By Umar Karim
As Pakistan faces another economic crisis and is in urgent need of reservoirs to help with its water conservation efforts, the government has yet again turned to overseas Pakistanis for help — hopeful that their remittances and donations could contribute significantly towards pulling the country out of its dire financial straits.
If this has to be achieved — and the new ruling class within Pakistan is genuinely interested in winning the trust of the diaspora across the world – there needs to be a major change in the state of affairs.
It was in the 1970s when the first set of Pakistanis began migrating to the Gulf in search of a better life. A rise in oil prices at the time led to a development boom in the Arabian Gulf, resulting in an influx of Pakistani expatriates — ranging from blue collar workers to administrative officers and business executives — taking up jobs in various sectors. A few others moved to Europe and the United States.
Today, out of the nearly 9 million expatriates staying abroad, more than 2.7 million reside in Saudi Arabia alone, while the United Arab Emirates plays host to another 1.2 million. With this, nearly three fourths of the expatriate population living in the Gulf region is responsible for the largest chunk of revenue sent back to Pakistan. Despite the significant numbers and their contribution to the country’s economy, the government’s actions in addressing the needs and concerns of overseas Pakistanis remains wanting.
A majority of expatriates working as unskilled labourers are prone to exploitation and have very little knowledge of the contractual regulations and legalities involved. They are often failed by the government, which is represented by the Pakistani high commission, in times of need. Several others expressed dissatisfaction with the foreign missions stationed in their respective host countries, too.
However, these concerns remain miniscule in comparison to the problems faced by expatriates living in the Gulf, with several facing visa issues in Bahrain and Kuwait and the foreign office failing to take concrete measures to resolve the problem. Similarly, diplomatic missions have also fallen short in providing legal aid to Pakistanis being detained overseas who are often unaware of their respective legal rights. On the other hand, accusations of nepotism, non-cooperative and aggressive behavior have been time and again levelled against the staff of Pakistani embassies, with a report by the ministry of interior confirming these claims. The government, however, continues to remain elusive.
The expatriate community has been particularly perturbed by the dual standards adopted by the previous governments with reference to their right to vote. For nearly five years, the government resisted attempts to overturn the law, eventually surrendering to a Supreme Court directive which would allow expatriates to exercise their right to vote. And while the matter seems to have reached a plausible end, a complicated online voting system has drawn a rather unenthusiastic response from the community.
Overseas Pakistanis have also been cast out of the official census with only the ones who left the country within the past six months having been accounted for. Such measures will act as a deterrent in winning the trust of a community that continues to play a vital role in sustaining the country’s economy.
With a change of government, several Pakistanis living abroad said they were optimistic about the promises made by Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, to realize those promises, the government must begin by revamping the ministry for overseas Pakistanis – something which can be achieved by making merit-based appointments. The government must also ensure that the foreign office fulfills its responsibilities and is accountable for all Pakistani expatriates in their hour of need.
Overseas Pakistanis are an essential component of the nation and without their active inclusion in the national, political and economic spheres, the country’s success will continue to remain elusive.
(Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim8)