Islamabad: After denied asylum by Austria, Ali Hussain, 24, along with his 18 members group faced “unspeakable ordeals” when they were deported back to United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Peshawar airport because Pakistani authorities too doubted their nationalities.
In a face-to-face interview with News Lens Pakistan, frustrated Hussain recalled it took a month to reach Austria from Pakistan. “Our perilous journey starts from Lahore, Qom (Iran), Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungry and then to Austria.”
Hailing from the sectarian-hit Kurram tribal region, Hussain who embarked on his life risking asylum adventure— a journey in which he lost his dream of a better tomorrow and hard-earned money.
Hussain said he and those others from Pakistan hail from a poor background while his colleagues from North Waziristan lost his house due to militancy, leaving him homeless.
“I sold the gold ornaments of my mother to arrange Rs. 500,000 (around $5,000) to pay the agent’s fee (human trafficker),” the repented Hussain said.
Narrating his ordeal, Hussain recalled he along with his 18 members group witnessed thirst, hunger and sleepless nights during their month-long journey from Pakistan to Austria.
The 18-member group, he said had reduced to 16 when two of them died in the way when they fell ill.
Hussain and his colleagues didn’t know each other beforehand though there were two other Pakistanis and an Afghan— Sarwar Khan, Nawaz Ali (both names changed) and Shaheen— respectively.
“Most of the time, we travelled on foot and fishing boats. The most horrendous part of our journey was 28 hours non-stop walk over the rocky, barren and icy mountains between Tehran and Istanbul where we ran short of food and water,” he said.
A body, Human Trafficking Search— The Global Resource and Database— in its report stated that in search of descent living environment, a large number of refugees have been trying to reach to Europe.
It said that just last summer, “Europe experienced the highest influx of refugees since World War 11. As of September 22, 2015, as many as 794,000 individuals have applied for asylum in European countries.
Similarly, in Hungary, Italy and Greece alone, 549,000 refugees have arrived mostly by boat, the report said.
The influx of refugees forced several countries to install fences and use police to crackdown on refugees who are trying to enter the European Union territory, it added.
A research by the UNODC stated that most of the traffickers and victims belong to the four districts of Punjab; Sialkot, Mandi Bahuddin, Gujranwala and Gujrat and are smuggled via Balcohistan to Iran and then to other countries.
Hussain said the traffickers in Pakistan, Tehran, Turkey, Greece and the last one in Macedonia exchanged them (asylum seekers) at their designated points.
Amin Shah (name changed), a human trafficker, in a brief but an exclusive chat told News Lens Pakistan that he prepares a batch of five to six asylum seekers, which takes him 20 days to one month.
“I charge one asylum seeker Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 600,000 and their entry to Austria is my responsibility. But I have to give share to my other colleagues in Iran, Turkey and other countries as we’ve a well- knitted network,” Shah remarked.
Iran, he said is the zero point to gather asylum seekers from where they start onward journey to Europe.
“We take an oath from all asylum seekers not to disclose our identities. My responsibility is to Iran. We have our own fishing boat to ferry passengers,” Shah added.
A UNODC report titled “Socio-economic impact of human trafficking and migrant smuggling in Pakistan” released last year says that human trafficking business in Pakistan is on the rise.
The report said that Pakistan is a source, transit and a destination country for human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
“Approximately $927 million are generated in profits by criminal syndicates, weakening economy and contributing towards fuelling corruption,” the report said.
As Hussain said that a number of asylum seekers lost their lives for a quest to get asylum in European countries. But, at the same time, he said that hundreds of his villagers from the Kurram tribal region got settled in Vienna, the capital of Austria, which prompts them to try their luck.
Quoting then UNODC Representative Mr. Cesar Guedes, the report stated that “millions are smuggled across borders every year, for reasons of work or asylum, and some unfortunately perish in this long and arduous process.”
Approximately 14 million family members across Pakistan are directly affected by this growing criminal phenomenon, Guedes added.
The report while quoting the Ministry of Interior said that around 1,000 criminal groups are involved in the illicit “business”.
Political instability, the report said particularly in the Middle East and South Asia was paving ground for these groups to keep on their activities.
It went on to say that human trafficking witnessed surge from 2007 to 2013 in the country.
