A few weeks ago, the caretaker prime minister’s soundbite about (highly) educated Pakistanis who choose to settle abroad attracted public ire.
Coming so soon after the tragic news of the sinking of a migrant boat with around 750 souls on board, 350 of them Pakistanis, in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Greece, people took them as uncaring and out-of-touch with the prevailing public sentiment that drives migrants, legal or illegal, to attempt to escape tough economic conditions at home. Whether the soundbite was purposefully cut, or the point was inartfully made, it kicked off a public debate on the merits and demerits of emigration in a country like ours.
In the last few years, as the local economy gradually turned from bad to worse, more people have been heading for the doors. That frequently brings out a low-level panic about ‘brain drain’. In the most recent iteration, that fear was underscored by claims of record emigration in 2023 (never mind the fact that the year is not over yet) and that this time the stream of emigrants is qualitatively different, comprising an unprecedentedly large proportion of educated people.
Fortunately, we do not have to take anyone’s word because these are the kinds of claims that can be quantified and for which reasonably authoritative data is available. The Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE) of the Government of Pakistan maintains and publishes detailed data about emigrants. In the first seven months of this year, 450,000 people have already emigrated. If the current rate holds steady, that is projected to bring the number of emigrants for this year to around 770,000. That would still be significantly less than last year’s 832,000. Even if the rate accelerates and the total comes out above that, it would still not be a record. That was in 2015 when 947,000 people left the country.
There is also another factor to consider: emigration numbers in both 2020 and 2021 were at their lowest since 2006 because Covid travel restrictions had ground all travel, including emigration, to a halt. After travel restrictions were lifted in 2021, the backlog of migrants stuck in the pipeline, which must have been sizable, gradually began working itself out of the system. With oil prices at highs again, post-Covid Gulf economies have been doing very well. Given that more than half of Pakistani migrants move to the Gulf, the 2022 figures should have made a new record. So much for the total volume of emigrants.
But what about the claim that a disproportionate portion of emigrants today are white-collar professionals? Here again, the BEOE distinguishes between five categories: highly qualified, highly skilled, skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled. In order to not overwhelm the reader, let me collapse the three middle categories into one and call it ‘skilled’.
What then is the breakup across highly qualified, skilled, and unskilled workers? Among emigrants so far this year, emigrants break across highly qualified, skilled, and unskilled categories 3.0 per cent, 53 per cent, and 44 per cent, respectively. That is almost the same as 2022’s breakup of 2.0 per cent, 55 per cent, and 43 per cent – hardly any difference. It is also very similar to what we saw in 2015, that record-breaking year, when the breakup was 2.0 per cent, 59 per cent, and 39 per cent, respectively. So, counter to public claims, up until July of this year at least, professionals seem to make up the same proportion of emigrants as they have in years past.
Broken down by professions, the largest number by far is contributed by those classified as labourers, followed by drivers, masons, carpenters, technicians, electricians, painters, mechanics, etc. Doctors, engineers, managers, and accountants are almost invisible by comparison. Bottom line: As of July 2023, there is no visible change in the composition of the migrant outflow from Pakistan.
Going forward, is it possible that a lot more people and a lot more white-collar workers are expressing their wish or intention to emigrate? That might very well be. Economic conditions right now are the toughest I can remember.
Although white-collar workers continue to make up only a tiny fraction (3.0 per cent) of all emigrants, this segment has set off fears of brain drain. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook puts Pakistan’s unemployment rate at 7.0 per cent. A study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) put the unemployment rate among Pakistani graduates in 2021 at 16.1, what we can now refer to as the good old times. Another 2022 report by PIDE put the unemployment rate of university graduates among urban youth at a staggering 31 per cent. Surely, things have only gone further downhill since then, as evidenced by the rocketing rate of inflation.
For the fortunate, the decision to emigrate can be a matter of making the decision and then embarking on a long, expensive but well-defined path of collecting documents that will serve as evidence to accrue points towards legal immigration into some countries. Many skilled and unskilled workers find their way to the Middle East through recruitment agencies. But for many underprivileged people who lack the necessary resources and prerequisites, the only path to migration open to them is the illegal one. Some families borrow and pool money to invest in (‘bet on’ may be a better word) a young man and entrust his fate to a human trafficker and send him on a risky and arduous journey to some faraway land with the hope that he will strike it big and single-handedly pull them out of poverty.
With macroeconomic indicators like they are and so few opportunities at home, can anyone blame people for wanting to migrate? Even if the situation were not this bad, should they be blamed at all? The public debate often circles around blaming brain drain for the condition of the country. In this latest debate, I even saw some members of the public carelessly throwing out the question if educated people should somehow be prevented from leaving. That would amount to an infringement on freedom of movement and put us on track to becoming another North Korea, or former USSR, or former East Germany – not a club any country aspires to join.
No one should feel compelled to migrate if they do not wish to; Certainly, no one who wishes to migrate, for whatever reason, should be stopped from doing so. They should also not be tarred and feathered as quitters, accused of abandoning their country. Neither choice is morally superior to the other.
There are many valid reasons to migrate – economic opportunities, access to quality education and healthcare, a higher standard of living, freedom from suffocating cultural norms, security, safety from prosecution, personal growth, curiosity about the world we inhabit, the thrill of adventure, or any combination of them. For our country, I would add a desire to escape the effects of climate change and the looming drinking water shortage to this list.
The benefits of (legal) emigration to an individual are well known, but there are also several ways in which it is beneficial to the home country beyond the most obvious one – remittances replenish the receiving country’s foreign currency coffers. There is also a reduction in unemployment, the transfer and exchange of skills and knowledge, and the international network of expats and diaspora communities it builds. A law-abiding, well-integrated diaspora is a more powerful ambassador of its home country to its host country than any embassy or consulate can be. For these reasons, I view emigrants, educated emigrants in particular, as brain circulation instead.
Think of the envious news coverage here at home any time another Fortune-500 company announces a new CEO who has family connections to India. That kind of influence and goodwill is not built overnight. Emigration of educated Indians to the West began in the late ‘60s and continues to date. The Indian diaspora is now in its third generation. The current vice-president of the United States and two 2024 Republican presidential candidates have connections to India. That does not happen overnight.
Obviously, the availability and retention of talent is an advantage that opens opportunities. But that advantage by itself is worth nothing if you do not create the right environment to put it to use. A large public university in Islamabad has been making waves on social media recently for a record number of resignations from its faculty members across departments this year. If we let recent history be our guide, many of them (maybe deemed unproductive) will move abroad and go on to have successful careers; that has been the trend. This goes to show that it is not a dearth of talent but an unconducive environment that is to blame.
It is not the job of public servants and representatives (caretakers and elected) to encourage or forcibly stop migration. It is also not their job to post streams of pictures of themselves with all the trappings of government. We do not need grand pre-announcements of things about to happen before they have happened. We do not need to see pictures of (usually) men with stern expressions huddling at conference tables until we see something come from it.
If this or any future government is truly concerned about brain drain, it needs to fix the conditions that drive people to leave – tax agriculture, real estate, and other un/undertaxed sectors, collect electricity bills where they have never dared to collect them (but continue supply), start the long job of fixing public schools and hospitals, etc. It is time to put its head down and do the unglamorous hard work.
The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.
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