Strangers in a strange land

Updated July 15, 2018

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PICTURED in Serbia, 17-year-old Faizan Shah left his family in Gujrat to fulfil their dreams in Europe.—Photo by writer
PICTURED in Serbia, 17-year-old Faizan Shah left his family in Gujrat to fulfil their dreams in Europe.—Photo by writer

“WILL I make it, Baji? Will they open the border?” Faizan asked me.

The 17-year-old boy from Pakistan left his village in Gujrat after performing istikhara. He belonged to a very religious Syed family. His brother worked as a custodian at the tomb of a saint and he had worked in a lab. His parents said it was his duty to go to Europe, find a job and support the family by sending money home to help his three sisters get married, as his brother’s job was too honourable to ask him to quit.

“I didn’t want to leave, but I had no choice,” he said.

Take a look: The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

I met him in January 2017 on the Balkan route, in Subotica, a town in northern Serbia, at the border with Hungary. He was just one of the hundreds of Pakistanis stranded in unofficial camps in the country at minus 15 degrees Celsius. I don’t know if he ever made it to Europe.

Since the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to stop migrants from crossing into Europe in March 2016, and the right-wing governments of eastern European countries built walls and fences to seal their borders, the Balkan route has officially been declared closed. Really, it never was. In fact, what this meant was not that fewer people were migrating, but that fewer people were making it through, feeding Europe the illusion that something had changed by effectively making those thousands who were stuck in this limbo suddenly invisible.

Most of the Pakistanis I met on the Balkan route were hoping to reach Italy. “It’s easy to get papers there,” they would repeat like a mantra. Little did they know that a year on from then, Italy would elect the first populist government of central Europe, a government that based almost its entire campaign on reinforcing and spreading the already too common anti-immigration sentiment amongst the population.

Twenty-four-year-old Zarar reached Italy in August 2017. He had left Rawalpindi in March the year before. The first time I met him was in Subotica, where he too, like Faizan, was sleeping in an abandoned brick factory that had been occupied by migrants waiting to cross into Hungary and continue their journeys.

“I didn’t think it would take this long,” he says.

No one ever does. Those that the migrants refer to as “agents” and in Europe are labelled as “people smugglers”, promise their clients they will reach Germany, Italy, Austria in 20 days. Migrants pay between six and 10,000 euros each to embark on the journey. However, during the trip, they are kidnapped, humiliated, beaten, held hostage several times, and their families forced to send more money to help them reach the promised destination.

The common belief is that once you reach Europe, you can apply for asylum and you’re granted some sort of authorisation to stay and begin your new life immediately. Migrants often don’t realise how long the application process can take, especially in Italy, where territorial commissions are overwhelmed with applications, Italy being the main country of arrival for most migrants. It has been 11 months since Zarar reached Italy and he is still waiting to get an answer from the commission, which probably won’t come for another six months.

Although Pakistanis are usually denied refugee status, they are often recognised for either what is known as “subsidiary protection” or “humanitarian protection”, due to the generalised conflict situation that has reached levels of indiscriminate violence, increasing the risk for civilians.

The newly elected Italian minister of the interior Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right party Lega Nord, has begun a harsh crackdown on immigration since being appointed. Vessels carrying rescued migrants from the Mediterranean are not being allowed to disembark at Italian ports and migrants are being sent back to Libya increasingly frequently. Just this week, Salvini tightened procedures for vetting asylum claims, calling upon the commissions to speed up the process and by de facto making it harder to obtain any form of protection to anyone who is denied refugee status.

Pakistan is quickly becoming one of the main countries of origin of migrants in Italy, with hundreds reaching via the “closed” Balkan route and through the Mediterranean every year. Due to its controversial reputation abroad and the fact that Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, there is particular concern regarding the integration of Pakistani citizens in Italy: ‘Pakistanis kill their daughters. They want to impose Islam on everyone. They don’t respect women. They are terrorists.’ These are just some of the widely spread prejudices.

However, most Pakistani migrants don’t seem to be worried about this. “Yes, there are some challenges here, but life is still better than where I’m from,” says Asif, who reached Italy 14 months ago after leaving Sialkot. “My family sacrificed a lot to send me here. They are counting on me and I can’t let them down.”

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2018