Essay / Crisis

Is the Pandemic a Chance to Challenge Global Inequality?

A Pakistani anthropologist who studies the perilous journeys of irregular migrants argues for reimagining ways to close the gap between the rich and poor, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
pakistan covid-19 - Migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crowd a detention center in Greece in 2016.

Migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crowd a detention center in Greece in 2016.

Milos Bicanski

“Gulzar, get up! Gulzar, get up!” Saba Khan remembers shouting. Then she turned to the Greek police and border guards, and cried in Punjabi: “Why did you shoot my husband!? Why did you kill him?”

Saba recounted to me her horrific experience of witnessing the death of her husband, Muhammad Gulzar, who was shot amid clashes at a Turkey-Greece border crossing on March 4. Over the phone in mid-March, she stressed that she could not go back to Pakistan. Saba said that she had run away with Gulzar and feared retribution from her family. She pleaded with me to talk to the German immigration authority and “explain to them that in Pakistan they will kill me. … You are from Pakistan; you know this.”

I did not know how to reassure her without giving her any false hope. At the time, I told her she was safe at the shelter in Istanbul, where a human rights lawyer was examining her case.

As a Pakistani anthropologist living and working in Germany, I have spent more than six months in the areas of Pakistan where most Pakistani migrants hail from, and in Europe, where they arrive, studying the reasons why they attempt such journeys in the face of horrible risks. Specifically, I study what happens to rejected asylum-seekers who return—or are deported—to Pakistan, most of whom initially arrived in Europe through “irregular migration” (sometimes called “undocumented migration”), meaning they had to rely on clandestine means to cross borders.

Today I fear that the pandemic will only make things worse, pushing more people to endure such perilous trips in search of a better life.

While there are no reliable figures on how many Pakistanis are irregular migrants, the data on people forced to return to the country provides some insight. According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior, about half a million Pakistanis were repatriated through deportation from 2014 to 2019—therefore, more than that must have left the country through irregular or clandestine migration in search of a better life.

This kind of undocumented border crossing has come to be known as a dunkey (a Punjabization of the word “dinghy“), after the small boats often used on the journey. The irregular migrants‘ most sought-after destinations are Italy and Germany, but many find themselves stuck along the way in Turkey or Greece. Others become caught in a limbo in Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. They leave because of socioeconomic conditions, structural violence, and sectarian conflict, but their impetus also lies in their dreams, responsibilities, and hopes.

One of the author’s contacts has been deported back to Pakistan three times, from Malaysia, Italy, and Germany, but says he would try to leave again if he had the money.

One of the author’s contacts (pictured here) has been deported back to Pakistan three times, from Malaysia, Italy, and Germany, but says he would try to leave again if he had the money.

Usman Mahar

Attempting a dunkey is not an easy feat. Many people are captured by authorities, kidnapped and tortured for ransom, or die along the way. Last year, over 43,000 Pakistanis were detained by the Turkish immigration authorities alone. Still, most who have ventured on this journey, or wish to do so, often tell me that it is better than living a life without prospects and access to basic needs. There is no life in Pakistan “without money and power,” my interlocutors have often told me. For them, Europe is the only hope they have for changing their lives.

Life is never easy for the poorest of the poor, but COVID-19 has thrown a spotlight on relative poverty. The pandemic has stripped bare global inequalities, casting into sharp focus the gap between the rich and poor. Around the world, access to healthy lifestyles and good medical care are not equally distributed. And rates of chronic heart conditions, diabetes, and other respiratory illnesses—all of which make COVID-19 more threatening—vary across communities. In New York City, COVID-19 has proven twice as fatal for African Americans and Latinos—two traditionally margianalized groups. There is no reliable data for Pakistan, but it is safe to assume that those most likely to suffer are lower-income communities and religious minorities, such as Christians.

As Pakistan closed down in the face of the pandemic, the people who needed their daily and monthly wages the most were the first ones to be laid off. Hundreds of thousands were told to go home when the government announced a two-week lockdown in March, which has since been extended. In Karachi—a metropolis of more than 16 million—thousands of transient workers headed to the train station. Not knowing what would happen next, for many their best bet was to return to their villages, where they would at least have a roof over their heads (and perhaps a meal for a few days). Instead, they found themselves at a crowded train station with no trains.

Container homes like these have been set up in Germany to house refugees and asylum-seekers.

Container homes like these have been set up in Germany to house people including asylum-seekers.

Usman Mahar

Pakistan, like many other countries with rampant inequality, is very likely to fail its poor and minorities even more during this pandemic. Under such conditions, the desire to emigrate through dunkey will surely only increase.

Through my work, I have gotten to know many irregular migrants in Germany, along with several who have returned to Pakistan. I have had the chance to stay with some of them, and meet their friends and relatives, to make sense of their varied reasons for traveling to Europe. Some recounted their dreams and hopes, others their resilience and success, yet others their failures and vulnerabilities.

Gulzar left for Europe in 2007. He had lived and worked in Germany and Greece over the last 13 years to support his family back in Pakistan. Being away from home had taken a toll on his arranged marriage and on his relationship with his parents and children. In January, Gulzar was forced to leave Europe through a so-called voluntary return program that offers money in exchange for going back. As I have argued in a conference paper, coercive techniques and threats of deportation are questionably employed to induce this “voluntary return.“

The silver lining in Gulzar‘s return was that he could finally be reunited with Saba, his childhood love who he was not allowed to marry when he was young. This time, he hoped to marry her and bring her to Europe with him. With the help of an agent working as a “human smuggler,” the couple started their journey from Karachi in February, just before the first confirmed COVID-19 case was identified there.

