Escape from Pakistan

There is a war in Afghanistan but at the same time the number if refugees from Pakistan keeps rising. Why does somebody leave his country on a dangerous journey into an unsafe future?

A better life

Around 5.500 migrants form Pakistan have seeked asylum in Austria in the past ten years. But only about 1% receive a residence permit and can stay in Austria. At the same time almost 40% of the 18.300 migrants from Afghanistan got a permanent residence permit in Austria. 

There are not just man and women fleeing from  Afghanistan but an large amount of undocumented children too while migrants from Pakistan usually are young men who seek asylum in Austria. Both countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are involved in a conflict with the Taliban. While in Afghanistan a US led coalition of 47 states fights an official war against terror with more than 100.000 troops on the ground the shadow side of the same conflict lies across the border in Pakistan. Pakistani Army has retreated from post border areas while the United States have intensified their drone assignments. 

The war increasingly shifts into Pakistan  while refugee flows from these areas rise. More people than ever before flee the region to seek refuge in other parts of Pakistan. According to the UNHCR around 750.000 Pakistani are refugees within their own country. An additional 1,6 million Afghani refugees are living in Pakistan too. Some of them take their chances with a dangerous journey to Europe not knowing what they can expect but in hope to find a better life. 

Number of Pakistani asylum seeker (yellow) und Afghani asylum seeker (blue) in Austria.

A failed nation

War, natural disasters, religious persecution - Pakistan seems to be a failed nation. The western border regions neighboring Afghanistan called FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) also known as the tribal areas are a region where Pakistani authorities have only little influence. Armed militia men and tribes rule the area. The military stays out of the region and a few bases have been fortified to fortresses that military personell hardly ever leaves. The many different groups who fight for supremacy and economic advantages are defined by religion, ethnicity or political association. Some of those groups have been enemies for decades. 

The northern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, recently became one of the Taliban’s strongholds. When save areas for retreat became scarce in Afghanistan after 2001, they overran the province and in 2009 the frontline was only a mere hundred kilometers from the capital Islamabad. Since then some of the groups were driven back but what stayed is a very conservative interpretation of islam: many schools that were destroyed weren’t reopened again, women almost entirely vanished from the streets and political opponents are hunted down. Almost all migrants from Pakistan that seek asylum in Austria are from these two areas: The tribal region and the northern province. 

In the southern province, Balochistan, the armed conflict is much more brutal than the tribal areas. But in the western hemisphere this region is mostly known for natural disasters: In September 2013 more than 300.000 people were effected by an earthquake. 

But not in all of Pakistan rule fear and terror: In the eastern province Punjab it is comparatively peaceful. The capital of the province, Lahore, is the cultural and economic centre of Pakistan. But the networks of radical groups reach into the larger cities, Lahore and Karachi, too. Who flees his home and makes it here still can not feel save. 

The way to Europe

The biggest city of Pakistan, Karachi, serves as starting point for most attempts to go to Europe. Here the agents for trafficking groups have their offices from where they coordinate  the stages and dispense money to their contractors. Many migrants fly to Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta from where they try to reach small islands that are Australian territory. Migrants who go to Europe get on a truck or jeep and drive towards the Iranian border (to see each stage on the map click the points).

“For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who: As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.“

Art. 1 Section A Z 2 Geneva Refugee Convention

Asylum in Austria

The Federal Agency for Asylum and asylum courts have to decide whether the conditions in a country 5.000km away are sufficient reasons to grant asylum under Austrian law and have the task to compare individual stories to objective asylum criteria. What the public know about Pakistan about the life, the freedom and constrains it knows from media that also only have very limited access to this areas: too dangerous, too messy is the situation as to clearly assess it. 

In order to to get some sense of the situation public servants and justices can draw information from a database of reports by the Foreign Ministry, the Austrian embassy and consulates as well as reports from NGOs and various UN organizations that operate in the country and have a better understanding of the situation. The Federals Asylum Agency also sends fact finding missions into different countries to get an accurate assessment of the situation.

Political persecution

Tanveer Hussain* explains in his asylum application that the was personally persecuted by the Taliban and therefore had to flee his village in the Swat valley a region in the northwestern province of Pakistan. He was an active member of a secular party  and an advocate for girls being allowed to go to schools. When the Taliban got the region under their control he became an persona non grata and had to flee. Because he believed that he could not be save in other cities he left Pakistan in 2009. 

Targeted killings have become daily life in Pakistan and at the same time it remains difficult to tell if they are executed by religious or politically motivated groups. A fact finding mission of the Federal Asylum Agency in June 2013 came to a similar conclusion than Tanveer after which an escape from the Taliban within Pakistan is not possible in general and has to be assessed in every individual case. 

  • Like in Afghanistan century old Buddha statues were destroy by the Taliban. The head of this statue was blown up in 2009. (photo: Stambula)
  • View over the Swat valley (photo: Stambula)
  • Mengora, the capital of the Swat valley, from where Hussain is from. (photo: Stambula)

Domestic means of escape

"Before the background of the wide geographical reach of militant groups it is not realistic that internal protection can be recognized. The operative means of some of the groups […] extend far beyond the tribal areas and the northwestern province as it has been demonstrated by suicide attacks in the whole country especially in urban areas."

