Insecurity and Informality in Police-Migrant Encounters in Pakistan


Zoha Waseem
Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Zoha Waseem. Zoha Waseem is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick. She is interested in the politics of policing, postcolonial policing, urban insecurity, militarisation, and migration. This post draws on Zoha’s recently published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs, ‘It’s like crossing a border everyday’: Police-migrant encounters in a postcolonial city, which is open access.


Machar Colony, an informal settlement that hosts a large number of Bengalis in Karachi
Machar Colony, an informal settlement that hosts a large number of Bengalis in Karachi (Photo by author).

How does the securitisation of migration impact routine encounters, experiences, and interactions between migrants and street-level police officers in postcolonial cities, and what might this relationship tell us about the nature of law enforcement and public policing in postcolonial contexts? These are the questions that I explore in a recently published article wherein I draw upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Pakistani city of Karachi, exploring the policing of Afghan and Bengali migrants, particularly their daily and routine interactions with law enforcement agents. In this post, I start with the premise that prejudiced and discriminatory anti-immigrant security policies are produced and reproduced by insecure postcolonial regimes that rely upon particular structures and tools of colonial policing, surveillance, and repression, including immigration enforcement, not just in territorially-defined borders of nation-states, but also other ‘sites of enforcement’ where borders are constantly ‘performed’ by the police (here, I draw upon the ideas of Alpa Parmar, Harald Bauder, and Leanne Weber).

Regime insecurity is reflected in how postcolonial states mobilize colonial laws, militarised strategies, and racialised hierarchies, to address a range of apparently existential national ‘security threats’ which often includes the overwhelming policing, surveillance, and repression of minoritized and marginalised populations, including migrants. In doing so, these insecure regimes expand the powers of, and demands from, the police, but all the while retaining deeply unequal and hierarchical institutional structures of the colonial police. The retention of such colonial structures allows postcolonial states to ensure that police accountability flows upwards, in service of these states and in protection of state interests, a dynamic I have explored in my other work too (see here).

This is enabled by internal class-based divisions within these colonial structures, in which the rank-and-file—the bulk of the force—is trained and groomed as 'violence workers’ while also being dehumanised and disempowered because of their socio-economic marginalisation and their subservience to an elite cadre of managerial officers (the police command). Such marginalisation results in the rank-and-file being incentivised to use creative and flexible means and methods to meet the excessive demands being placed on them. Thus, I further argue that in the face of demands to implement discriminatory governance frameworks and public policies, with increasing policing responsibilities but limited capacity and institutional weaknesses and inequalities, the postcolonial police are increasingly dependent upon and mobilise informality in routine police work and procedure, including, but not limited to, petty corruption and daily harassment of vulnerable civilians. In my research, I call his interplay of regime insecurity, institutional inequality, and informality in policework, the ‘postcolonial condition of policing’.

To demonstrate this at work, I draw upon my research on policing two immigrant communities in Karachi: the Afghans and Bengalis. Particularly, I was interested in migrants who do not posses or no longer possessed Pakistani citizenship and were thus more vulnerable to being overpoliced. These two communities typically live on the fringes of the city, in densely populated informal settlements. They have been denied citizenship or stripped of their citizenship due to discriminatory immigration policies that target these communities, even though many of these immigrants have resided in Pakistan for decades and may work in both formal and informal economies. In the case of Bengalis, a majority have resided in Pakistani cities since the 1971 war, and in the case of Afghans, many have moved to Pakistan from Afghanistan since the 1980s. Their lack of citizenship, or their contested citizenship, makes them particularly vulnerable to state abuse, and problematic securitisation policies that view these groups of people as ‘suspect communities’ or ‘dangerous’ and ‘risky bodies’ (and here, I draw upon scholars who have done extensive work on Afghan and Bengali communities, as reported here and here; also see recent work by Sanaa Alimia).

Afghan migrants in Al Asif Square, Karachi
Afghan migrants in Al Asif Square, Karachi (Photo by author).

How does the postcolonial condition of policing play out in the context of the policing of Afghan and Bengali migrants in Karachi? First, securitized discourses amplify racialised perceptions of these communities, which manifests in the everyday conversations of public officials who criminalise these ‘alien communities’ and present them as being routinely involved in ‘terrorism, organised crime, mafia groups’ and as being generally ‘violent’ because of their ‘genetic make-up, their nature, their culture’. These perceptions, based on interviews with bureaucrats and lawyers, mirror an insecure regime’s perceptions about migrant communities as being ‘security risks’. Second, regime insecurity that produces such securitised narratives and constructures, seeps down into everyday policing policies and practices, such as raids and stop-and-search activities. Interviews with migrants revealed how police behaviour may consist of threatening arrest, imprisonment, and illegal detention on ‘trumped up charges’ (such as the possession of arms or drugs), lest those on the receiving end of such threats do not ‘pay up’.

And third, related to such extortion, is the mobilization of informality both on the part of the migrant with contested citizenship—who must satisfy these financial demands of street-level officers to evade arrest and maintain a level of ‘invisibility—as well as on the part of the police officer making these demands. As I show, in the case of the latter, the reliance upon such informal police practices (both demanding bribes and ‘looking the other way’), are products of (a) the knowledge of the vulnerability of the migrants (and often their need to often be ‘invisible’ for their mobility and survival in the city, and (b) acknowledgement of their own vulnerability within an institution that dehumanises these officers, even expecting them to ‘send money up the chain of command’ (essentially, to foster institutional corruption).

In this way, where formal rules and procedures work against the interests of vulnerable entities (both marginalised communities and street-level officers), because of problematic security and immigration policies (drafted and retained to apparently alleviate regime insecurity in postcolonial contexts), or institutional cleavages and weaknesses (frequently found within postcolonial policing structures), then a mutual incentive to operationalise informality in everyday encounters is created. This paper therefore explores the policing of vulnerable migrants in a postcolonial city and offers a unique framework for understanding police-migrant encounters specifically, but also border-management, identify-formation, institutional racism, structural violence, and colonial legacies of policing in postcolonial states more broadly. It also seeks to generate further debate on informality and vulnerability in policing and policework.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Z. Waseem. (2022) Insecurity and Informality in Police-Migrant Encounters in Pakistan. Available at: Accessed on: 06/02/2023

Found within

Police and Policing


With the support of