TAFTAN, 21 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - In the small, dusty town of Taftan, located in the extreme southwest of the Pakistani province of Balochistan, along the Iranian border, Muhammad Fayyaz, 24, is a long way from home.
He is also extremely tired, having begun his journey on a rickety bus the day before from the provincial capital, Quetta, 600 km away.
Fayyaz, from the town of Gujrat in the central province Punjab, has reached Taftan in the hope he can make it across the border into Iran.
"I saw a sign saying 2,256 km to Tehran as we left Quetta, and I realised how long my journey would be. But I am determined to make it out to Iran, and then to Europe," Fayyaz told IRIN.
He insists that he will be crossing "legally", but this seems unlikely given the mode he has adopted to reach his goal: travelling with little money, documents or other possessions.
DESPERATE TO LEAVE
Fayyaz is one of tens of thousands of young men in Pakistan desperate to leave the country. Indeed, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimates up to 300,000 Pakistanis leave the country illegally each year.
Figures from the government's labour department show that, on average, another 100,000 leave legally. They often include the most skilled and highly educated members of society.
While these fortunate few are able to get the visas, work permits and other documents they need to move overseas, most are not so lucky. For young men like Fayyaz, who has completed his graduation, but has not been able to find a job for the past three years, the chances of being permitted to resettle in another country are almost non-existent.
LACK OF OPPOURTUNITY
They are desperate to escape what they see as a life without opportunity, in a country where, according to official figures, unemployment stands at 6.8 percent and over 35 percent of a population of 150 million survive below the poverty line. Others hover in and out of poverty, a single crisis, such as a family illness, pushing them down into an abyss of debt and despair.
There is no social welfare net to save them, and subsidised public-sector health and educational services are severely under-resourced. Some unofficial estimates by NGOs indicate unemployment and underemployment run much higher than the official mark.
"It's a desperate situation for people. The lack of jobs is the major problem," said HRCP Director I A Rehman, who also holds the "socio-economic difficulties of people as the most pressing rights issues in the country."
Even if Fayyaz were to find work, he would draw, at best, a salary of Rs 10,000 (US $169) per month - barely enough to sustain a family. For most wage earners in the country salaries are significantly lower. The combination means accessing even the most basic needs - adequate food, healthcare, schooling for children - is extremely difficult for the vast majority of Pakistanis.
It is these factors that drive thousands each month into the hands of 'human smugglers'. These 'agents' often demand fees of up to Rs 500,000 ($8,333) or more, promising in return to smuggle an individual out to the Middle East, Europe, East Asia or North America. Raising the amounts demanded is not easy, but many are so determined to leave the country they are willing to sell whatever assets are available, or to borrow money from relatives, to make it to what they see as a better life overseas.
A large number are duped by agents, who often rake in big earnings and then vanish. Some of those seeking to leave illegally never make it across the border. Others end up in jails in Iran, Greece, Macedonia, Thailand and elsewhere. Some end up dead, shot by border guards as they attempt to make their shadowy crossings, or stifled within the holds of ships run by smugglers.
Over the past two years alone, at least 100,000 Pakistanis who had entered other countries illegally have been deported home, according to government figures.
Islamabad says it is taking the issue seriously, having conducted a major crackdown against human smuggling in 2005 - after having been placed on a watch list by the US State Department - and has made hundreds of arrests. Some of those held include gang leaders organising smuggling operations.
But the arrests, along with the terrible stories of exploitation, of forged documents made mainly in the town of Gujrat in the Punjab, or of bodies being brought back to grieving mothers, have had no impact on the number who attempt illegal emigration each year.
Despite the fact that Pakistan is now off the US watch list and has made a massive effort to tackle the problem, the human trade continues. It is conducted mostly through the porous Pakistan-Iran border, from points such as Taftan, and through small boats and launches operating between the coastal belt of Balochistan and Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf states.
Those heading for Iran head on from to Taftan to the villages of Mand Bilo and Radhik, located in the border tribal areas of Balochistan, with or without travel documents.
Fayyaz, somewhat lost and confused, says a 'friend' has promised to meet him in Taftan and tell him what to do next. It is assumed this friend is an agent. For the present though, Fayyaz is busy avoiding questioning by police or border guards until his contact arrives to guide him into Iran.
On 28 February, Iranian security forces arrested 14 Pakistanis attempting to cross over illegally. The men were handed back to Pakistani border guards and are under investigation at present.
Such reports are a routine affair. The precise number of those attempting to cross the Taftan border each year is unknown. Nor is it certain how many succeed in making their way through the hostile deserts and mountains of Iran, towards Turkey, Greece and other countries in Europe.
But organisations like the HRCP say the figure is high. "Young men like Fayyaz remain deeply convinced that their only hope of building a better life lies in somehow making it to a part of the developed world, even when there are many risks involved in such an attempt, that is a tragedy," Rehman said.
... Payvand News - 3/22/06 ... --