A bitter homecoming

October 19, 2020

Away from home, unemployed and terrified – this is how Pakistani migrant workers, around the world, faced the terrifying economic onslaught of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this...

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Away from home, unemployed and terrified – this is how Pakistani migrant workers, around the world, faced the terrifying economic onslaught of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year.

Heartbreaking videos of men and women appealing to the government for help flooded our social media timelines. Strapped and stranded, they were on the cusp of being evicted from their shelters for not paying rent but could still not find a way to come back home to their families.

Now that the resumption of flights has made it possible for them to return, the homecoming has been a bitter, tragic one. Earlier, these homecomings would bring the promise of presents for their loved ones – exotic scents and the latest gadgets from foreign lands. Today, these migrant workers are not only stepping out of airports across Pakistan empty-handed, but also frailer – ravaged by nearly six months of unemployment and consequent poverty.

In these testing times, they should have been welcomed back home with care and dignity. Many of these migrant workers belong to low- and middle-income groups. And when their host countries’ economies felt fragile, they were the first in line to get the axe.

Officially, over 11 million Pakistanis are employed abroad in over 50 countries. There are, of course, many more undocumented workers. The migration of Pakistani workers is mostly concentrated in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hosting the largest populations of Pakistani migrant workers. In total, remittances by migrant workers to Pakistan amounted to $21.84 billion during the 2019 financial year. Nearly two-thirds of these were from Arab states.

While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of Pakistani migrant workers that have been laid off around the world amid the pandemic, it can be safely assumed that the figure runs well into the tens of thousands if not more. Over 21,000 have reportedly been laid off in the Gulf region in April this year alone.

“This is a potential crisis within a crisis,” said International Labour Organisation’s Director Conditions of Work and Equality Department, Manuela Tomei while talking about the millions of migrant workers around the world who have been forced to return home after losing their jobs.

These numbers will only spike more in the coming months and a labour pandemic will follow the current one. And, like the Covid-19 outbreak, the government will not be able to control this crisis either. What it can do, instead, is curtail the severity of the crisis through better planning.

This is not the first time Pakistanis have been forced to quit their jobs and come back home. In the 1990s, many Pakistani migrant workers returned following the Gulf war. More recently, a large number of Pakistanis who had gone to the Republic of Korea under the Employment Permit System in the early 2000s also had an unexpected homecoming. In 2017, Saudi Arabia expelled over 40,000 Pakistani migrants within a span of four months following fears over visa violations and security concerns.

In Pakistan, a sudden influx of returning migrant workers poses significant challenges to the country’s ability to absorb them into the job market and adequately provide for their reintegration needs, ranging from psychosocial to economic. Without policies and systems in place to ensure effective labour migration governance and smooth integration plans, Pakistanis will face ‘a crisis within a crisis’ each time.

Having one of the largest migrant worker populations around the world, Pakistan needs to adopt a comprehensive rights-based and orderly approach to managing migration. Only granting micro loans to selective returning migrants is not enough; policy responses are required including recognizing the skills required, ensuring fair recruitment, extending social protection coverage, and help with finding new jobs or re-migrating safely. Moreover, to make a response sustainable, reintegration programmes and policies also need to promote social and political inclusion. As ILO chief Michelle Leighton puts it: “With the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery.”

A full-fledged revival of economic activities still seems distant. In the meantime, we can soften the blow for these migrant workers with some empathy and foresight. Host countries are not absolved of this responsibility entirely either. The global director of the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank, Michal Rutkowski, says their social protection interventions should also support migrant populations.

Many families in Pakistan are dependent on remittances from a sole breadwinner abroad. Once a joyous occasion, the return of these saviours is now a nightmare for their relatives – one through which they would rather sleep through.

The writer is a human rights defender and policy strategist at Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: MalaikaSRaza

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