Saturday March 25, 2023

The privilege of ‘staying back’

February 08, 2023

Human migration has been happening since the dawn of time — in search of game, in search of fertile land. If it had not been for migration, the human race would still be confined to the continent of Africa. This piece is meant specifically for the young, educated people that are toying with the idea of emigrating.

According to a report by Express Tribune, 750,000 young Pakistanis moved out of the country in 2022, including some 92,000 professionals. For context, that is more than three times as many as the 225,000 that departed in 2021. This news briefly brought the issue of emigration, particularly by young, educated people, back to the forefront. Young people are emigrating in large numbers for lack of opportunities.

According to another news report in this paper in December, a survey found that 62 per cent, well more than 15- to 24-year-olds wish to leave the country and settle abroad and who can blame them? The local economy is not dynamic enough to provide opportunities for the few college graduates that universities produce.

Prices of almost everything in the local economy have been effectively dollarized. Even if a commodity or product is produced locally, the cost of fuel and energy needed to process, transport, and distribute it is still at the mercy of the USD-PKR exchange rate and fluctuations in the price of oil, which are not adequately compensated, if at all, by wage rises. In such circumstances, it is a rational choice to avail of any opportunities that allow one to move abroad and earn in a currency that is not subject to sudden drops in valuation.

Improved job opportunities abroad take them from being a (possibly) big fish in a small pond at home to being a small fish in a big pond. For people who actually build things, migrating can give them access to advanced technology and resources which can help further one’s career and improve job prospects. Other benefits include exposure to diverse perspectives to broaden one’s horizons and gain exposure to different cultures, languages, and ways of life and a higher quality of life, including access to better healthcare, education, and safety.

Our local TV dramas often paint characters in stark black-and-white terms. Characters that want to stay in the country are often depicted as ‘good’ versus those who aspire to leave as greedy, ambitious, unpatriotic, disloyal, materialistic, self-centered with little regard for family and are down-right villainous. Protagonists continue to be cast in the decades-old mold of one who chooses not to leave the country, even when a professional opportunity presents itself, but prefers to stay in the country instead.

Following professional opportunities wherever they present themselves is a valid, even rational, choice. Nevertheless, social commentary continues to guilt-trip people for doing what is best for them. The message often is that people, particularly the educated lot, make the sacrifice, continue to toil in misery, and work and ‘serve’ the country.

Nevertheless, national attitudes on emigration are curiously ambivalent at times. On the one hand, social commentary paints emigrants as somewhat less patriotic, as people who have given up, thrown in the towel, quit! Yet, on the other hand, people take pride in securing employment abroad. Strangely enough, at the same time, once someone does move abroad, gets over the initial adjustment period (maybe some culture shock) and settles in, they are also proudly held up as success stories.

The loudest voices asking young professionals to ‘sacrifice’ are often those of an exceedingly small minority that were either lucky enough to make their fortune in Pakistan or were born into it.

While society at large and state-sanctioned popular culture rank educated professionals that stay over emigrants, the state has been eagerly shoveling unskilled and semi-skilled labour into any furnace around the globe that will have them.

The supply of unskilled workers at home is nearly inexhaustible. The state knows that they will become a burden on it sooner or later. The terms of employment for foreign labour jobs (usually in the Middle East region) do not allow unskilled labourers from taking their families along with them. With their families left behind in Pakistan, that ensures a steady stream of foreign exchange remittances back home which has always been critical to the state’s ability to cover its costs.

The government of Pakistan’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment maintains a list of overseas job openings. A quick look will show you that there are hardly any openings that break the SAR / AED 2,000 (around Rs140,000-150,000) ceiling.

In this way, while unskilled labourers’ decision to emigrate is accepted as a rational choice, professionals are not extended that same support.

Service to the country is always admirable, but it is a little bit like helping others in an emergency on a plane. Before you assist your neighbour in putting on their oxygen mask, you must take care of yourself and any family you are responsible for. What good is your sacrifice if you are going to become a burden on others at some point down the road?

Whether you are educated or not, whether you decide to stay or go, both are valid choices. Whichever way you decide, I beseech you to not attach any questions of patriotism or morality to your decision — decide what is right for you according to your personal circumstances. No external validation of patriotism you exhibit will materially help you in meeting your and your family’s needs.

Emigrating does not mean you cannot serve the country anymore. There are plenty of workplaces in the world that may have never seen a Pakistani and where you can demonstrate your professional talent and work ethic and, by doing so, open doors for others. Your journey can show the way to talented fellow Pakistanis that find themselves underappreciated at home.

From afar, we marvel at the number of Indian immigrants that have risen to occupy C-suites in Fortune-500 companies and that have established their country’s image as a source of global talent and, in time, undoubtedly brought more opportunities back to India. No amount of PR campaigning using public funds by the government can buy that kind of reputation. None of that would have been possible had India’s educated lot decided it was more comfortable staying at home.

Increasingly, there are also other pressures that have begun factoring into people’s decision to emigrate from Pakistan. One of them is climate change. I have come across several people in recent years that are moving abroad (or at least moving their children out) for fear of water scarcity. Keep in mind that Pakistan’s population is forecast to more than double (!) to about 500 million by the year 2100 when it is forecast to peak. These people’s motivation to move out and choice of immigrant destination, both are informed by climate change forecasts.

I would also be remiss not to mention another relatively recent trend over the last two decades or so, according to which not only more women from Pakistan are going abroad to study but are now working and settling there. Since I could not find any official numbers about the gender breakdown of Pakistani emigrants and study of their motivations and experiences, I must rely on anecdotal information. A lot of young women’s experiences of moving abroad for study or work is one of liberation from their constricting, suffocating existence in their own country where they had to weigh a hundred times the discomfort and disapproval that comes with deciding to go for a stroll or ride a bike.

Emigration is a complex issue with a variety of motivations, including economic opportunity, family reunification, and personal safety. The decision to emigrate should not be stigmatized or viewed through a moral lens. Rather, it should be understood as a response to a complex set of circumstances that individuals face in their home country. Emigration should be seen as a matter of personal choice, not a moral dilemma. It is important to acknowledge and respect the experiences of those who choose to emigrate, and to work towards creating conditions that allow all people to live and thrive in their home country, if that is what they choose.

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.