A fertile land

Pakistanis are among the biggest cohort of people trying to reach EU through the Balkans

Muhammad Hamid Zaman August 01, 2023
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman


Unlike many other places I have been to, my taxi driver in Belgrade knew where Pakistan was. So did the bookseller and the coffee shop owner. It is not because there are great bilateral ties between Pakistan and Serbia, or some active hostility between the two nations, or regular tourism. It was because every few months, there would be a discussion about migrants in Serbia with strong feelings on all sides of the political debate, and Pakistan’s name would come up over and over again. Pakistanis are among the biggest cohort of people trying to reach EU through the Balkans. The numbers are so significant that in 2020 Pakistan and Bosnia signed a deal to send migrants back from Bosnia to Pakistan.

While the recent tragedy off the coast of Greece has gotten attention, the discussion has largely been about migration along with the Mediterranean route. A lot less has been mentioned in our newspapers and TV shows about the longer land route. The land route goes from Pakistan through Iran, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, with the migrants aiming to eventually reach Italy. Earlier this year, at the migrant camps in Bosnia, I learned about Pakistani migrants from the land route who continue to make up a large fraction of those who pass through the camps in the Balkans. Similar conversations that I have had in other parts of the Balkans confirm that Pakistani migrants continue to come in sizeable numbers throughout the year. They would often walk for several months, evading local police brutality, exploitation of smugglers and harsh weather. By the time they reach Serbia or Bosnia they are in a pretty bad state, yet rarely does anyone want to go back even if given the opportunity for free travel back to Pakistan.

Data from the last several years shows that the issue of migrants from Pakistan is not new. It is mostly young men, from a handful of districts in Punjab and Azad Kashmir. In many ways Pakistan is unusual. The other countries of origin of migrants are either in a state of conflict or civil war or a near permanent collapse of the system. That profile does not fit Pakistan neatly. Yet, at a micro level, it is the same fears that drive people out of a conflict-affected country that drive many young Pakistanis to take extraordinary risks. It is a sense of hopelessness about the future, a worsening state of their lives, a deep distrust in the system, and prevailing injustice. In a society where even the judges and their spouses inflict unspeakable torture on young girls at their homes, it is not hard to see why people from small towns and poor backgrounds see little hope.

The discussion in the last few months in Pakistan has focused largely on human trafficking and the criminal part of the story. It is true that there are smuggling networks that thrive in these places and continue to exploit vulnerable people. The smuggling networks are well-connected and it would not surprise anyone if we find out that powerful people are connected to those networks and benefitting from their activities. Such networks need to be tackled aggressively by the full force of the law — but the real problem is not the smuggling networks. There is another, far bigger, crime that is at play here. That crime is of injustice in society at every step of the way. The migrants I have spoken to, unanimously, talk about hopelessness, injustice and a complete denial of a fair shot at a dignified existence as their drivers. On the other hand, most of us view them as unstable, naïve or those who do not want to work hard. We see them as people of weak faith or as criminals. Our own privilege stops us from viewing the daily violence of injustice that they suffer. We refuse to recognise that human smuggling thrives in an enabling environment. Disregarding the economic and social violence against the weak in the society is all the support the smugglers need. Maybe we should first ask why people are so desperate to leave before thinking about how they leave.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2023.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