Most of the more than 600,000 migrants and refugees estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year are Syrians fleeing their country’s brutal civil war or escaping untenable conditions in camps across the border in Turkey and Lebanon. But many Afghans and Pakistanis are also making the harrowing trek, fleeing parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are in the throes of insurgent violence.
Mohammad Amin Mudaqiq, director of RFE/RL’s service to Pakistan, Radio Mashaal, also fled his native Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. He spoke with RFE/RL about how the service has reported the migration crisis in a way that informs listeners of the perils involved in the journey to Europe, but also validates their need to seek safety and opportunities elsewhere.
RFE/RL: Around 16 and two percent of the migrants and refugees who have traveled to Europe by sea in 2015 come from Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively, according to UN figures. When did this become an important issue for your audience?
Mohammad Amin Mudaqiq: We’ve found this migration wave very alarming from the beginning, and we felt it was necessary to give our audience the true picture. There are networks of smugglers who tell would-be migrants that they will be driven safely by car right up to a European border, after which a paradise of free housing, education, and healthcare awaits them. They tell them there is a good chance of being accepted in Europe.
RFE/RL: The reality has in many cases proven quite the reverse. How do you inform your audience about this in a credible way?
Mudaqiq: In our roundtable discussions via telephone, we bring together people who have already settled in Europe, those who are in the process of making this difficult journey, and people who are considering setting out on this journey. We don’t reject our listeners’ dreams of having a new life in Europe, but during the discussions, those who have already settled in Europe suggest other, safer options for reaching the same goal. They discuss not only the dangers, but also the cost of the journey. We learned from our audience that the going rate paid to smugglers to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan is around $10,000 - $15,000 per head, sometimes more. Panelists have suggested this is the cost of getting a Bachelor’s degree from some of the best universities in India, so why not educate your son instead of sending him off on this desperate journey?
RFE/RL: What impact do the stories of people currently making the journey have on your listeners?
Mudaqiq: Some of the most miserable stories were from people who were put into plastic boats and taken by smugglers to islands off the coast of Turkey and abandoned with no food or water. They tell our listeners not to trust the smugglers. We also post the latest developments about the closing of borders and treatment by police on our social media platforms, which are followed by hundreds of thousands.
RFE/RL: What are the fundamental problems and new developments in the region that are driving this current wave of migration?
Mudaqiq: Pakistan is an active battle zone. One young man I interviewed said his father was determined to come up with the $15,000 demanded by the smugglers to get his son out of Pakistan because he was almost killed in a recent bomb attack. He believes that in Pakistan, death is certain, but if his son embarks on this journey to Europe, at least he stands a chance.
I was recently speaking with some relatives in Afghanistan who told me that people are starting to realize how dangerous this journey is and to rethink it. The hope among the young people in Afghanistan was that NATO would bring peace and stability. They’ve been trying for 14 years and nothing has improved. Afghans are especially concerned now more than ever because NATO will be completely withdrawn by 2016 and they are afraid that the security situation will completely deteriorate. They remember the brutal civil war the country fought in the 1990s, and they fear a repetition. At least in the 1990s, Afghan refugees could flee across the border to Pakistan, which was relatively safe at that time. But due to the current insurgency in Pakistan, the authorities have closed the door to Afghan refugees.
People know that they’re putting themselves in harm’s way when they set out, but they believe they have no choice. They see the Taliban next door, Islamic State militants gaining strength, and the insurgency in Pakistan and response by the Pakistani military. They feel trapped on all sides.