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Dangerous journey

Print edition : Jun 15, 2007 T+T-
A BSF PATROL near the border with Pakistan, in Ranbir Singh Pura in the Jammu sector. Many Bangladeshi migrants trying to cross over to Pakistan fall to BSF bullets.-

A BSF PATROL near the border with Pakistan, in Ranbir Singh Pura in the Jammu sector. Many Bangladeshi migrants trying to cross over to Pakistan fall to BSF bullets.-

Every year thousands of Bangladeshi migrants risk their lives and cross the border fence in J&K, hoping to make a new life in Pakistan.

BY first light, the blood on the lithe brown bodies that had fallen just short of the border fence had dried up. The small wooden poles the men had hoped to use to prise apart the razor-sharp coils of wire that separate India and Pakistan lay near by.

Two hours after midnight on April 8, six men showed up on the night-vision devices used by the Border Security Force (BSF). On the flickering, green screens, the poles in their hands looked like assault-rifle barrels. When a BSF patrol called out to them to stop, they ran. Guards from the adjoining posts of Nikowal and Budhwar opened fire.

No one knows the names of the six men who died on the India-Pakistan border - but from where they came, there is little doubt. Each year, thousands of Bangladeshi nationals attempt to cross the minefields, machine-gun nests and barbed-wire fencing that separates India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir - once described by former United States President Bill Clinton as "the most dangerous place on earth". The migrants' passage is perhaps the most dangerous journey conceivable.

Unlike the Islamist jehadis who attempt to make the journey the other way, the Bangladeshi migrants' dreams are pacific. Across the border in Pakistan, they know, are farms that desperately need workers, and which would pay them up to the equivalent of Rs.300 a day. So, too, do construction projects in the cities of the Pakistani province of Punjab. Some already have relatives in Karachi, where hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis make a living in the and construction industries and as artisans. A new life lies ahead - but getting to it involves risking the one you already have.

Mohammad Sohail had no dreams when he left his home in Jessore, just the hope of working somewhere where a day's work earned a day's wages. Ever since he dropped out of school in the fifth grade, Sohail had done a variety of odd jobs. His brother, Mohammad Masood, ran a vegetable shop. With two incomes, the family was not starving; but life was hard.

In June 2006, while working on a building project, Sohail met a worker who worked part of the year just across the border, in India. Life in India, Taj-ud-Din told him, was not always easy. The police sometimes harassed illegal migrants from Bangladesh while labour contractors sometimes cheated workers out of their earnings. But despite these hardships, wages were high. In just a few months, Taj-ud-Din claimed, a worker could make enough money to buy a shop, or a little land, at home.

Sohail and Taj-ud-Din travelled across the porous Benapol border that summer, and caught a night train to New Delhi. Along with several other Bangladeshi nationals, the two men worked in New Delhi's Nizamuddin area, sleeping on the streets next to the neighbourhood's famous shrine. While Taj-ud-Din returned home after two months, Sohail heard that there were fortunes to be made further to the west, in Pakistan. While wages in New Delhi hovered around Rs.200 a day, a tout told him that workers in Pakistan could make half as much more.

Four Bangladeshis, including Sohail, paid the tout - whom they knew only as "Kalu", - Rs.3,000 each to arrange their passage to Pakistan. He gave them each Pakistani Rs.500 to meet their first expenses on landing in that country, and some basic tips on how to cross the fencing that he warned them to expect on the India-Pakistan border. On New Year's Eve in 2006, Sohail and his group arrived in Jammu and then caught a bus to Samba. As they walked towards the brilliant lights on the horizon, which mark the border, BSF guards were waiting.

Not all Bangladeshis seeking to cross into Pakistan are from the ranks of the absolute poor - some are driven by desperate motives. Like most of the tens of thousands of illegal migrants who leave South Asia each year, Shahid Husain hoped to head west. Born in 1982, Husain had been forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade and take responsibility for his mother, Anwara Begum, and five siblings. The family owned three cows and selling their milk helped make ends meet; but Husain knew that a better life could be had on distant shores.

