There is hope still that Pakistanis imprisoned in Saudi Arabia will be able to cross the seas of misfortune and return to their loved ones back home.
The recent statement from Pakistan’s ambassador in Riyadh, Raja Ali Ejaz, that the process for the prisoners’ release is underway and that the nation will hear some “good news” in the holy month of Ramazan, is encouraging. Given that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had announced the release of 2,107 Pakistanis languishing in Saudi jails in February, this should have happened much sooner. But, better late than never.
It was indeed very late for Fatima Ijaz, who this month became the first Pakistani woman to be executed by Saudi Arabia since 2014.
There are thousands of others – and their families back home – waiting for the kingdom to come good on its promise. It is important to highlight here that hundreds of Pakistanis suffering in jails abroad are victims of trafficking, entrapped by agents who make promises of a better life and stable earnings.
A report titled ‘Through the Cracks: The Exploitation of Pakistani Migrant Workers in the Gulf Recruitment Regime’ released by Justice Project Pakistan on Tuesday highlights the poor regulation of labour migration in Pakistan, leaving thousands of mostly male low-wage workers vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour, ill-treatment in detention overseas and even death.
The report reveals harrowing stories of the destitute being lured by unauthorised subagents posing as overseas employment promoters, who in many instances kidnap, torture and threaten labourers into becoming drug mules. Egged on with dreams of stable jobs and a better life, these men find themselves driven to unknown locations, locked up, drugged, and forced to swallow narcotics before being put on gulf-bound flights. Once they land there, the authorities swiftly arrest them and put them behind bars.
In one of the many heart-wrenching cases, a security guard for a private school in Mardan was duped by his own cousin. The relative introduced him to an agent who drugged the victim and forced him to swallow heroin capsules. He was then made to board a flight to Dammam where he was imprisoned at Al-Qatif Jail before being executed three years later. In another instance, a factory worker from Sheikhupura sold his motorcycle and other belongings to pay money to an agent who switched his luggage with another bag laced with heroin. The victim was imprisoned in Jeddah’s Briman Jail in 2012 and was beheaded six years later.
Stranded without legal or consular access, many detainees and their families narrate tales of confusion and uncertainty over the charges – given that all proceedings are conducted in Arabic and the detainees have no access to lawyers, let alone translators. The JPP report also underscores how various government actors fail to fulfil their responsibility to protect vulnerable migrant workers before, during and after they are incarcerated. Even when cases are registered against the Pakistani drug smugglers posing as agents of migration, they are not arrested and prosecuted. Had they been, it would help clear the names of vulnerable and coerced victims of the drug-trafficking trade paying for the crimes of others.
There are close to 11,000 Pakistanis imprisoned in foreign jails, of which over 7,000 are in the Middle East. The Pakistan-Saudi migration corridor is considered one of the costliest in the world in terms of recruitment costs for economically disadvantaged workers. And yet, individuals and groups who trap and con people looking to seek employment overseas operate with brazen impunity. This needs to change. The JPP report recommends some key improvements in the recruitment regime. First, there has to be a strict check on ‘Azad Visas’ that are openly bought and sold in the ‘migration market. With less oversight over these visas, they are often sold to those unable to find work in the GCC countries. The mandatory pre-departure briefings under the Emigration Ordinance 1979 also need to be enforced. These briefings are particularly useful for uneducated labourers going through the experience of travelling to another country for the first time.
Pakistan also has to come up with a clear and effective consular protection policy. Access to legal aid and a translator for prisoners are basic rights. Pakistani missions in the Gulf countries need to pay regular visits to Pakistanis imprisoned there. Many are suffering from serious health issues that our embassies can cite to appeal for leniency.
That Pakistan is making efforts to bring prisoners back from Saudi Arabia is good news indeed. But to ensure that overseas workers do not spend their lives imprisoned for crimes they had little agency over, we need to do more than just navigate the choppy waters of an exploitative recruitment regime. We need to turn the tide.
The writer is the executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan.