It was May 1, 2004 and the world was not ready to digest what was being told to it. That day the Macedonian police announced that the killing of seven alleged Pakistani terrorists there two years ago was staged to win US support and that the victims were innocent illegal immigrants. These Pakistanis had been gunned down by the police in March 2002, just six months after the September 11 attacks in the New York.
The police spokeswoman Mirjana Konteska had told press that these Pakistanis had been smuggled into Macedonia from Bulgaria under a sinister plan, housed there for some time, and finally gunned down in cold blood. According to her, they were lured in by promises to get them settled in different European countries. Though the accused policemen denied the charges, the acknowledgment coming from the official quarters meant a lot and spoke volumes about the risks faced by migrants in the region.
A good 11 years down the road, one finds that the situation has not changed much and rather aggravated after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. These attacks occurred at a time when the partner states of the European Union (EU) were already debating about tightening the current open borders system that allows unchecked travel across 26 European countries on a Schengen visa. Besides, there is a strong disagreement among the EU states on taking in refugees and asylum seekers coming from troubled regions including Middle East and Africa and countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The countries like Greece and Italy that are the entry points for migrants entering Europe are under increasing pressure as they have to face the major influx of refugees and asylum seekers.
The recent developments show that Pakistani immigrants have come under a scanner and those caught without legal documents or turned-down asylum applications face mass deportations. Besides, there are deportations being made on the basis of charges of terrorism — something that Pakistani authorities are vehemently opposing on grounds that often there are no solid evidences to prove these allegations. The Pakistani authorities also claim that some of those deported from EU were found to be of other nationalities and the countries deporting them had not bothered to confirm this.
With an alarming increase in the number of Pakistanis being deported from EU, the country’s Interior Ministry raised objections about the procedures adopted for this purpose. In reaction, it suspended the agreement it had signed with the EU regarding readmission of deportees. The ministry also warned airlines carrying deportees without its approval with heavy fines. This brought an EU delegation to Pakistan last week with an aim to discuss the issue in detail and address the concerns of Pakistan including the “unjustified branding of Pakistani migrants as terrorists.”
An Islamabad-based Interior Ministry official privy to these meetings tells TNS that the main issue was that the European countries had started sending people without intimating them in advance. As per the agreement, he says, the countries deporting refugees are bound to inform Pakistan 15 days in advance so that the concerned ministry can verify that these deportees belong to Pakistan.
He says they have also written a letter to the UN-backed International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and asked it to seek clearance from the ministry before deporting Pakistanis. He says what has happened is that some European countries started sending deportees in commercial flights and the concerned authorities in Pakistan came to know about this on their arrival. As tickets are paid for by IOM, the European states etc they feel no need to contact their home country or the families of the deportees.
The official says that in the past the IOM would charter planes to send back deportees after intimating Pakistani authorities in advance but this procedure was not followed in certain cases after the Paris attacks. As the deportees are mostly without legal documents, the Pakistani embassies issue Emergency Passports (EP) to them which have to be verified by the Interior Ministry in their home country and this takes time, he adds.
As per the Interior Ministry claims, around 1600 deportees have been disallowed to come to Pakistan this year and the concerned countries have been asked to provide evidences and record to prove that they were involved in any crime. The number of Pakistani deportees during the ongoing year, however, stands at around 45,000. These Pakistanis were deported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Malaysia, UK, Turkey, Greece, South Africa, Thailand and other countries.
Another concern of the Pakistani migrants in Europe is that their applications are being turned down and preference given to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. A large number of Pakistanis have applied for asylum in Europe on different grounds but more than 80 per cent of these have been rejected. As per Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, the number of Pakistanis filing asylum requests in region between December 2014 and September 2015 was estimated to be about 32,000. Around 13,000 of these applications were filed in Hungary, 5,000 in Germany and 4,000 in Italy. The number of Pakistanis seeking asylum in UK, France, Austria and Greece was around 6,000, according to the same agency.
Ali, a Pakistani deported from Europe who wants to be identified by his surname, complains that their asylum applications are not accommodated as a matter of policy, not even on the basis of hardship. “Victims of violence and exploitation in Pakistan are being turned away.” Besides, he says, there has been a marked increase in racist violence especially in Greece where the locals think migrants have usurped their jobs and added to the country’s economic woes. Migrants and asylum seekers, especially Pakistanis, cannot go in several no-go areas in Athens and other cities after dark because of fear of attacks by racist groups, he adds.
Ali’s concerns are confirmed by the comments of Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship during his visit to Islamabad earlier this month. He said: “Pakistanis will not qualify as political refugees. Pakistan is under a democratic process… It is not a country where its citizens are persecuted, and great progress has been done by authorities in Pakistan in order to pave a democratic perspective for their country.”
While Pakistan engages in talks with EU at diplomatic level, it has intensified action against human traffickers in the country and come down hard on foreign education and immigration consultants for allegedly smuggling people in the garb of students and professionals.
Chaudhry Muhammad Ahmad, Deputy Director Anti Human Trafficking Cell (AHTC) at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), tells TNS that they are addressing the root cause of the problem and arresting agents involved in this practice. “These are the people who sell dreams to people and send them to journeys where they even risk death.” Recently, he says, they have arrested many people and confiscated large number of passports from them which they were not authorised to keep with them. Besides, they have also arrested and identified several human smugglers who use land routes to help illegal migrants reach Europe after passing through Balochistan, Iran and Turkey, he adds. He says these people have networks in different countries and can be nabbed by devising joint strategies and making concerted efforts.
There are also those who claim undue harassment by the state authorities just for the sake of pleasing foreign countries. Saleem (name changed on request) who runs a foreign education consultancy firms, says they have been treated like hardened criminals just on the basis of suspicion and booked in criminal cases. Even the passports of students that they had obtained for scanning and sending to universities were confiscated and are still in the custody of FIA, he adds. He says the owners of the passports have to go through a long procedure at court and FIA office to get them back.
The AHTC deputy director defends the FIA action saying only the passports kept without legal authority were confiscated. The agency, he says, has devised a mechanism and a complaint cell to help owners of confiscated passports reclaim these. But they can get their passports only after satisfying the concerned judge/magistrate about the purpose of leaving these with the people rounded up by them, he concludes.