UNHCR guidelines to determine international security needs of members of religious minorities in Pakistan.


Abid Shah* tells about his abduction by the Taliban: A group of men invited him into a mosque. When he came back a couple of days later, the men took him against his will to Rawalpindi and onwards to a training camp south of the Swat valley. There he men should be trained to become fighters. He calls it brain washing. Most men were abducted like Abid. One day he can jump over the fence and a taxi driver takes him in and helps him to to his home village. But there he can not stay: the men who abducted him are watching the house and in the meanwhile have abducted his brother. The family decides to ransom the brother and send both of them to Europe. 

Abi Shah’s story serves as an example for a practice that is common in Pakistan: abduction. Sometimes it is just to get ransom from the victim’s families. But abduction increasingly have become a method of recruitment by the Taliban. Young men are abducted and brought to camps where they are indoctrinated and trained to fight or attempt attacks. 

Religious persecution

Saad Turi is a member of the religious minority of Shias in Pakistan. The majority, almost 80% are Sunni. In Saad’s hometown, Parachinar, the Shias are the majority and the Turi-clan that Saad belongs to, is one of the most important Shia tribes in Pakistan. Over a decade the tribe has been in conflict with sunni tribes and since with 2006 with the Taliban. Saad speaks about his fight with the Taliban. Starting in 2006 Taliban fighters regularly retreated into Pakistan and tried to take control over the area surrounding Parachinar. After they had destroyed Saad’s home and killed some of his family members, he fled the country. 

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A detailed report by the Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) assess the situation in the region around Parachinar in an report to Federal Asylum Agency. According to the report around 60.000 people were ousted from their homes in 2012 and had to flee the area due to fights that continued in 2013. The report concludes that because of the security situation and because of the imminent attack threat to neighboring provinces there are no escape alternatives and a deportation of people from these regions back to Pakistan can not be recommended. 

The state as enemy

That there are situations when the state can become a reason to flee is explained by Ameer Nawaz*. He was injured during one of the major earthquakes in Kashmir in October 2005 but got involved with an western NGO in order to help with the reconstruction effort. Ameer was later arrested by the Pakistani Intelligence Agency ISI which suspected him to be a western spy because of his work with the NGO. He was kept in prison for months and when he was released his health condition was dire. The injuries sustained during the earthquake were never really treated and he had gotten chronically ill. 

In 2011 Ameer participates in student protests against the ISI because the incidents in which people were arrested without being charged had increased and outraged the students. After the protest had ended ISI agents come to his house but do not find him. Ameer, not feeling save any more, decides to flee to Europe. 

„In Pakistan, enforced disappearances were rare before September 2001. Since then,  hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been arbitrarily detained and held in secret detention. The victims have been denied access to lawyers, families and courts, and are at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.“

Amnesty International

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People from this area, Kashmir, rarely flee because in general the security situations is much better here than in the rest of the country. There are fewer bombings and conflicts with armed groups and even the crime rate is lower. The level of education and economic situation are much better than other rural areas of Pakistan. But at the same time a critical student movement that demands more autonomy for the region is suppressed by the Pakistani Intelligence Agency. Ameer’s story is an example of similar cases that also have been documented in a report by the Federal Asylum Agency. 
Ameer says that also his brother was arrested and tortured. He left as well in lives now in Iran.

  • close to the Afghan border (photo: Stambula)
  • view inside the tribal areas (photo: Steiner)
  • Kashmir (photo: Stambula)
  • Muzaffarabad (photo: Stambula)


Justices at asylum courts report that an application is even more difficult to assess when the applicant lies about the circumstances. Often migrants claim to be persecuted unfairly be the police but it never gets clear why. Some make contradicting reports about their living situation and the reasons of their flight. Even during the interview for this article some migrants modified their stories several times. Some applicants to not seem to have relevant asylum reasons, others are so shell shocked that they are unable to speak or concentrate in an conversation.

If circumstances can not be validated the authenticity of the applicant is taken into account by the court. For 99% of all applicants that means their journey does not end in Austria. Upon receiving their negative permit decisions many migrants go into hiding and try to reach another EU state and try a new application. 

Tanveer Hussain has not yet lost his hope. He already left Pakistan a couple of years ago und now waits since two years for an answer to his asylum notification. Even if it is negative he does not want to go back to Pakistan. “It is like a dam which does not let any water through. At some point the water flows over and finds a new way“, he says. The dramatic scenes that can be witnessed at European borders have already become a global stage. At the same time the chances to get asylum has decreased all over Europe. Some try new routes through southeast Asia to reach Australia. But the route is also very dangerous and the chances to get a residence permit are low. By the time the US will have left Afghanistan in 2014 and a new power struggled has ensued, the conflict with the Taliban is likely to intensify once more. People will leave their homes and will try to make it to Europe, to find a better life. 



Asylstatistik BMI

UNHCR - Pakistan

ACCORD Berichte und BAA Fact Finding Missions



For this research 15 Pakistani migrants were interview several times. The names marked with * have been changed by the author.

The authors

Florian Stambula lived in Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 and is an editor of rugpundits. com. (Research, text, photographs, maps)

Jakob Steiner works since 2006 in Pakistan and founded the blog (research and translations)

Graphic design: Fabian Lang