In the event, Husain's family invested almost its entire savings - some 50,000 taka - to help him make the journey to Karachi, in Pakistan, where some distant relatives had promised to help him find a job.

In January 2005, Husain arrived in Karachi on a legitimate visa and passport. He worked for the next six months as a tailor, and even married. Then, with the help of a local travel agent, he prepared to make the next stage of his journey west.

Travelling west by bus, through Iran, Husain arrived in Turkey. Within a month, however, the young economic refugee was arrested on charges of working without an appropriate visa. In March 2007, he was deported back to Bangladesh.

Although Husain had made some 150,000 taka in the course of his travels, much of which he had sent home, this barely covered his expenses. Moreover, he learned, his wife in Karachi now had a son. With his criminal record, though, there was no way to get a passport - nor the cash to arrange fake travel documents.

Within three days of his return to Bangladesh, Husain heard of an affordable way to reach Pakistan, for which no documentation was needed. All that had to be done, he was told, was to creep through one of the dozens of dried-out river-beds along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu.

Husain will spend the next three months in jail, before legal proceedings are initiated for deporting him to Bangladesh. More likely than not, Husain's stay with his family in Tangail in central Bangladesh will be brief: he has debts to pay, after all, and a child whom he has never seen.

How large is the traffic across the border fence? Given the enormous risks, the numbers are startling. Data obtained by Frontline show that between January and mid-May, 24 documented attempts were made by Bangladeshi border-crossers. While most of the attempts involved small numbers of people, large groups also try to make the journey. Seventeen Bangladeshi immigrants were arrested by the BSF's 26 Battalion in the Khour sector on May 18, for instance, while seven were detained by the Army's 6 Madras Regiment at Arnia four days earlier. On April 30, 22 Bangladeshis were arrested by the Army in Jammu's Bari Brahmana area hours before their planned journey to Pakistan.

One reason why so many attempt the journey is that other than the risk of death, the deterrents are low. Of 490 Bangladesh nationals arrested in the Jammu area in 2005, only 15 were actually prosecuted. In 2006, as many as 405 Bangladeshis were held - but only 88 were arrested and prosecuted.

All of this is part of a long-standing pattern. In September 2003, BSF officers handed over 162 Bangladeshis, including women and children, to the police. However, the police station in Ranbir Singh Pura found it did not have the means to feed and house the group. In the absence of high-level intervention, the migrants were put on a train to New Delhi. Most are thought to have got off at Pathankot in northern Punjab.

India is starting to crack down - 68 of 113 Bangladeshi nationals detained along the Jammu border this year have been arrested and charged. But touts who arrange the journey across the border are increasingly counselling their clients on how to avoid even the small prison sentence that can come with interdiction.

In April, Abdul Aziz, Abdul Subhan, Tufail Ahmad and Wali-ur-Rahman were arrested near the fencing. All four turned out to have legitimate passports and visas authorising them to visit the shrine of Ajmer Sharif. After their pilgrimage, the men claimed, they had wanted to see the border fence.

Since Ajmer and Jammu are a considerable distance away, police found the story implausible but allowed the men to go. Within weeks, five more Bangladeshi nationals showed up with much the same story. This time they were booked; but they face a maximum prison sentence of three months.

For those who do manage to make it across the fence, life can be hard. Writing in Time magazine's September 25, 2000 issue, journalist Hannah Bloch reported that since "the early 1990s, agents have brought women to Pakistan either by force or by promises of marriage and work". Once in Pakistan, she recorded, "they are like chattel being sold".

Similar trafficking takes place in India as well. In 2003, the Punjab Police arrested Bangladesh national Kalam Sheikh, one of the few traffickers ever to be detained and held. Sheikh admitted to selling women for between Rs.5,000 and Rs.10,000, depending on their physical appearance, mostly to peasants in Punjab whose land-holdings were too small to secure marriages within their own upper-caste groups.

Mired in concerns about national security and prestige, none of the three countries involved - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - has been willing to bring the problem to the negotiation table and find humane solutions. Among the most wretched of South Asia, the men and women who risk their lives crossing the fence are too poor and voiceless even to constitute a problem.