security personnel at checkpoints they are labourers looking for work.”
Along the way, they sometimes stop overnight at one of the khwabgahs [literally meaning, a place to dream] or rest houses in Dalbandin, the headquarters of Chaghi.
Several old double-cabin vehicles are parked in front of the city’s Pakistan Hotel. One of the drivers shouts out for passengers to Mashkel, a remote border town in the far west of Washuk district. An hour-long drive out of Dalbandin, on the rather aspirationally dubbed ‘London Road’ is followed by two hours more along a katcha route to Mashkel.
Only a few human settlements dot the barren landscape. Just short of Mashkel, the vehicles traverse a massive area called Hamun-e-Mashkel that stretches across the border into Iran. Known as Bhug in local parlance, Hamun-e-Mashkel was in ancient times submerged under a huge lake, perhaps even a sea, which would explain the high levels of salinity here. For a period of time every year, water from several seasonal rivers gathers here, making the route impassable.
Even local drivers do not travel through here after dark due to the fear of highway robbers and also the risk of straying from the path. Instead migrants are brought to khwabgahs located around Mashkel where board and lodging costs Rs250 per night.
A resident says: “There’s nothing else to do here. Zero-Point [a border crossing for trade purposes between Pakistan and Iran] always remains closed, which would otherwise have provided a source of income.”
“From Mashkel we take them to Jodar, 65 to 70 kilometres miles away, which takes around one and a half hours. For my trouble, I’m paid only Rs2000 per passenger,” says a driver. Jodar is a tiny village of eight houses, one of several crossing points along the Pak-Iran border. On the Pakistani side, there are two check posts, one belonging to the Levies and the other manned by Frontier Corps (FC) personnel. Beyond this point, the migrants have to travel on foot with guides who take them across the mountainous border.
The guides are known as rahbalad, a Balochi term meaning, those who know the routes. They are present in Taftan as well as in Mashkel.
Sometimes, FC and Levies personnel apprehend migrants en route to Iran. After legal formalities, they are sent back to their villages. The unfortunate ones, says Haji Murad the agent, get shot at the border by Iranian security forces. “If that doesn’t happen, they usually get as far as Zahedan before they are arrested.”
Naimatullah, a young man from Quetta, shudders as he recalls trudging for four days, battling hunger and thirst, through the mountainous terrain of Pakistan and Iran; he and his companions were able to rest only after they reached a village in Iran.
But the very next day, Naimatullah and the others were rounded up while going by bus to Zahedan. “The Iranian security personnel were of a hefty build, and when one of them gave me a big slap, I fell to the ground. My companions started crying with fear when they saw that.”
They were only spared more thrashing because one of Naimatullah’s companions happened to be fluent in Farsi. After being detained for two weeks, they were handed over to the Levies at Taftan — all except the Farsi speaker, says Naimatullah, who managed to find his way to Germany.
Since last November’s massacre, migrants from Punjab are also finding the air route via Turkey (on business and tourist visas) a more attractive option, despite the cost of Rs700,000 to Rs800,000. From Turkey, they travel by boat to Greece.
(Apart from Europe, South Africa — via Mozambique and Malawi where Pakistanis get visas on arrival — is also an attractive destination for illegal migrants who pay between Rs600,000 to Rs700,000 to get there. According to a political figure in rural Gujrat, Pakistanis who have managed to find their way there are investing huge amounts in Gujrat and Islamabad real estate.)
The human smuggling racket began innocuously enough with legal migration many decades ago. In the ‘50s, the UK (which needed industrial labour at the time) as per the terms of an agreement with Pakistan, granted work visas to residents of Mirpur in Azad Jammu and Kashmir as compensation for their displacement by the construction of Mangla Dam, being built by a British firm. Mirpur is still known as ‘mini England’.
The migration trend caught on in neighbouring areas such as Jhelum district and Kharian tehsil of Gujrat district over the next four years with people from here migrating to the UK. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they had discovered Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
In the ‘90s, with Europe no longer so open to migrants, young Pakistani men began taking recourse to human smuggling rings mainly based in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to get to the continent.
For several decades, illegal migrants from Pakistan went to Europe by air rather than land or sea routes. However, after some European countries instituted stricter airport controls in the mid ‘90s, taking the land route became more common.
Following 9/11, security at international airports was further tightened. This made illegal entry by air into many countries, including the United States, extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Aalam Pur Gondlan, in Gujrat district, also played a role as a forerunner of human smuggling from the area. The village is known as mini Norway, because so many people from here have settled in Norway.
