Pakistanis desperate to escape poverty and crime leave everything behind after paying thousands of dollars to migrant smugglers in a bid to reach the EU. But with greater border controls, Turkey ends up as their temporary home.
ISTANBUL— It’s Sunday, a bright autumn afternoon in Istanbul, Turkey. Lawangeen Sher* is in his "room," resting after the back-breaking week. All weeks are the same for Sher, hauling around a scrap cart, collecting garbage, in the suburb of Pendik.
That’s also where Sher has been living for at least a year, inside a small shipping container with some 15 other Pakistanis.
Everything they own is scattered around the claustrophobic space; “It’s because we hardly find any time.” The shipping container serves as their collective bedroom but there is no space for a bed. Everyone sleeps on the floor on old mattresses. The same space also doubles as their kitchen.
Sher, who is in his 20s, left Mohmand Agency – one of Pakistan’s seven tribal areas bordering Afghanistan – dreaming of a better future. Like thousands of Pakistanis, he decided to risk everything on an illegal journey to the shinier shores of Europe.
“My life wasn’t that bad back in Pakistan,” he said. “One day a friend of mine, who happens to be an agent, was speaking very highly about life in Europe. He said I could earn more money in a short time in a much better environment.”
That, over a year ago, was the turning point.
“I made a deal with him, without telling my family,” Sher said. As is common in these situations, the initial cost was not much in comparison, maybe $433 (50,000 Pakistani rupees).
The smuggler – often referred to as an agent – usually receives the bulk of the agreed-upon payment if the client is smuggled into the destination of choice successfully.
“Working abroad and earning in a stronger foreign currency seemed like a good way to support my family, the young father of two said. “I had to quit school after grade 10 because we were poor.”
The plan was to go to Europe via Iran-Turkey-Bulgaria. “The agent told me to reach Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta. I rung him up when I got there and was told to reach a particular hotel,” Sher said.
“There was a guy at the hotel who took me to a place nearby where around 200 people were already waiting for the same journey.”
Trafficking in Pakistan works along community or ethnic lines mostly. If you’re from a certain province, your smuggler will likely be from the same area – perceived as more trustworthy – and his clients will likely be from the same greater area or share the same lingual roots as you. So most of Sher’s travel companions were also ethnic northern Pashtuns like himself – from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The men stayed in Quetta for a few days before the “nightmare” began.
“The agents put around 40 people in one pickup, which in itself is hard to imagine, and drive is rough as the drivers are trying to avoid getting stuck in dirt paths,” Sher said.
Welcome to Iran
“When we finally arrived at a safe house in the evening after that exhausting ride, a tall guy greeted me,” Sher added.
“‘Welcome to Iran’ he said, asking me for a ‘sheerini’ or treat,' as if getting into Iran was the end goal or a time to celebrate," Sher recalled.
The next day the men were stuffed inside a sedan, 10 inside the car and five in the trunk to head to the next “safe destination.”
“The drivers are in constant contact with their informers. It’s the kind of driving I saw while playing video games,” Sher said. In fact, the entire world of smugglers pivots on communication – of cell phones and code words.
“I remember our driver got a call telling him to avoid the straight road ahead of us as the police had cordoned off the area. But by that time, our car had been spotted and when the driver swerved to change routes, the police opened fire,” Sher said.
“I could hear the guys in the trunk screaming but thankfully nothing happened to us.”
They travelled through Shiraz, Tehran and other towns and cities for 14 days before they made it west to the Turkish-Iranian border region.
In yet another safe house in Maku, the men were told to be ready early next morning to cross over into Turkey but Sher was taken aside, to another room. He was told he would not be allowed to enter Turkey as his agent, back in Pakistan, owed them money.
“It was a very strange situation for me; my family wasn’t aware I was trying to reach Europe and there I was, calling them to pay $1,500 to agent [in Iran]. It was a double blow for my family.”
Sher, in the custody of strangers in a country where his presence wasn’t legal, couldn’t take the stress.
“I fell ill. Even though the agents gave me medication, I knew medicine couldn’t alleviate this kind of stress.”
He was held there for 14 days before he was told to be prepared for the next day’s “game” – a common parlance used by agents to describe the crossing of the border.
For 15 long hours, Sher walked the hilly terrain of Maku before he finally made it to the border.
There were so many people waiting to cross over, “I felt as if the whole world was heading towards Turkey.”
Once they crossed into Turkey, into Dogubeyazit, they are taken to the homes of Kurds who live on both sides of the Iranian-Turkish border and are often linked to the agents. After the dust settled, Sher and his cohorts were rounded up into buses to Istanbul.
Sher tried to enter Europe thrice but was caught at the Bulgarian border. He was planning to return to Pakistan to his son and daughter before 2017 ended. Sher is still in Istanbul.
“These smugglers and agents are destroying the lives of innocent people, especially young guys. I advise against this illegal route, it’s like choosing a death sentence.”
