Asad Ali was in his teens when he decided to illegally migrate to Turkey from his home country, Pakistan, in 2017. Exhausted from walking, he surrendered midway, in Iran, and was deported back to Pakistan. He attempted the journey again — this time with proper documentation to enter Iran, followed by a rough, illegal journey to Turkey. When he returned to Pakistan in 2020, Ali documented the hardships he had faced, turning them into a 104-minute documentary he later uploaded on his YouTube channel.  

The documentary — where Ali can be seen walking along the Turkey-Iran border in Dogubayazit, taking bus rides, and even hiding in the wilderness — has been watched almost 1.4 million times. His channel, AsadPenduVlogs, now has over 55,400 subscribers. “I didn’t want to make this video for money or fame. I just wanted to educate people about the risks of dunki and why they shouldn’t go illegally,” Ali told Rest of World.

Asad Ali’s 104-minute documentary on his journey back to Pakistan.

Dunki is a local term for the practice of illegal migration from Pakistan to European countries. Ali is among a clutch of young Pakistani YouTubers who understand the pitfalls of dunki, and are intervening to stop the trend. They create and post videos that shed light on the risks and implications of illegal migration, and help dispel misinformation spread by dunki agents and human smugglers online. 

Pakistan’s economic crisis, food insecurity, violence, lack of freedoms, and job scarcity have prompted tens of thousands of people to attempt illegal passage to Europe via Turkey, Iran, and the western Balkans every year. Between 2015 and 2020, more than 600,000 Pakistani nationals were deported from 138 countries, according to data obtained from Geo News in 2021. These deportations were due to a range of reasons, including expired work permits and illegal entry using counterfeit travel documents.

Many young Pakistanis are influenced to take the illegal route due to the cultural pressure to be successful and improve their family’s fortunes, an official from the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Punjab told Rest of World. He requested anonymity as he didn’t want to publicly comment on the matter.

“Illegal migration is a huge problem [in Pakistan] and no one seems to care about it,” Hassan Zaidi, maker of the 2018 short documentary Dunkey Following European Dreams, told Rest of World.

Aqib Asrar — who goes by the name of Ali Virk on his YouTube channel — decided to attempt dunki in 2018, overwhelmed by societal and familial expectations to complete his education. Over the course of the 16-day treacherous journey to Istanbul via Iran — first by road in 4×4 vehicles for 20 hours, then on foot for more than 30 hours — some of Asrar’s companions died. The 24-year-old later documented his experiences on YouTube, with one of his videos amassing 1.8 million views. “Since I have undertaken this journey, I wanted to tell people how dangerous it is,” Asrar, who has since made his way back to Pakistan, told Rest of World.

His videos have helped save at least one of his subscribers from making the same mistake. Qaseem Ibrar, 21, a resident of Gujranwala in Punjab, stumbled upon Asrar’s videos while planning a similar journey through an agent. The videos persuaded Ibrar and his friends to not pursue migration through illegal means.

“I thank Ali bhai [brother] from the bottom of my heart for making these videos,” he told Rest of World. “When we saw the route, we couldn’t even think of doing it. We may not have enough here but we are at least home and safe, and that is the most important thing. We are now strictly against this practice and discourage anyone who comes to us asking for advice.”

Aqib Asrar narrates what he experienced while attempting dunki.

Channels such as Adeel JaMeel Global (25,300 subscribers), Europe Info TV (176,000 subscribers), and Teach Visa (111,000 subscribers) also share interviews with migrants who have managed to reach Turkey or other parts of Europe but have struggled to find suitable employment. Alongside discouraging illegal crossings, Ali’s videos offer guidance on legally migrating to the European Union. One of his most popular videos from 2019 — with 238,000 views — explains how a Turkish tourist visa can be obtained without an agent.

A dunki agent from Mandi Bahauddin in the Punjab province told Rest of World his business has been thriving through word of mouth. “We don’t look for people, people look for us after getting good feedback from others who’ve used our services,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Several such agents promote their services online to lure customers. For instance, Gernal Musa, a YouTube and TikTok channel, posts videos of “happy” clients, with a WhatsApp number that can be used to connect with dunki agents.

According to the FIA official, in areas like Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin, people are motivated to pursue work opportunities overseas, regardless of whether they travel legally or not. This is partly due to the influence of social media, he said, which showcases the success of people who have managed to improve their families’ economic conditions through work abroad. 

“In places like Mandi Bahauddin and Gujrat, most families have someone outside the country [who has] attempted dunki,” Zaidi said. “Their families told me that [through my film], they learned about the hardships their children had to face in order to reach these countries.”

“We use social media to deter people from attempting illegal migration and to show that the agency is actively preventing it,” the FIA official said. The agency’s tweets, videos, and Facebook posts aim to discourage people from paying human smugglers to send their children abroad. 

Asrar, whose YouTube channel has now grown to 319,000 subscribers, hopes to create videos on the struggles of illegal migrants living in different parts of Europe. He’s also keen to educate his followers on traveling legally, visa application processes, and ways to find jobs abroad.

“I will continue to make videos to guide them through my experiences so that they never have to choose this journey of death,” he said.