Gateway to Europe

February 2, 2020

Tens of thousands of illegal Pakistani migrants who arrive in Turkey through land route via Iran, in search of a more prosperous future, mostly end up losing what they have

Front courtyard of Abu Ayub Ansari’s Shrine. — Photos courtesy of Irfan Haider

The place with grey structures around is the shrine of Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari in Istanbul where, throughout the year visitors from all around the world throng. It is a highly revered place for Muslims as it houses the tomb of this worthy Companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) at whose house in Madina the Prophet stayed for a while.

Today, one sees people in various dressing, with diverse ethnic, regional and sectarian backgrounds assembled here. They stroll through the front courtyards, take pictures of the shrine or in front of it, offer fateha, feed pigeons or just sit at the benches for long periods of time; for many spending time here is a source of spiritual bliss.

A noticeable activity at the venue is the distribution of Turkish sweets among the visitors by young men from Pakistan mostly between 20 years and 25 years. These sweets are a bit expensive and offering them to the visitors definitely takes a toll on their pockets which do not appear deep. They are mostly clad in denim jeans, T-shirts and sweaters if it is cold out there – yet they find the finances to distribute sweets as a token of welcome for the visitors.

“We offer sweets to the visitors and request them to pray for us at the shrine. Who knows whose prayer is answered by God “says Shahzad from Gujrat. He migrated here illegally from Pakistan and is hoping to make his way to Europe for a better future. He has made several attempts to cross over to Greece but has remained unsuccessful. He hopes that through the visitors’ prayers, God may turn things in his favour, and enable him to reach his destination of choice, against all odds.

Ali is another boy from Gujranwala who regularly visits the shrine. He and his family, have been unable to raise the large amount of money, required by the agent – human smuggler – based in Istanbul. Ali now requests visitors to pray for a miracle; either the money be arranged somehow, out of somewhere, or his agent grows compassionate enough to provide a favour and reduce the payment. Ali knows that he is asking for too much, but he believes that when a prayer is answered by God – everything becomes possible.

Belonging to the Barelvi sect, these boys have high hopes that the prayers offered at the shrine of a pious Companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) will not go unanswered. The fact that Hazrat Abu Ayub Ansari was a great support for migrants at the time of Hijrat-e-Madina (Migration to Madina) gives them faith that his concern for migrants is alive even today. On account of his services towards the earlist migrants of Islam they see him as a custodian and well-wisher of all migrants.

Ali and Shahzad are not alone, there are tens of thousands of illegal Pakistani migrants in Turkey who came here mostly through the land route via Iran, with the intention to enter Europe. Though the exact figure is not available due to the informal nature of travel and absence of documents, it is estimated that their number falls between 50,000 and 80,000. Here in Turkey, Pakistanis are working in low-paying jobs at factories or construction sites and are paid unfairly due to their illegal status. If they demand better wages, the employers threaten them with reporting them to the Turkish authorities. There are other Pakistanis who roam around and sell items like combs, scissors, nail-cutters, sewing thread, needles, rings etc placed in trays hanging with straps around their necks. The monthly earnings of these boys are between 1000 Turkish liras and 2,000 Turkish liras on average. Keeping in view the exchange rate of PKR 28 against Turkish lira this comes in the range of PKR 28,000 to PKR 56,000 per month.

Hasan, an illegal Pakistani migrant working at a shop, says he sends money home through the same agents because he does not have any identity documents. He travelled back to Pakistan following the death of a dear one and returned using the same illegal land route through Iran.

A group of such boys who agreed to being photographed from behind told this scribe that some of them wanted to go back to Pakistan but could not do so because their families had told their relatives, neighbours, fellow villagers etc that they had reached Europe and were doing very well. There are others who have decided that now Turkey is the Europe they had yearned for and they would try their best to settle here and forget about entering Greece illegally. Some lucky Pakistani illegal migrants are running small businesses and many have moved to villages to work at farms in groups. The worst is the case of the ones who live under over-head bridges or other concrete structures to save the expense on accommodation.

Shahid Ghani, a lawyer who has dealt with cases of Pakistanis deported from Turkey, says it has become extremely tough to enter Europe from Turkey but agents give young boys hope and take them along on a journey that can end in death. He says now countries like Greece are pushing illegal migrants back into Turkey which was not the case earlier when they had to be taken in under the laws of those countries. The laws are the same but they are no more abiding by them, he adds. Ghani says the exploitation by human smugglers makes the life of these boys even more miserable because they detain them and ask for money at several stages of the journey from their parents back home. The networks of these agents, he says, must be crushed to stop this practice which is claiming lives of young boys and bringing a bad name to the country.

The situation is worse in Iran during this journey where the illegal migrants have to travel through several cities and cross snow-covered trails. Sometimes some of the people die and their bodies are buried under snow to be recovered later.

Hasan, an illegal Pakistani migrant working at a shop, says that he sends home money through the very agents because he does not have any identity documents. He travelled back to Pakistan following a death in the family and returned using the same illegal land route through Iran. He says Pakistani illegal migrants destroy their documents to avoid detection of their nationality and the resultant deportation. He says the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) of Pakistan had been requested by Turkey to identify Pakistanis, but it had demanded fees which the former had not agreed to pay. The cost of repatriation is quite high and not everybody is willing to pay for the ticket for the journey back home.

TNS approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the latest situation and learnt that illegal migration from Pakistan to Turkey has increased over the recent years.

Pakistanis, including children, usually, travel from Pakistan to Turkey via land route through Iran. The intention generally is to crossover to Europe an Union through Turkey, but Turkey has now closed its border with Europe. They are therefore stuck in Turkey for longer than they planned and survive by doing odd jobs. Many of them fall victim to trafficking gangs of Pakistanis, Afghans and Turks. There have been incidents where some of them have died crossing into or acrosss Turkey due to harsh terrain and weather. When weather gets better, the agents visit these areas to recover the bodies and demand money for sending them back to their families.

According to Turkish authorities, there has been a significant increase in illegal immigrants from Pakistan entering Turkey over the last four years. The exact number of Pakistani illegal immigrants spread all over Turkey is not known and keeps changing. Once caught, Turkish authorities hold them at detention centres. At any time there are 3,000-5,000 Pakistani detainees at these centres.

Young and hopeful, outside Abu Ayub Ansari’s shrine.

According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Turkish authorities are serious about repatriating illegal Pakistani migrants as soon as possible. Things are being streamlined and are now working better. During 2019, around 12,000 Pakistani immigrants were repatriated.

A spokesman for the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) says they have zero tolerance towards human smugglers and have apprehended hundreds of them during the last few months. Two laws on human smuggling and human trafficking have been introduced to punish and curb those involved in these activities. About the deportees, he says, their treatment is on a case to case basis. If they are involved in crimes or have forged their documents they have to face the law. If they have been wronged or cheated by agents or mafias, they are allowed to go after interrogation and clearance, he adds.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Turkey: Gateway to Europe for illegal Pakistani migrants