Pakistani migrant Zeeshan Ali was tricked into attempting illegal migration to Europe. En route, he was held hostage by smugglers and tortured for money. Having survived the ordeal, Ali is gradually finding contentment in what he has back home.
One year can change a lot. This cliché fits perfectly to describe Zeeshan Ali, who has seen his entire life turned upside down in the past year. At the beginning of 2017, Ali had dreams of a starting a new life in Europe. As the year comes to a close, the young man is content with selling fruits at a market in his hometown in central Pakistan - and Europe seems a fair distance away.
A tale many don't live to tell
Twenty-one year old Zeeshan Ali hails from Jalalpur Jattan, a city in Gujrat district, located almost 190 kilometers (120 miles) from the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities and in search of something more meaningful in life, he embarked upon his journey to Europe in July with the help of a local human smuggler.
Ali told InfoMigrants that a local 'agent' named Imran Mirza had promised him a safe journey to Europe as well as an employment opportunity with three meals a day and decent money.
"He told me that I will have to work eight hours a day for six days a week; for which I will receive rupees 40,000 (approximately 320 Euros) a month," Ali said.
The offer proved irresistible for his family of four, in which Zeeshan, as the eldest son, was expected to take the responsibility of providing the bread and butter of the family. His father Ghulam Rasool, managed to gather around 70,000 rupees (approx. 550 euros) and sent his son abroad.
In pursuit of his dream, reality struck the young migrant rather quickly. Ali was held hostage, along with many others, by human smugglers upon their arrival in Turkey. He doesn't know in which part of the country it happened, but recalling those fearful moments he told InfoMigrants:
"I was kept in a room in which over two hundred other Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants were already living. They gave us the bare minimum to eat and drink, and tortured us to demand money from our families back home."
Ali soon realized that it had never been about the job. It was a trap set to lure young people towards unrealistic dreams so that they would pay any price.
Some fifteen days into this ordeal, in early August, the smugglers sent Ali's father a picture of him in which a huge nail was seen inserted in Ali's foot. To save his only son, Ghulam Rasool, within a day, gathered 300,000 rupees (approx. 2,500 Euros) and paid the smugglers for his son’s release.
A father's plea
"People in Gujrat are illiterate and thus gullible," said Ali’s father, Ghulam Rasool. He told InfoMigrants that smugglers, locally known as agents, are active in every neighborhood of the district.
"They trick young people by telling them about life in Western countries. Then these young men emotionally blackmail their parents into sending them abroad," he added.
Rasool warned young men and their families against human traffickes and taking the illegal route to reach Europe. It cost him his entire life's savings to help send his son to Europe and then to save his life. He says, however, that he has no regrets.
"Not many would be able to come back from a situation my son was in," he told InfoMigrants.
'Agent mafia' - powerful and influential
Talking to InfoMigrants about human smuggling networks, Shahid S., a local journalist, said, that "the agent mafia operates at different levels." He explained that the lowest level consisted of local people, many of whom are regular neighbors, shopkeepers etc.
Such people, he said, are responsible for spreading the word, and act as middlemen. He added that they were scattered in many cities across central Punjab.
Shahid S. stressed that "these people have the backing of their superiors who are all well-connected and financially sound. Unfortunately, they bribe their way out of anything, and almost no one is ever apprehended."
Slim pickings for Pakistani migrants
Illegal migration from Pakistan towards Europe has been growing foe the past few decades. The trend gained momentum in 2015, as scores of economic migrants from several districts in central Punjab took off for Europe, in an attempt to take advantage of the situation that hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were in.
In total, over 1.23 million asylum applications were filed across Europe in 2015. Last year saw a slight decline in numbers, with roughly 1.1 million people applying for asylum. 2017, however, saw just 142,913 arrivals by sea route till the end of October, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the average asylum acceptance rate in the EU/EFTA for nationals of all countries stood at a total 60.8 percent in 2016. A tally of 699,020 positive decisions were reached last year. Pakistan's recognition rate, however, stood only at 17.4 percent - as compared to 99 percent of all Syrian applications being accepted.
Altogether, 5,705 positive decisions were reached on applications submitted by Pakistani migrants across Europe, for reasons including refugee protection, subsidiary protection, and humanitarian protection.
Chances for Pakistani nationals are rather bleak
The German Ambassador to Pakistan, Martin Kobler, underscored that people in Pakistan needed to be told that they would probably not be granted asylum in Europe. He told InfoMigrants that in Germany, almost 8,000 Pakistanis, whose applications had been rejected, were currently awaiting deportation.
He added that "from 14.000 pending asylum applications from Pakistani nationals, only thirty cases have been approved so far in Germany."
For people like Ali, the German ambassador has a clear message, "if you have 5,000 Euros available, don't spend it on human smugglers. Spend it on finding a future for yourself within your country."
'I have learned my lesson'
Zeeshan meanwhile says that he has become meekly content with helping out his father in their family business. They sell fruit at a street stall in Jalalpur Jattan’s main market. Addressing young men like him, he said, "if you have only one piece of bread at home, share it amongst all, but do not attempt to go to Europe via illegal means."
Ali's present life may appear like a harsh compromise for a young man with big dreams, but at least he is able to live to tell his story - unlike others.