Saturday December 03, 2022

Covid-19 and overseas Pakistanis

June 22, 2020

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has hugely impacted our lives and livelihoods in many ways. Thousands of people have lost their loved ones, while the rest are in shock and agony as they helplessly see their kith and kin fighting for their lives against this pandemic.

In this lingering agony, no one’s grief and pain can be under-estimated. However, the agony through which our overseas Pakistani brothers and sisters, especially our labour diaspora in the Middle East, are passing is beyond comparison. To suffer amidst one’s loved ones is painful, but to suffer alone in foreign lands, away from one’s dear ones, is doubly painful.

Protracted lockdowns, continuing travel restrictions and ever-growing sense of isolation have physically exhausted and emotionally devastated Pakistani labourers in the Middle East and their relatives back home. To make matters worse, they have been confined to their places of residence, and thus effectively rendered jobless. Their humble earnings are exhausted. They are facing severe resource constraints that make their situation even more agonizing.

An estimated 10 million Pakistanis are spread across the globe. The biggest number of expatriates and emigrant workers, an estimated 4.7 million, is in the Gulf Cooperation Countries. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the leading destinations for the Pakistani labour diaspora. The documented numbers of immigrants are 2.7 and 1.5 million in KSA and UAE respectively. Many of those living in the Western countries have acquired citizenship, assimilated in those societies, and are relatively better off. Similarly, those working on work or student visas have much more humane environment, better working conditions and access to legal protection.

But Pakistanis working in the Middle East do not have those privileges; they are disadvantaged and marginalized. Human rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns regarding the non-implementation of international human rights treaties with covenants. Many of them have no access to basic health facilities.

Work laws are often discriminatory in these host countries. Getting an investor’s status is extremely difficult, requiring huge financial resources. Those working as skilled and unskilled labourers are at the mercy of their sponsors. They cannot do any business in their name, and have to use the name of their sponsor. Resultantly, the business is without legal cover and can be easily taken over by the sponsor. If a business is taken over by the sponsor, the poor victim is always a loser in the court of law. Investors are required to employ a huge percentage of the human resources from the local people, while the actual work is done by the expatriates. Our labour diaspora is often working under excruciating circumstances.

Such are the conditions under which our Pakistani citizens work in the Middle East. And yet they are the biggest contributors of foreign remittances that fuel our otherwise staggering economy. The State Bank of Pakistan has recorded $16.99 billion in remittances from abroad in the first 9 months of FY 2019-20, showing a six percent increase over the remittances in the FY 2018-29 which were $16.03 billion. The biggest chunk of the remittances is coming from KSA and UAE. On average, $5.9 and $4.3 billion have been pumped into Pakistan’s economy in the form of remittances yearly by expats in KSA and UAE respectively.

These remittances are the lifeline for millions of households at a time when state and society continuously fail to look after the poor. They also help bridge Pakistan’s yawning current account deficit. The remittances that our expatriates send back home bolster money circulation, increase demand through enhanced consumption, jack up investment, and trigger a socio-economic transformation of the country. Much of the burgeoning shopping malls, grocery stores, real-estate business, and private schools, and the thriving of much formal and informal business are banking on the largesse of our immigrants in the Gulf countries.

It is shocking that these silent benefactors are languishing in foreign lands due to Covid-19. Yet their miseries remain unheeded, their hardships unaddressed, their sacrifices not fully recognized. In their crowded and cramped residences, today they are between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, they are faced with hunger, and on the other hand, with Covid-19 induced death.

Many have overstayed and are without legal documents, while some have stamped exit but could not fly back home. They have no access to free health facilities and are without insurance protection. They are fighting for their lives and livelihoods. Many have been infected and some have died. They were buried without their relatives at their side. In response, the government of Pakistan has done little other than offering lip service.

This situation needs an urgent response by the government. The government needs to take urgent steps to mitigate the sufferings of immigrant workers in the Gulf countries. As a short-term measure, the government should extend the Ehsaas Program to the Pakistani daily wagers in the Gulf countries to save them and their families from hunger during the pandemic.

Second, those whose work permits have expired or who have overstayed or have already stamped an exit, may be evacuated on an emergency basis through special chartered flights. The numbers of flights are currently limited and have led to nepotism and black marking of tickets. PIA alone can’t airlift them: other private airlines should also be engaged. Third, sadly the returning Pakistani emigrants are meted out inhuman treatment at Pakistani airports as if they are criminals.

The government should introduce free and emergency testing services to such returning Pakistani expatriates to mitigate their anxiety and hardships. Immigration, Customs, Civil Aviation and Airline staff along with other government agencies must treat them humanely. Fourth, the foreign ministry, overseas Pakistani ministry and Pakistani diplomatic missions abroad should proactively engage with host countries for better service conditions for these Pakistanis in the future. Our foreign missions should be made more receptive, responsive and smart. They should reach out to the stranded Pakistani diaspora and relieve them of the hardships they are facing amid these testing times.

The Pakistani government and the host countries have a joint responsibility to take cognizance of the developing tragedy before it is too late. For Pakistanis as a nation, the question is: do we rescue our benefactors or abandon them in an act of selfish inactivity? The answer to that question will reflect whether we are a nation grateful to our expatriate heroes or a bunch of self-centered individuals.

The writer is former senior minister LG and healthminister, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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