Overseas Pakistanis – victims of discriminatory treatment

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By Senator Rehman Malik

There is no doubt Overseas Pakistanis are our great assets and are our ambassadors. They have lot of heartfelt grievances with their homeland governments, which make tall claims for them but do not fulfil their commitments whereas every incoming government expects overseas Pakistanis to send more and more foreign remittances.

I decided to write for them in depth after my recent visit to Geneva where I met number of Pakistanis residing over there. I am saddened to state that apart from the despair of leaving their home, family and country for the sake of better future and opportunities, they have to go through multiple other issues in their host countries.

In addition to the miseries they encounter, their issues are never addressed. The people I met there posed a number of demands from Pakistani Government, which include, protection of their families and valuables, legal rights to contest elections in Pakistan, permission for contribution in improvement of the governance, improvement in attitude of our diplomatic missions as well as the provision of easy banking conditions and easy passing through the airports on their return.

Pakistan being a populous country has seen its labour force moving towards other countries of the world to find employment opportunities in order to support their families back at home. The total estimated number of Pakistani overseas workers and their families is around 9 million today. Over the past 70 years, migration of Pakistani workers to other countries has been largely for seeking better employment opportunities, benefits for individuals and their families. Unfavourable socio-economic conditions and unstable political environment have been push factors for increasing number of Pakistanis to move to other countries like Europe, America, East Asia and Gulf States.

Gulf States have become a principle destination for Pakistani migrants today after the 1970’s oil boom that opened a great avenue for the migrants. A vast majority of around 4 million Pakistanis is residing in Gulf only. The second largest community of around 1.5 million is living in Europe as well as the people of Pakistani origin born abroad. In Europe, around 1.17 million are residing in UK with 12,891 in Ireland, 215,560 in Canada and 61,913 in Australia. People living in the USA are numbered as 509,163. These figures are officially available but I feel the number is much bigger as there is no authentic system in place to tabulate the exact statistical data for overseas Pakistanis.

According to a data released by the State Bank of Pakistan in 2017, overseas Pakistanis sent remittances amounting to Rs. 2137 billion ($20 Billion). The remittances from USA and European countries as per 2018 are divided as $228.20 million from UK, $255.78 million from USA, $3.98 million from Ireland, $22.41 million from Australia and $16.07 million from Canada.

Labour migrants are the ones that are highly skilled and active professionals leaving the country on work visas. Malaysia, China, UAE and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are recorded to be the top destinations for labour migrants from Pakistan. Most of them are employed in transport, production or equipment sector mainly.

The major issues that Overseas Pakistanis encounter are as follows:

Dual nationality issue: Out of many issues being encountered by overseas Pakistanis, there is an important issue of not being able to take part in any government activities while holding dual nationality. Pakistanis who have dual citizenship are not allowed to run for public office, sit in the assemblies, contest elections or join the Pakistani military. If they wish to hold a public office they must renounce the citizenship they are holding of some other country. It has been strongly opposed by the overseas Pakistanis as it is viewed as an unjust law for them. According to them, it would damage Pakistan economically, socially and culturally, as it is unfair that a member of Pakistan’s national assembly’s patriotism is suspected for holding dual nationality.

Marriage issues: Another major problem that overseas Pakistanis are facing is the issuance of NICOP. National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) is a registration document issued to eligible citizen of Pakistan who lives or has residence abroad. I granted the POC facility in my capacity as Interior Minister to every Pakistani living abroad. Any citizen of Pakistan could apply for NICOP and travel to Pakistan without requiring a visa in case of dual nationality; they can open a bank account in Pakistan and also have the right to buy and sell property in Pakistan.

But adding to the miseries of overseas Pakistanis for last two years, Interior Ministry has decided to ban issuance of the relevant Pakistani identity document POC or the NICOP. Over 3,500 foreign nationals married to Pakistanis were pushed between a rock and a hard place as their foreign spouses hold moveable or immoveable properties in Pakistan and bank accounts, and above all they had lost all the rights Pakistan guaranteed to them under the POC.

