Migration: opportunity or challenge

January 23, 2022

To take advantage of the returning emigrants, the home country must initiate effective programmes for their sustainable reintegration

Migration: opportunity or challenge

Remittances have become the largest source of foreign exchange earnings in Pakistan. During the last fiscal year these fetched close to $30 billion, mainly through workforce migration from Pakistan.

During the last decade, remittances remained the second biggest source of foreign exchange earnings after exports. After the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, the remittances clinched the top position despite many emigrant workers having returned to Pakistan after facing lay-offs.

Over the decades, remittances have been a relatively stable avenue for foreign exchange earnings unlike direct investment and portfolio inflows. In recent years too remittances have been more stable than aid inflows. The contribution of remittances as a percentage of GDP stood at 3.91 percent in 2005. Now they represent 8 percent of the GDP. So, reliance on remittances has increased manifold. This has saved the country from the risk of default on external accounts.

Ban Ki Moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations once stated, “Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and better future.”

Pakistan is one of the top 10 emigration countries in the world. Almost 6.3 million people, amounting to over three percent of the population, are emigrants.

Official data for the last four years show that the dominant trend of emigration from Pakistan is to the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, mainly because of the proximity and job opportunities for less-skilled workers. However, there was a visible decline in 2020 due to Covid-19.

The data also highlights the fact that the skill composition of Pakistani workers going abroad has seen no significant change over time. It is mostly, skilled workers and unskilled labour that manage to get jobs abroad. The proportion of highly educated and highly skilled labour remains low. Wages of unskilled, semi-skilled and even skilled workers are far less than highly skilled and highly educated workforce. The current flux of remittances depends upon the former category.

A majority of Pakistani emigrants belong to rural areas of the Punjab. Out of about 10 million Pakistanis working overseas, 51 percent are from the Punjab, 26 percent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 10 percent from Sindh, and 1 percent from Balochistan. Most of these overseas workers are employed as low-skilled or semi-skilled workers in construction, hotels and restaurants or work as domestic help.

Despite all odds, Pakistan ranks high among remittance-receiving countries. It ranked 8th worldwide as per the World Bank statics for the year 2011. It moved up to the 7th place in 2018-19.

Educational migration is an important facet of Pakistani emigration. There is significant outward student mobility from Pakistan, as evidenced by a sharp increase in the number of Pakistani students abroad.

The most common motivator for relocation has long been the desire for a better life. People move in the hope that they will do better in another environment. Sometimes they are forced by extreme circumstances. Worldwide migrants leave their homes for diverse reasons: they may be seeking better jobs or access to better healthcare; they may be running from famine, war, or natural disasters; or fleeing persecution and looking for political and religious freedoms they do not enjoy at home.

Pakistan is one of the largest emigration countries in the world. The causes are complicated, involving a variety of variables specific to Pakistan, including poor economic progress, a precarious security environment, frequent natural catastrophes and political instability. As a result, higher education and skilled career possibilities are scarce. Furthermore, Pakistan has a sizable expat community overseas; many Pakistanis have family in other countries and wish to reunite with them. In many parts of Pakistan, scarce economic development and job opportunities force the decision.

Educational migration is also an important facet of Pakistani emigration. There is significant outward student mobility from Pakistan, as evidenced by a sharp increase in the number of Pakistani students abroad.

The primary destinations, which also influence the kind of migration, may be used to identify Pakistani migrants. Migrants to the North America and Europe typically want to stay in their host countries for a long time before relocating to another country with their families.

Migrants who are unable to relocate to developed nations, particularly low-skilled and semi-skilled workers, migrate to work temporarily. GCC countries, which do not allow permanent settlement of foreign employees, are popular destinations for these migrants. As a result, migration to these nations is often short or medium-term, lasting four to five years on average. However, this can sometimes extend ten to fifteen years through contract renewals.

Pakistani migrant workers have been contributing towards its economy through remittances. Pakistanis most commonly migrate overseas for work. Labour migration has been historically relevant in Pakistan, where, the foreign exchange earnings from remittances were greater than the sum of earnings from other sources. These remittances contribute to the country’s strategic foreign exchange.

Flip the coin and let us see the other side of the picture. Return migration is also an important aspect of migrants’ lives. Many return to start a new life in their native country and reconnect with their hometowns. Return migration can also be forced. However, that is not always the case. People need to return to their homeland due to legal constraints such as host countries not allowing them to stay further. “The assisted or independent return to the country of origin, transit, or another country based on the returnee’s voluntary decision” is defined as voluntary returns. It can be spontaneous or aided in some way.

Spontaneous return is, “The voluntary, autonomous return of a migrant or a group of migrants to their place of origin, typically without the backing of states or other international or national aid,” according to the United Nations. Assisted voluntary return and reintegration is the “administrative, logistical, or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country and who choose to return to their country of origin.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has halted economic activity and resulted in the closure of many firms, the year 2020 has proven to be one of the most trying years throughout the world. As a result of the layoffs, many migrant employees returned to their home countries. According to government data, most of the expats returned to Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Reintegration, the process that enables returning individuals to re-establish the economic, social and psychosocial relationships needed to maintain life, livelihood and dignity and achieve inclusion in civic life after returning from foreign work, has been acknowledged as an important aspect of the overall dynamics of migration.

International Organisation for Migration asserts that reintegration can be considered sustainable when those returning reach levels of economic self-sufficiency, social stability within their communities and psychosocial well-being that allow them to cope with (re)migration drivers. Such reintegration often depends on circumstances beyond their control.

In the context of Pakistan, those who return to the native country encounter a deteriorating economic situation, rising inflation, spiralling basic commodity prices, erosion of disposable incomes, high unemployment, lack of institutional finance and poor social safety nets. They are often ill-prepared for their return because they have limited access to the information required to equip them to navigate the changes that might have occurred in their home countries while they were away.

A complete strategy to migration management must include safe and dignified return as well as long-term reintegration plans. Programmes should be launched to assist migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and seek to return to their home countries.

Stranded migrants in host or transit countries, irregular migrants, regular migrants, asylum seekers who decide not to pursue their claims or who are found not to be in need of international protection, and migrants in vulnerable situations, such as victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children, or migrants with health-related needs, should be the primary beneficiaries of such reintegration assistance programmes.

One such programme, called Reintegration of Returnees in Pakistan, is currently being implemented. It is a TVET Sector Support Programme initiative that provides reintegration assistance to returning Pakistanis, particularly young adults, who return to their home country voluntarily. This initiative assists them and the local community with their economic reintegration after returning to Pakistan through career and entrepreneurship advisory services, employment promotion, recognition of prior learning and competency-based training and assessment.

To take advantage of returning migrants through investment, remittances, increased productivity and skills transfers, the country must make effective policies and initiate effective programmes for their sustainable reintegration.

The writer is a senior reporter based in Islamabad

Migration: opportunity or challenge