Human smuggling

Published January 24, 2024
The writer is a lawyer and the Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim Fellow at HRCP.
The writer is a lawyer and the Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim Fellow at HRCP.

THOUGH rampant, human smuggling in Pakistan remains poorly documented. Only when a tragedy occurs does the issue take centre stage. A nationwide crackdown was announced after a fishing boat carrying hundreds of Pakistani migrants capsized off the southern coast of Greece last June. Yet, interest in the issue and sympathy with the victims waned just as fast as it rose.

Lack of sympathy stems from lack of awareness, particularly of the human rights violations that take place during a migrant’s journey. Human smuggling is considered consensual, as opposed to human trafficking, which features coercive practices such as bonded labour and sexual exploitation. Here, we endeavour to explain the factors driving irregular migration, the annual number of migrants, popular routes, operations of smuggling networks, and the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) role. We also identify human rights violations, and the reforms required to address them.

According to estimates, over one million irregular migrants cross international borders annually. In Pakistan, the figure varies between 80,000 to 100,000. Most migrants are from Punjab. Cities such as Gujrat, Gujranwala, Phalia, Mandi Bahauddin, Kharian, Jhelum, Mirpur, and Sialkot serve as major catchment areas. Due to its low cost and ease of movement, the Balochistan-Iran-Turkiye route, with onwards travel to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, is the most popular. Other routes include sea travel from Gwadar to Iran through the Arabian Sea, and onwards to Turkiye and Europe. On the pricier side, there’s legal air travel from Karachi to Dubai, followed by irregular migration to Turkiye or Libya, and onwards to Italy or Greece.

Unemployment, lack of opportunity, poverty, and insecurity remain the primary drivers pushing people out. Pressures of traditional masculinity is another prominent push factor. Many young men leave to be able to earn more and support their families. It is established that factors driving irregular migration are not just absolute deprivation, but also relative deprivation. The sense that one would be better off in some other country serves as a pull factor. Migrants also leave because they see countries like Turkiye or Libya as stepping stones to Europe.

The migrants have been deceived and misinformed.

Smugglers operate on the basis of an organised network model. Each smuggling ring comprises a series of sub-networks; each sub-network consists of agents and sub-agents. The sub-networks are co-dependent. A typical smuggling network operates as follows: sub-agents in Gujrat recruit migrants, and bring them to the agent, who will stipulate the conditions of travel and the costs involved. The agent from Gujrat contacts an agent from Multan and shares the names of the migrants via a text message. All agents operate under an alias. The Multan agent receives the migrants at a designated spot and facilitates onwards movement to Quetta, from where they are sent to Iran, Turkiye, and Europe by other agents along the way. The operations remain seamless, with each agent responsible for the operations of the smuggling ring within their own territory.

The journey can cost anywhere from Rs100,000 to Rs1,500,000 per migrant depending on the terms of the deal, ie, mode of travel, comfort of travel (front seat or trunk of the car, below or above the deck on a ship, etc), number of attempts, and documentation.

The FIA is the law-enforcement agency tasked by law to crack down on smugglers and safeguard the rights of migrants. But it is seen as complicit in the entire process. Officials ignore the actions of smugglers in return for kickbacks. Considering the complexities involved, transnational operations of this magnitude would not be possible without the knowledge of the FIA. Corruption among law-enforcement officials is common to all countries where human smuggling rackets thrive. Smuggled Somalis, Ethiopians, and Kenyans, have all recounted witnessing public officials accepting bribes from smugglers.

Smugglers exploit desperate and vulnerable individuals. The migrants are misinformed and deceived about the dangers and actual costs involved. They are also abused, beaten, and robbed along the way. Those who are unable to pay are tortured. The houses in which they are kept along the way are overcrowded and unhygienic. Law-enforcement agencies do not protect them and the states through which they pass shirk their responsibilities, disregarding international humanitarian laws.

To address these rights violations, we must first reframe the narrative. Migrants must be treated as victims, and not in a manner that implies criminality. International and domestic anti-smuggling laws must be made human rights-centric. But most importantly, we must address the state’s failure to protect and provide for its citizens, compelling migrants to leave.

The writer is a lawyer and the Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim Fellow at HRCP.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2024

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