Now since March 2018, NADRA has again started issuing POCs to foreigners married to Pakistanis. Those who would now be applying for the first time will be given to them only if they have been married to their Pakistani spouses for last five years. What an unfair condition? I have taken notice of this injustice and I will ensure that this condition of five years is waived off.

Remittances: Foreign remittances play a vital role in Pakistan’s GDP growth as it ranked among the top remittance receiving countries of the world. In 2017, Pakistan received $17.9 billion remittances whereas it was $19.8 billion reaching a 2nd time high in 2016. But it is sad to note that despite being the biggest contributors in country’s GDP, the remitters/overseas Pakistanis get nothing good in return. Instead of focusing on negotiating better conditions for exported Pakistani workers or making good remittance saving plans for the ones who send back money to their families and communities, government procures development aid packages that can pad their pockets.

Exploitation or abuse in host country: Unfortunately, many of the overseas Pakistani workers experience various forms of abuses or exploitation prior to their departure and/or in the destination country, such as physical or sexual abuse, exhorted migration fees and non-placement (after paying the fees). In the destination country they may not receive their salary, have their documents withheld or their contracts being under unfair terms and conditions or they may have to endure pathetic living conditions. Only a few victims of them seek justice. Filing a complaint, either in Pakistan or in the host country can be formidably challenging. Even when they successfully register a complaint, some are left with an unresolved case or an unfavourable outcome. Neither the embassy nor the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan offers a helping hand if such kind of situation occurs making the lives of overseas individuals miserable.

Other than that, a person traveling overseas for employment has no official support. There are a record fourteen different checks from entering an airport in Pakistan till you are seated in your airplane seat.

Right to vote: Overseas Pakistanis, despite several court instructions since decades and many false promises still have no right to vote in general elections unless they travel all the way to their respective constituencies. This is an ultimate example of injustice to overseas workers who work day and night to send money back to their homeland.

As per the Citizenship Act 1951, the Government of Pakistan has dual nationality agreement with 19 countries including United Kingdom and the United States of America meaning thereby that holding nationality by any Pakistani national residing in those 19 countries was legal and in accordance with the laws of Pakistan. However, according to the Article 63(1)(c) of the Constitution read with Section 14 of Pakistan Citizenship Act, 1951, any person holding dual citizenship is disqualified from being elected or chosen as, and from being, a Member of Majlis-e-Shoora(Parliament). This law has numbers of flaws, which need to be corrected. The flaws include the clash within legislative provisions. I think that this law needs to be revisited.

The proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan would have allowed dual citizens to hold public office and contest elections, but the amendment could never be passed when presented by PPP during PML-N’s tenure. I hope that the present government with its new advisor for Overseas Pakistanis will get this right to the overseas Pakistanis.

In case of reservations the government may not consider them for ministerial slots but at least give them the confidence as being the members of the parliament and provincial assemblies. Out of total 10 million overseas Pakistanis, hardly 5 per cent would have political ambitions in Pakistan and the rest may not even be interested in politics.

It is the high time that the government and the Apex court re-visit their approaches to overseas Pakistanis/dual nationals, in the larger interests of the country.

Now the government threw another bombshell for the overseas Pakistanis to register their phones on arrival at the airport, which I, as member of the Parliament, have rejected it and I will fight to have this unfair treatment finished.

In the end I would like to say that we have done a great injustice with Pakistanis-working or living abroad by naming them as “Overseas Pakistani”. In other words we have divided Pakistanis into two factions as Overseas Pakistanis and local Pakistanis where as there is no provision in the constitution for Overseas Pakistanis. A Pakistani is a Pakistani whether he is local or abroad.

Those who went to work abroad under compulsion we have discriminated them as overseas Pakistani and deprived them of many fundamental rights.

When they return home they are treated differently and this unique discrimination has been done by none other than our own State itself. I hope the government will revisit some constitutional anomalies in this connection.

(The writer is Chairman of think tank “global eye” & former Interior Minister of Pakistan.

 rmalik1212@gmail .com @GlobalEye_GSA)