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Opinion

February 28, 2018

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The consular conundrum

There are around 8.7 million overseas Pakistanis in various countries across the world. Most of them are in the Gulf countries. Around 2.6 million are in Saudi Arabia, 1.3 million in the UAE, 0.27 million in Oman, 0.113 million in Qatar and 0.108 million in Kuwait.

Around 1.47 million overseas Pakistanis are in the UK and one million in the US. The remaining number of overseas Pakistanis is present in more than 100 other countries across the world. Each year they send a large sum of money to their families in Pakistan, which results in an increase in foreign exchange remittances to Pakistan.

The State Bank of Pakistan has revealed that during the seven months (July 2017-January 2018) of the current fiscal year, the remittances have amounted to $11.38 billion. Pakistan was ranked in the fifth position among the World Bank’s ‘Top 5 Remittances Receiving Countries for 2016’ as it received $19.8 billion during the year.

Apart from the large amount of money that Pakistan receives, the country also shares its responsibility of providing employment to a large number of people. While it ultimately has to shoulder the responsibility of providing maximum job opportunities to its people, the sharing of this burden during a situation when the country is facing countless economic challenges comes across as a blessing in disguise.

Overseas Pakistanis have benefited the country in numerous ways and it is vital to ask what they have gained in return. It is not easy working in other countries. Although the salaries that most overseas Pakistanis receive may seem tempting, the difficulties that they face are not. In certain cases, they often blamelessly get into trouble with law-enforcement agencies. The consular policy to support them in such situations is all the more abysmal.

There are 9,360 Pakistanis in prisons in various countries of the world. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are 2,795 prisoners. Since 2014, at least 46 Pakistanis have been beheaded in the country. The situation of Pakistani inmates who are detained in other countries is not much better. In many cases, they don’t even know what their rights are. As per international law, Pakistan must provide consular support to them and is also bound to do so under the constitution. However, there hasn’t been much progress.

Pakistan can learn from other countries that have excelled in providing welfare services to their overseas citizens. India extends all forms of support for their citizens in prisons in Saudi Arabia. The Dutch Consular Policy for overseas prisoners ensures visits of assistance within 24 hours of arrest; access to financial and legal aid; and the attendance of the assistants during the trial. In contrast, Pakistan’s approach to these issues seems to be in its embryonic stage.

The shortcomings of the Pakistani consular policy were highlighted in the case of Zulfiqar Ali, the 54-year-old Pakistani citizen who is currently on death row in Indonesia and is terminally ill. He was arrested on drug-related charges in 2004. He did not receive a fair trial and was sentenced to death. Later, he was found to be innocent through a government-instituted commission. But in 2016, the commission’s findings were neglected and the earlier punishment was restored.

During Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit in Islamabad in the last week of January, various political parties and the media played a significant role in drawing attention to Zulfiqar Ali’s case. As a result, the Indonesian president promised to consider Zulfiqar Ali’s case on humanitarian grounds. While this is an encouraging step, it has only temporarily soothed the wound. In fact, such cases need to be approached with a comprehensive policy initiative.

Another case that is worth considering pertains to around 42 detainees – who were repatriated to Pakistan after being released from US custody at Bagram Prison, Afghanistan without charge. Since there is no policy to support such people, they remain helpless. They faced severe physical and psychological challenges after their time in prison and receive no financial aid or compensation from either Pakistan or the US. As a result, they have been left with no option but to restart their lives from scratch. Had there been an effective policy in place, their cases would have been pursued properly and they would have been supported in their efforts to adjust to life after prison.

Pakistan should have a consular policy that is conveniently accessible and thoroughly communicated. Pakistanis who have been accused of committing crimes must have the right to a fair trial. They should be provided with consular support as quickly as possible. Legal and financial aid must also be guaranteed. It is the duty of the government to ensure they are not wrongfully charged, harassed or pressured.

Like all citizens of Pakistan, overseas Pakistanis play an important role for the country and their patriotism cannot be questioned. Their rights must never be neglected.

The writer is a human rights and peace activist, and a political strategist.

Twitter: @MalaikaSRaza

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