Naureen Aqueel

Green pastures losing colour

Posted on: July 7, 2009

An edited version of this article was published in South Asia magazine, July 2009.

Migration has been a common trend witnessed in Pakistan since its inception. From the initial move of millions from India to Pakistan to the internal migration later witnessed with the rise of urbanization, Pakistan has seen many waves of migration throughout its history.

One of the most prominent migrations is the migration of Pakistanis overseas creating a diaspora of Pakistanis abroad who have affected the economy and social fabric in invariable ways. Four million Pakistanis currently form diaspora communities in various parts of the world. The largest concentration of these can be found in the Middle East which hosts close to two million Pakistanis, 1.1 million of whom are in Saudi Arabia and 500,000 in the United Arab Emirates.

The origins of this Pakistani diaspora can be traced back to the early 1950s with the move of many citizens, particularly those from Azad Kashmir, to the UK. The next great exodus occurred during the 1960s and 70s when many educated Pakistanis migrated to the UK, US, Canada, Denmark, Germany and Holland.

Following that, the country witnessed another wave of migration in the 1970s and 80s with the migration of many of its residents to the Gulf Countries and the Middle East. In the 1970s, Pakistan had a severe balance of payments deficit and the then government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto encouraged both skilled and unskilled men to migrate to the Persian Gulf countries for work. This was the time of the construction and economic boom in the Gulf countries and many Pakistani men were eager to go in order to escape their present conditions of poverty in their home country and to avail the plentiful job opportunities that had sprung up.

The bulk of workers that emigrated to the Gulf countries were taken in on fixed-term contracts that were strictly enforced initially. Most of the workers then had to return. And the migration remained temporary for them. They lived there alone for an average of three to six years. They were mostly under 30 years of age, married and of rural origins. As most were unaccompanied by their families, they inevitably sent their earnings back home resulting in a steady flow of remittances forming crucial foreign exchange reserves for Pakistan. In the 1980s, only 4% of the migrants in these countries were highly qualified, 41% were unskilled workers and 42.6% were semi-skilled or skilled manual workers.

However, as economic development increased, longer term extensions began to be granted in the Gulf countries and many of the immigrants sought and were granted permanent residence and called in their wives and children. At this time, these workers were remitting more than US$3 billion every year to Pakistan. These flows made up almost half of Pakistan’s foreign-exchange earnings.

These opportunities however started decreasing in the 1990s, especially with the Persian Gulf War when many workers were forced to return to Pakistan. Migration to the Gulf countries slowly resumed after the war.

The majority of migrant workers in the Gulf countries even today, belong to the working class and usually travel alone without their families. The result is that many women and children are left behind, and this ultimately affects not only the economy of the country but also its social fabric. Females of such families then become more involved in life outside the home, as managing the external affairs then becomes their responsibility. Studies have shown however that female employment rates in such families are low as they receive remittances to meet the household expenses. More children of such families have also been found to go to school, but this has not been found to guarantee higher education in the future. However, despite the increased spending power and higher consumption that such families enjoy, studies have shown that in some instances wives of such workers suffer from psychological problems and delinquency exists among children.

The positive influence of such migrations on the economy of Pakistan cannot be denied. The remittances from such workers contributed greatly in mitigating the country’s revenue gap. The bulk of Pakistan’s remittances from abroad come from the Gulf. However, on the downside, the inflow of this free money after these migrations boosted domestic spending and created inflationary trends in the economy. Soon, a class of noveau rich emerged with easy-spending habits and different lifestyles.

Also, migration opens the door to problems like visa selling sharks that deceive innocent job seekers and extract illegal money from them through false job offers, and it also opens doors to opportunities of human smuggling.

Although initially a great majority of migrants to the Gulf countries were working class people, gradually the educated professionals and middle class people also started to migrate in search for greener pastures abroad. This can be witnessed in present ‘Dubai Chalo’ (Let’s go to Dubai) phenomenon which is increasingly gaining sway.  The UAE for example is one country which is at the heights of economic progress and is attracting a large number of migrants. The UAE houses a large Pakistani diaspora which is well into the second and even third generation.

In the previous fiscal year that has just passed, inflows of remittances from the Middle East countries including the UAE and Gulf countries (Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain) saw a substantial increase. According to State Bank of Pakistan reports, inflows from Middle Eastern countries registered a 34 % increase in the previous fiscal year. However, with the present day global financial crisis, analysts are fearful that continuing economic crisis and falling oil prices may lead to many Pakistanis losing their jobs and a consequent fall in remittances and thus a severe blow to the economy of Pakistan.

Despite the great benefits the country receives through the remittances of the migrant Pakistanis, the government does not seem to have done enough to help overseas Pakistanis in their areas of residence. The government set up an Overseas Pakistani Division within the Ministry of Labour and Manpower which seeks to provide with improved facilities at airports, in education, housing and healthcare. However, not too much of substance seems to have been done.

The government needs to work in collaboration with overseas Pakistanis not only to provide them with the facilitation they need but also to help them get together to help build a more positive image of Pakistan and help contribute to the development of the country. Only through collective action will the country prosper.

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