Not all migrants are destitute or desperate. Some of them just want to experience what many in the west take for granted: freedom of movement.
Last year, on a writer’s residency in Stuttgart, Germany, I met Fadi, a software engineer from Rahim Yar Khan. He was at the residency as a volunteer hand and was staying in a refugee camp for Syrian migrants arriving in Germany.
In our brief conversation, which lasted for about fifteen minutes, he told me that he came there “like everyone else—on foot.”
His hair was gelled back, and he stood confidently. He told me about the generosity of the locals, the time he's spent visiting families, being invited to dinners and cook-ins.
He showed me pictures on his phone of his trips to a local museum with other Pakistanis in the camp. He told me that things were quite well, they were having a good time, and mentioned that I should drop by at the camp and meet our fellow compatriots.
He struck me as untypical for the image of a refugee or an asylum seeker, or even as somebody who’d risk his life to be there. There was no sense of hurry or desperation. He spoke English comfortably. He was helping out at the residency to make connections which might help him find paid work and a legal work permit.
I visited the camp a week later. It had been setup in a sports center whose large hall had been partitioned—with scaffoldings and white sheets—into accommodation for two hundred people. I was told there were six beds to a room plus cabinets to serve as wardrobes. There was ease and laughter in the atmosphere; children played; mothers ran after them; a lot of the people were on their phones. Most of them were Syrians, most with families.
The first three rooms belonged to a group of Pakistanis who all joined me on a table in the open area. They came over to our table in bunches, shook my hand, and sat around, smiling. When they heard that I was a writer, they wanted to share their stories, the big adventure of their lives, which was always about how they made their way across hazards of the European border.
One of them had come through Russia, where he went on a language course. He had packed a few kilos of channas (roasted chickpeas) because he was told that the journey would involve a great deal of walking. The journey involved not only eight days of walking in the forests in the dark of the night, and drinking water rationed from bottle caps, but also being holed up in a room with sixty other men for forty days.
Another guy had come via Libya on a boat so packed with people that to stand up meant losing your space to sit. He nearly died of thirst at sea before being rescued by a NATO ship.
During the next four months, I got to know a couple of individuals from this group well. One of my friends, nicknamed Bajwa, lived in Greece for eight years. He had legged and hitchhiked his way via Iran, Iraq, Turkey when he was fifteen. He'd had a fight with his family.
“I ran away. I hated my father but I knew either I would kill him or he would kill me.”
What did he do in Europe, I asked.
“I have been everywhere in Europe, it’s great. But the border police in Switzerland is tough to beat,” he said.
“They check everywhere with sniffer dogs.”
He had failed eight times trying to cross into Switzerland. He had been caught from train toilets, the restaurant carriage, hiding behind the luggage. He came closest to escape when he found an empty seat next to a young woman on the train and leaned his head toward her shoulder, pretending to be asleep. The police officer passed on and did not ask for his passport. The woman next to him grew suspicious and asked if he was crossing the border illegally. He told her the truth. She reported him to the police at the next stop where he was detained.
“What do they do when they catch you?” I asked.
“They ask for the identification papers,” he said.
They stamp a fine on the identification papers, which he trashes and gets a new paper under a new name.
He laughs and adds nonchalantly, “This is normal.”
I asked him why do you risk it? It might land you into trouble if someone recognizes you.
“I really like to go around. I want to see new places. It’s fun. That’s the joy of being here in Europe. You feel free.”
Another guy, Akram, wore a diamante stud in his ear. He was married and had two kids back home in Sargodha. Like Waqas, he was in Greece for several years before he made his way to Germany. He worked as a painter there, but said there was no money to be made in Greece, and besides they don’t give papers. (‘Papers’ is shorthand for legal work or residence permit.)
He said the only money to be made in Greece was in dau number stuff, like selling smuggled cigarettes. (“Normal price for a pack is around six Euros. The Eastern European cigs come in for one to one and a half euros a pack. So you make a killing from them. But it is not safe. The biggest danger is from other competitors who leak your information to the police.”)
Like others, when Akram heard there was an opening for legal papers in Germany, he made his way over.
“I am tired of painting. I want to do something in the field of hotel-ing, that’s what I want to do here.”
“Then why don’t you look for work here?” I asked him.
“Oh I will look for it eventually. What’s the hurry?”
Indeed, there was no hurry, as I learned over the next few months.
They were all granted stay in Germany and were moved from the makeshift camp of the Sportshalle to real buildings with rooms with bunk beds, televisions, communal kitchens and bathrooms.
In my numerous visits, I found them loitering in and around their housing area. Otherwise they would be found in the community center nearby where they’d get free wi-fi.
It made me uneasy to think that these boys were not in any haste to look for work. They seemed to be all doing all right doing nothing with whatever they received in support from the state, which was around EUR 250 a month. (The exception in all this was Fadi, who maintained an air of superiority over others because he was better educated and was more urbane than the rest. My last communication with him was over Whatsapp last week where he told me that he has found a job as a Software Test Manager; it’s a permanent contract and the company will be applying for a legal work permit for him.)
Like a lot of people, my image of an illegal immigrant was of someone fleeing their home country under hazardous conditions seeking a brighter economic future for themselves. This image and associated assumptions were challenged as I spent time with these boys. I realized that they were young men who in one way or another refused to be kept in.
Young, driven by desire and an energy whose source they don’t understand, what drove them was not so much economic necessity, but the promise of and the desire to experience a world which is the stuff of fantasy for those around them. Many of them simply wanted to be free of the social obligations that pinned them down. They were boys, in other words.
It says something about us that the only legitimate or accepted reason we allow for people to evade borders is economic necessity.
This stems from a broader political discourse where the only legitimate reason for any action is tied to productivity and economics, especially for the poor of the Global South. We often fail to see that while an average citizen of a Western country can move freely without needing visas or facing any restrictions across borders, most of the people in the Global South cannot travel to the West simply for pleasure.
For them, a shrinking world means that the walls around them become even narrower, and the doors of this shrunk new world are permanently shut to them. And if that’s case, it doesn’t seem too wild or outrageous to put all of one’s entire savings and property, to wage one’s life for an adventure, for a desire to travel, and to risk pleasure—even if it is for one last time.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects