The refugee camp of Moria | Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis (archive)
The refugee camp of Moria | Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis (archive)

Pakistani migrant Shahid Ali left his studies for a dream of a better life in Europe only to find out that the continent was not what he expected it to be. Now back in Pakistan and trying to put his life back on track, Shahid is clear about one thing - it's not worth it.

After spending almost two and a half years and trying his luck in three European states, namely Greece, France and Italy, Pakistani migrant Shahid Ali has just returned back to his native country. Shahid wants to resume education and get back to his life in Daska, Sialkot - a small town in rural Pakistan. The twenty-three-year-old migrant has learned his lesson and wants to spread the message now so that young people from his region do not repeat the mistakes that he made.

A surreal dream - Europe

Shahid Ali reached Lesbos, Greece in January 2016. It was a tricky period for asylum seekers who wanted to travel to Western Europe. Negotiations were underway between Turkey’s government and the European Union to stem the migrant flow and as a result, migrants who were arriving at Greek islands were being detained there.

Shahid had left his home without any clue of what lied ahead. He was detained for three months in Lesbos around the time the Turkey-EU deal was signed. He told InfoMigrants, “While I was in detention, some inmates told me that to avoid deportation to Turkey, I should apply for asylum in Greece.” This was not what Shahid had in mind, but with border restrictions and the newly signed deal, he decided that a compromise was his best bet to remain in Europe.

Refugees in Athens, Greece, protest for family reunification (November 2017)

Meanwhile, he kept on trying to reach mainland Greece, from where his chances of progressing towards Western Europe would have been brighter. But he failed. Around June 2016, he was called for his interview. Shahid claimed that he was called for the interview a few days earlier than it was actually supposed to be. Underprepared and still naive to this whole thing, he failed the interview and his asylum application was consequently rejected in August.

Life at a standstill

Shahid Ali was housed at the infamous Moria Camp. His temporary stay was due to expire in October and since his asylum application had been rejected, an extension was not a possibility. Shahid’s dream of a life in Europe had come to standstill and the risks he took traveling through Iran with the help of smugglers meant nothing - or so it seemed.

While I was in detention, some inmates told me that to avoid deportation to Turkey, I should apply for asylum in Greece.

But there was a twist in his story. Help came from where he least expected it. Two local women from Moria Village helped Shahid and took him to the capital Athens in their car’s trunk. “I spent almost fifteen hours in the trunk of their car as we reached mainland Greece in a ferry. I did not get out of the trunk even when the car was on the ferry - there were strict controls and cameras everywhere.” Shahid added that when they reached their destination and he got out of the car, he was not able to walk for some time as his legs were stiff. But there was a sense of achievement as he had reached Athens, a buzzing city with opportunities.

Next destination France

Shahid Ali spent two weeks in a nearby village, seeking ways to migrate further towards Western Europe. Finally, he found someone. An African smuggler sold him a fake French identification card for 900 Euros. Shahid got himself a ticket to the French capital, Paris. The next part was a bit tricky, but somehow Shahid passed the immigration counter without much difficulty. “They asked me a few questions and then they let me go. At first, I couldn’t believe it, but it was happening,” he recalled.

Shahid reached the Orly Airport (ORY) in Paris and was shocked to see that there were policemen checking all passengers at the exit. He assumes that the immigration officials at the Athens Airport had suspected that he was traveling with fake papers and had informed their French counterparts. So, Shahid wasn’t allowed to leave the airport and spent six days at the ORY. During this time, a female friend and a lawyer flew from Greece and prepared Shahid’s case. He was presented in a court and it was decided that the authorities would let him file his asylum application in France. 

Migrants queue in La Chapelle, northern Paris | Photo: Mehdi Chebil

Shahid spent almost one year from October 2016 to October 2017 in Paris. The city of love with its arts and architecture didn’t offer much to a frustrated migrant from rural Pakistan, who had risked everything to reach this far. Shahid’s asylum application was rejected in France as well. And that led him to go to Italy.

Having failed to obtain asylum in Greece and France, Shahid reached the central Italian region of Fermo in October last year. He remained in Italy till the end of March 2018. During this period, Shahid went through the asylum procedure in a third EU country only to be rejected the third time. “It is almost impossible to obtain asylum in Italy, especially for new arrivals,” he told InfoMigrants. The migrant added, “I had the right to appeal against the decision, but I didn’t. Italy has a new government with right wing parties in power. The politicians are racist.”

I know that I have lost valuable time, but I will get back to my studies, get a degree and will pursue a career in my own country. When you spend time abroad in such circumstances, even if it's your own land you are coming back to, it does take some time to find your feet and re-integrate, but it is not impossible.

According to Shahid, he met dozens and dozens of Pakistani migrants in his camp in Fermo - which was run by the German charity organization Caritas. “All of them have been there for over two years at least and they are just filing applications and appealing against decisions. There were over one hundred Pakistani migrants in that camp and quite a few were sick. The facilities provided are poor. People who had chosen to leave their homes and families behind for a life in Europe, were morally, physically and emotionally broken,” informed Shahid.

Shahid Ali had tried his luck in Europe; three countries and over two years spent on filing applications, hiding in trunks, spending time in prison and running from the authorities. He decided that he has had enough. “I came to the conclusion that I am not cut out for this life,” said Shahid. 

A timely lesson learnt the harsh way

Shahid was studying Bachelor of Computer Sciences in Pakistan when he had left for Europe. He told InfoMigrants that he left studies in the fourth semester and all his classmates will be graduating this August. “I know that I have lost valuable time, but I will get back to my studies, get a degree and will pursue a career in my own country. When you spend time abroad in such circumstances, even if it's your own land you are coming back to, it does take some time to find your feet and re-integrate, but it is not impossible,” he added.

Migrant landings in Italy

Having taken his decision, Shahid left the camp in Fermo, Italy and came back to Paris. He approached an office which helps migrants who want to return to their native countries voluntarily, but the process offered by them would have taken over three months. Shahid had already decided that he will resume his studies in the next semester which will start in August in Pakistan. So, he bought himself a ticket.

Shahid Ali flew back from Paris to Lahore in the first week of July 2018. He spoke to InfoMigrants a day before his flight and this is what he had to say, “I can assure you that if people in Pakistan knew what they would go through via travelling illegally and then how their dreams would be shattered in Europe, none of them would attempt it. I wish my story can help in spreading awareness on this subject. And I also wish that the thousands of young Pakistanis who are spending time aimlessly in camps ask themselves - is this the life they want?"

*The protagonist didn't want his real name disclosed for personal reasons and therefore InfoMigrants has used Shahid Ali instead.