They traveled to the southwestern province of Balochistan and then into Turkey after crossing Iran. As is typical when a person intends to enter Europe through dunkey, they had planned on hiring a second agent in Turkey to help them get to a Greek island. However, on February 28, Turkey announced that it would stop controlling its borders with Europe, in protest of what that country sees as the unfair burden of hosting 4.1 million people on the move.

Irregular migrants frequently attempt to cross border fences, such as this one at the Serbia-Hungary border.

Hassan Zaidi

When Saba and Gulzar heard the news, they made their way to the Turkey-Greece border at Pazarkule, along with many Syrians, Afghans, and other Pakistanis, in the hope of a less dangerous crossing into Greece. While the Turkish authorities had unilaterally left the border uncontrolled, the Greeks had tightened the security on their side with the help of their army, police, and Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency). This situation led to repeated clashes between the thousands of people trying to enter Greece and the security forces trying to keep them out. The violent techniques employed by the Greek police and border guards have been criticized by the Human Rights Watch.

On March 4, after almost a week of waiting, Saba and Gulzar agreed that if they could not enter Greece that day, they would head south and carry on with their original and more risky dinghy plan. Gulzar was shot dead that day. According to Saba, the Greek police and border guards fired on people while trying to disperse the crowd protesting for their right to enter Greece.

I am in regular contact with quite a few irregular migrants because of my research. As I write this, Saba is still in Istanbul, stuck in limbo. Those who are in Pakistan fear the worst, for a variety of different reasons. Given the lack of a functional public health care system, little government support for the marginalized, and highly unequal distribution of resources, people are desperately concerned for their safety and even more so their livelihoods.

Decades of underinvestment have eroded many public services in Pakistan. The education and health care systems, in particular, have been neglected and left at the mercy of market forces as neoliberal democracy has replaced a succession of military dictatorships. According to a 2012 World Bank report, Pakistan spends 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. And about 60 percent of all health care–related expenses in Pakistan are paid for out-of-pocket. This, combined with a lack of any unemployment insurance or welfare support, means that access to health care in times like these will make the gap between the rich and poor very clear.

Many Pakistanis face a double whammy of no money and a higher probability of contracting the virus.

Pakistan, a country of 220 million, has about 1.5 critical care beds per 100,000 residents in its hospitals (compared to 34.2 per 100,000 in the U.S.). Balochistan, Pakistan’s most expansive and impoverished province, with about 12 million residents, has just 19 ventilators.

Not only is social distancing unaffordable for millions of Pakistanis who must work to live, but it is also practically impossible in the crowded neighborhoods where many live. In some cases, three generations of families live in a one-room house. They face a double whammy of no money and a higher probability of contracting the virus.

Stricter border controls at the European frontiers might give the illusion that irregular migration has stopped. On the contrary, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that there is little change in the number of new arrivals in Europe despite COVID-19. Between 2014 and 2019, an average of 340,000 asylum-seekers and irregular migrants arrived at the borders of Europe each year. (2015 saw an exceptionally high number of arrivals: over 1 million.) And on average, about 3,100 deaths per year have been recorded. (The actual number is likely much higher.)

The increased securitization of “Fortress Europe” to keep people out—started long before the pandemic—will surely only result in a higher number of deaths. The only winners might be the agents who organize dunkeys, charging higher premiums for riskier journeys. 

The last six months of my planned 12-month fieldwork in Pakistan has, of course, been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. But I am one of the privileged ones who will keep getting paid as I work from home and conduct interviews through virtual methods. The only “suffering” I have had to endure is spending more time in my cozy apartment in a nice Munich neighborhood and deciding what to cook for the next meal with my housemates. The underprivileged throughout the world are experiencing COVID-19 very differently.

Migrants can face horrific conditions after leaving Pakistan, as shown by this squat in Serbia.

Hassan Zaidi

This gap should worry everyone—not just for altruistic reasons but for selfish ones too. “The health of the individual is best ensured by maintaining or improving the health of the entire community,” wrote David Satcher, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about emerging infectious diseases back in 1995. That has never been more relevant than today.

Perhaps now is the time to ask what constitutes an “entire community”: Is it an ethnic group, a city, or a nation? Maybe it should be humanity as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink many things: I would add irregular migration to that list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people like Saba and Gulzar risk their lives to become a part of a community that cares. Rather than more securitization of borders, perhaps it is time nations ease human movement and reduce the risk of such journeys. Everyone would benefit: the sending countries, irregular migrants, and host countries.

In such a world, Saba’s husband might still be alive; their journey, and the journeys made by so many facing difficult situations, could be made safer. In a more equitable world, they might not have even left Pakistan. Perhaps it is time for some new political ideas, such as the redistribution of wealth on a global scale and the creation of transnational social security nets, instead of more border security walls.

Usman Mahar is a doctoral research associate in the department of social and cultural anthropology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is currently working on a DFG-funded research project on (re)migration with Martin Sökefeld. Mahar received his higher education at the University of Heidelberg and University College Utrecht. Follow him on Instagram @ekphrasis_us_man or Twitter @usmanmahar.


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