Quoting deportation statistics from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the report indicates the total of number of deportees received back in Pakistan has been increasing since 2007 with a total change of +16% experienced in volume and flow over the period of 2007-2013.
Within this timeframe between the periods of 2007-2008 and 2010-2013 exhibited significant increases while a decline was experienced from 2008 to 2010. Number of deportees was the highest in 2013 with 66,427 individual cases and the lowest in 2010 with 46,032 cases.
A UNODC report compiled in July 2013 titled “Recent Trend of Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling to and from Pakistan” stated that more Pakistanis are found to use fraudulent documentation. Further, more Pakistanis are detected as facilitators of smuggling.
In addition, the report stated there is little information on trafficking of persons to Pakistan. Anecdotal evidence suggests that victims of trafficking are among the large number of irregular migrants to Pakistan.
In particular, there is evidence of women and children being trafficked to Pakistan for sexual exploitation, sometimes in the form of forced marriages.
A senior official at the FIA wishing to go unnamed because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media, said that the “nasty business is still underway.”
The known routes being used by human traffickers to transport people abroad are: Pakistan to Iran, Oman and then UAE. Then again, he said Pakistan to Iran, Turkey and Greece and thirdly, Pakistan then to Middle East, West African states and then to Spain, the official added.
He said that some of the traffickers have been sent behind bars or being investigated by FIA. “Most of the traffickers are of Afghan and Iranian origins and Pakistanis are their clients,” he added.
Hussain said the trafficker told him to reach to Qom, a holy city in Iran, where he would join other members of the group from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq for onward journey to Vienna.
“I travelled to Lahore by road from where I took a flight to Tehran,” he said, adding the smuggler promised him to directly land him at his intended destination.
After arriving in Qom, the agent told them to get ready for travel to Turkey on foot, which was a 14 hours long journey over treacherous and icy hills. “It is impossible to tell you what hardships we went through but we reached Turkey without being noticed by police,” he remarked.
Giving minute details of his pungent experience, Hussain said he and his group ultimately arrived in Turkey where the third trafficker was waiting to take them in a fishing boat to Greece.
“Our boat barely escaped to capsize in a sea. We all started screaming for help. I thought it would have better for me to be killed in sectarian violence back at home instead,” he recalled.
At one occasion which still haunts him, Husain said the sailor shouted at them to keep the balance of the boat otherwise it would overturn.
All the men in the boat, he started reciting religious anthem with some of them shouting for help.
Anyway, he said that “As we reached Greece, we were extremely exhausted. We took some biscuits and dry fruit in a deserted park.”
“Let me tell you briefly, after reaching Serbia, we were finally told that we’ve arrived in Austria. A kind of smiling waves could be seen on the faces of all of us,” the exhausted Hussain added.
Hours after arriving in Austria, he said he and his 16 members group surrendered to Austrian authorities who escorted them to a refugee camp where they spent eight months.
“The officials started interviewing us one by one. The Austrian authorities viewed our cases of sectarian violence as exaggerated and thus rejected our papers,” he added.
But the tragedy Hussain faced subsequently occurred when the asylum seekers were deported back to Pakistan, but authorities here too doubted their nationality because they have lost their passports and other documents.
On January 20, immigration authorities here in Pakistan denied them entry and subsequently forced them to go back to the state where they failed to get asylum. Hussain flew back to UAE after officials at Peshawar Airport in Pakistan denied him entry.
He had to stay for eight days in UAE and begging money for his survival. The deportees, Hussain said had their out passes issued by the Pakistani mission abroad, which confirm their nationality.
On a “shinning morning in January,” Hussain said he was given entry at the Benazir International Airport in Islamabad after what he said immense pressure from Austrian authorities. Hussain is now united with his family after almost one year.
Refugees, Hussain said had submitted deportation letter to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which promises Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 600,000 to each deportee as livelihood amount but it has yet to be paid.
But Zulqarnain, an official at the IOM office in Islamabad only said that the question can better be answered by the IOM office in Austria.
When asked as to why the authorities at the airport denied entry to the deportees at a time when Pakistani mission abroad confirmed their Pakistani nationalities, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The subject comes within the periphery of Ministry of Interior.”
The Ministry of Interior has no official spokesman.
When asked whether he (Hussain) would try his luck again to go abroad: “Never ever, but a poor person is bound to pay to the traffickers because the government can’t adjust the unskilled manpower here.”