One of its residents, the late Chaudhary Naik Aalam who unsuccessfully contested local elections several times, had a big hand in this. He built a thriving business out of sending people abroad from Gujrat district — at least 10,000, it is said — in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Passports were difficult to obtain at the time, with applications requiring attestation by a Grade 17 gazetted officer. Mr Aalam, having served as a deputy director in Punjab’s agriculture department, was a Grade 17 officer and he would charge the villagers Rs2000 — a handsome amount in those days — per person and help them get to Europe by road.
Even today, various associations of Pakistani expatriates settled in Oslo commemorate Naik Aalam’s death anniversary every year.
As for Gujrat district, particularly in Kharian, migration to Europe and other parts of the world has completely altered the landscape. Palatial houses owned by expatriates have come up. Most of the time, their only occupants are domestic staff from Sargodha district who belong to a clan called Musallies. Indeed, the village of Aalampur Gondlan has even undergone a change of name on that account: it is now known as Aalampur Musalian.
In front of the FIA detention centre in Taftan, three men, recently deported from the border for trying to cross into Iran illegally, are hard at work with pickaxes, providing unpaid labour for law-enforcement personnel. The FIA employee present does not allow any questions to be asked of them. “You have to take permission from our in-charge Bahadur Khan Kakar first,” he says. “You can find him in his office.”
Before one can get there, another FIA employee asserts that Mr Kakar has a backache, then says he is sleeping. When he sees the approach bearing no result, he disappears and returns with three 1000-rupee notes, and holding them out, says: “This is your mithai which Bahadur Khan sahib has given for you.” Upon being refused politely, he responds: “Alright then, he wants you to have lunch with him as his guest.”
This is no surprise. Local reporters say they are routinely bribed into silence if they try to probe the issue of human smuggling.
FIA officials argue they are understaffed and under-resourced, not to mention hamstrung by an absence of coordination with other law-enforcement agencies that have patrol units in Balochistan, such as the FC, Levies, etc and who are thus in a better position to check human smuggling.
Nevertheless, they say, they are doing their utmost to bust the smuggling rings. According to Director FIA Punjab Dr Usman Anwar, the law-enforcement agency has also taken action against illegal immigration consultancies in Punjab and last year arrested more than 1,500 people involved in the business. “In return for handsome amounts, these consultants would arrange genuine visas to Dubai and Malaysia for people wanting to migrate to developed countries. Once they reached, they [the human smugglers] would provide them with travel documents for destinations in Europe and Australia.”
At the same time, there are allegations that FIA’s Gujranwala circle office, which oversees six districts in Punjab from where most of the illegal migrants originate, is itself complicit in the thriving racket. (A sub-circle office was also set up in Gujrat district around a decade ago.)
After the mass murder of would-be illegal migrants in Balochistan last year, the interior ministry reshuffled the staff at the FIA’s Gujranwala circle and posted Mufakhar Adeel, an officer from the Police Service of Pakistan, as deputy director. There was also a major reshuffle at the Gujrat sub-circle.
Mr Adeel told Dawn that although 19 locals listed among the most wanted human smugglers in the FIA’s ‘red book’ were abroad, around 120 human smugglers had been arrested since his posting. Nearly 400 land route agents, he said, were also arrested last year.
According to him as well as other senior FIA officials, most complainants withdraw their FIRs against the suspects after arriving at a monetary settlement with them. That, they say, is a major cause of the agents going scot-free. However, an equally big reason, allege sources, is that FIA officials at regional offices strike deals with smugglers to look the other way.
Even those who are proceeded against in court and convicted, seldom face anything more punitive than a fine.
A special FIA court has been working at Gujranwala to hear cases, including that of human smuggling, sent by the FIA from across the region. Charges against this category of suspects are filed under Sections 17 to 22 of the Emigration Ordinance 1979, which stipulates a punishment of up to five years for the first offence (seven in the case of a subsequent offence) or a fine, or both.
As per the FIA’s own record, until October 2017, out of a total of 1,898 individuals convicted for human smuggling, 1,245 — or 65 per cent — were only fined, and that too meagre amounts. Of the remaining 653, a whopping 97pc, were sentenced to imprisonment for less than a year.
In fact, for the last several months, say FIA sources, there has not been a single individual convicted of human smuggling behind bars in the region’s four jails.
The passage of the Smuggling of Migrants Bill, 2018 — the first human smuggling specific law in the country — by the National Assembly earlier this month, stipulates a minimum imprisonment of three years and a fine of up to half a million rupees. Aggravated offences under this law, for example, when the process of smuggling endangers life and limb, or “is committed as part of the activity of an organised criminal group”, will attract more punitive sanctions.
One may ask however, that while this may be a start, will it be enough? Until unemployment, poverty, human rights violations, etc remain rampant, ‘greener pastures’ overseas will continue to beckon people. And there will always be unscrupulous individuals willing to profit off them.
With additional reporting by Zulqarnain Tahir in Lahore.
Some names have been changed for reasons of privacy.