For Nasir Khan (not his real name) a life of crime is easier than staying on the right side of the law.
Thirty-six-year-old Khan has a Master’s degree in business, a qualification which has helped him in his current line of trade: the mastermind behind a truck-hijacking business. Khan’s ‘business’ involves organising the ambushing of trucks carrying merchandise from cloths and threads, to medicines. His professional attitude belies his true trade.
Speaking to IRIN, while in police custody, Khan described how he came from a respectable middle-class family, and how his father – who had been in the air force – had ensured that all his six children received a good education.
Khan’s illicit trade began in 2001, after it “became increasingly difficult to earn a living through honest means”. He was drawn further and further into crime as “the line between what is right and wrong blurred”.
After completing his education, he applied to join the air force, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. He then started his own business picking up leftover material from a towelling factory and selling it.
However, Khan is an exception. According to police sources, most petty criminals are uneducated and are aged between 16 and 25.
The crime rate in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi has increased rapidly in recent years. Car and cellphone theft are among the most common crimes committed. According to the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), cellphone theft rose 60 percent in 2006, and car thefts rose nearly 18 percent in the same period.
These crimes are committed by young offenders.
“They are usually between 16-21 years of age, from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, usually school drop-outs,” says Sharfuddin Memon, chief of the CPLC.
This rise in crime is being blamed on the increasing gap between rich and poor.
“It is blatantly obvious wherever you turn. Within the confines of your home there is that disparity. What your domestic help earns in a month are your tailor’s charges, or the amount you spend buying toys for children, or on throwing a dinner party. Do you think they cannot see or feel the deprivation?” asked Memon.
Young offenders soon become recidivists and hardened criminals.
“Most young people turn from petty criminals to hardened, more professionally sound ones, once they have spent time in jail and come out. I learnt the tricks of the trade and how to pre-empt police during my prison stints,” revealed Khan, describing prison as a “university of crime”.
The same is echoed by senior police superintendent, Abdul Khaliq Sheikh, in charge of Karachi’s car theft division: “In the case of car theft, most are repeat offenders. They need connections to be able to take the stolen vehicle to another province where it won’t be easy to identify… An individual can’t do it alone. These contacts are usually made during their stay in prison. And once you are a member of a gang, it’s difficult to break away.”
Economist Kaiser Bengali attributes the rise in crime to the extreme “wealth gap” found in Pakistan’s larger cities: “When the level of economic activity is insufficient, it can lead to unemployment and naturally inequality.”
This in turn may lead to an acute sense of deprivation, creating resentment and a feeling of hopelessness. Joblessness triggers crime and youth are the most affected.
According to the latest figures from Pakistan’s Ministry of Youth Affairs, 36 percent of the country’s youth (15-29 years) live in urban areas. The literacy rate is just 49 percent.
Criminal gangs recruit youths
Police experts say that the combination of poverty and unemployment has allowed gangs and organisations to target young people and steer then towards a path of criminal activity.
Khan added: “They usually have many siblings, are neglected by parents, and have this innate feeling that they have been deprived and wronged by society.”
“In all honesty tell me, can a boy from a peela (government-run) school background ever compete for a job with one who has studied in a private school?” commented Khan.
An observation backed-up by Bengali: “I agree, there are no chances or opportunities for such a student.” The two-tier education system “has split Pakistan into two -- one for the rich and the other for the poor, and created conflict in society.”
“There are very few who have even passed tenth grade. Most have never tried to find employment. They look for ways to make money fast so they can buy the luxuries they see advertised all over town,” said city police inspector, Muhammad Farooq Satti.
“They have no right to feel hatred for people who are better off than them when they have not even tried to do an honest day’s work themselves,” he added.
Satti has seen how these youngsters have become so hardened that they think nothing of taking a life. “As many as 50 people in Karachi alone have lost their lives standing up to cellphone thieves over the past two years.”
However, not all underprivileged youth turn to crime. The majority of youngsters with little financial support and few connections suffer setbacks on graduating from university.
Naveed Nazim, 25, holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Karachi University, and is looking for a position as a researcher. He has sent off many application letters but has not managed to secure a position despite being a ‘straight A’ student.
The problem he and many like him face is that they do not seem to have the right contacts. “I don’t want someone to find me a job; I just want them to take a look at my CV, call me for an interview and then decide my fate on merit,” said Nazim.
The same is true for Sarah Khalid, 22, an electronics engineer who has just graduated from the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Karachi. “Getting a job purely on merit is a distant dream,” she said. “Those with connections get the job even before our CVs are looked at!”
While he waits for his big break, Nazim has begun giving private tuition. “I feel that now I should be contributing to the household expenses so I’ve had to compromise on the choice of my job.”
He added that where you went to school counts as much as having the right contacts: “These labels on your CV count. In such cases we are rejected even before we apply.”
He said that this continual rejection often forces graduates to turn to crime.
Nazim also rued the demise of the university student unions, saying that where students had been channelled into doing productive work for the unions, they were now forced to join organisations with ethical, linguistic and political roots. Students, “get paid for doing party work and influencing other students to join the organisations”, he said.
Khan had a similar experience: “Perhaps my biggest mistake was joining the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) while a student.” MQM had its origin in the All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organisation at Karachi University, and was founded to represent the interests of the muhajir (immigrant) community in Pakistan.
Bengali added that the madrassahs (seminaries) help fill the void of unemployment, however, they often point students in the direction of extremism and militancy.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]