Endless cups of tea
The young men who live in the container gather together on their off days, to talk, make tea and Pakistani food.
“Food isn’t that big a deal. But what we really miss is Pakistani tea,” Naimat Wali* said. “Some days we brew enough so we can keep pouring tea in our cups – those days we feel like we’re back home in our country.”
Wali, 30, has been here in Turkey for the last one year; his story is similar to Sher’s.
“We’re just killing time,” Wali said with a look of displeasure. With no education or skills, Wali says “life is the opposite of what agents in Pakistan told us – there is no decent job for us and just look at what we are left doing,” he points to his garbage pushcart.
Wali wakes up early to sort through the big containers of trash outside stores and houses in Pendik.
“People are throwing their waste into bins and we are searching for our life in their garbage,” Wali mused. “What I do here, I have never had to endure my entire life.”
Wali paid his agent $2,000 but is now counting the days before he can earn enough money to return home to Mardan, also in northern Pakistan.
“I left my hometown to find some peace and a respectable job, instead my life turned upside down,” Wali complains.
“Turkey wasn’t my end destination but after the closure of the borders [with the European Union] we ended up here. Though, no one bothers us here despite our status as illegal immigrants.” Trying to look at the positives, Wali points out at least he manages to scrape together a living, however meagre.
In January, a video surfaced of four Pakistanis being tortured in Turkey by human smugglers who were asking for millions of rupees. The young men were eventually rescued by Turkish authorities and returned to Pakistan. Over the past four years, at least 10, 476 illegal Pakistani migrants have been expelled from Turkey.
Yet among so many desperate people and heartbreaking stories, Asfandyar Khattak is confident he chose a better life.
Originally from Charsadda in northern Pakistan, Khattak has now been living in Istanbul for three years and speaks Turkish fluently.
“It took me two painful months to reach Turkey,” recalls Khattak; the human smuggler he dealt with in Pakistan had convinced him the journey would be scenic and fun.
Now Khattak works as a watchman and earns roughly $500 a month. His family is planning his wedding and waiting for him to return to Pakistan.
“I love this country. It has so many beautiful mosques. I feel so much joy every time I hear the sound of the azan (the Muslim call to prayer) waft down from the minarets,” Khattak said. “Even though I am here illegally, I feel at ease even when I approach the police.”
Khattak picks up his phone and calls his agent in Istanbul to discuss his journey back home. They settle on $300.
“Going back isn’t that big a deal. Their pick-ups and cars are empty so they don’t ask for more.” After Khattak crosses into Iran, he will hand himself over to the Iranian police who will deport him to Pakistan.
“That’s the plan, and if all goes well, I will be in Charsadda in a week.”
Not a gateway country any more
People like Sher and Khattak who don’t make it to Europe are often happy to remain in Turkey if they can. Others come legally to find ways to stay. The lira is stronger than the rupee, the basics in life are easier, and food is halal, which suits people from the Muslim-majority country of Pakistan.
Hafiz Abid arrived in Turkey from Gujranwala, in central Pakistan, in 2012. He runs a small business in Yenikapi, a densely-populated area in Istanbul, now famous for its burgeoning Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants.
“Life can be hard for people who came here illegally. But the good thing is they still find a way to earn a living,” Abid said.
“We are also seeing a lot of Pakistanis who are here for study, business and other legitimate reasons.”
Ahmad Adil is only in his late 30s but he has been smuggling people via Turkey for well over a decade. He reminds TRT World of the hardships he had to face when he crossed over illegally from Pakistan.
“These kids are lucky,” Adil nods towards Qaisar Malik*, a young man from Peshawar, hoping to reach Europe from Turkey.
“In our time, 10 years ago, it would take a couple of months but now it’s a matter of days.”
Rolling rosary beads in his fingers, Adil says the business of smuggling humans is no longer attractive.
“Before we used to earn thousands of dollars, but now it’s restricted to a couple of hundred per person at times. Turkey has increased border security, and other countries have also closed their borders with Europe.”
Malik’s been in Istanbul for the last one and half years and tried unsuccessfully to enter Europe several times.
“I was detained by Bulgarian security forces while crossing thick forests,” Malik said. “We were beaten and robbed by the Bulgarian forces before returned to camps run by Turkish authorities.”
Malik didn’t leave Pakistan because he was at risk or poor, it was just the glitz of shiny cars and shops he saw in pictures of his friends who did make it to Europe.
Back in Pakistan, the 20-year-old young man had a cellphone business.
“The real problem starts when the guys here start uploading pictures on social media, taking selfies in front of expensive cars, pretending it's theirs. Back home, we think this is the real deal.” But nobody tells them the dark side of the journey or the life of collecting garbage to make ends meet, Malik said.
Adil doesn’t regret smuggling people from one end of the world to the other.
“It’s the people who approach me. How and why should we stop them?”
Adil’s network and net worth are all determined by a small piece of technology everyone uses but he monetised – a cellphone that never stops ringing.
*Names have been changed to protect identities