They say nobody leaves homes unless home is the mouth of a shark. But for many Pakistanis, living in the country is still tantamount to living among sharks. Around 8.7 million Pakistanis live abroad, a large majority of them in the Middle East, according to statistics released in 2016 by the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis. Clearly, the ghosts of militancy and terrorism continue to haunt millions of Pakistanis despite the gains made during Operation Zarb-i-Azb.
Eilya is a 45-year-old woman who used to be an accountant working for a leading Pakistani bank. She moved to the United States last year after tragedy hit their family. “My youngest brother and two cousins were killed in a bomb blast at an imambargah in Karachi during Muharram. [The incident] changed our lives for good and we decided to move.”
Today, Eilya works at an Indian-American restaurant, doing everything from serving customers to dishwashing and cooking. She often misses her comfortable life in Pakistan but consoles herself with the thought that at least she doesn’t have to live in perpetual fear. “There is no threat to my safety or that of my loved ones. I feel far more secure in America than in Pakistan,” she laments.
Despite a nationwide crackdown against militancy, security and economic concerns continue to compel citizens to seek newer pastures
Software engineer Syed Absar, 30, has been settled in the UAE for the past six years. His reasons for migrating are similar: the mental cost of living in Pakistan was becoming unbearable. “I hated living in constant fear in Pakistan. Now when I am out for work, at least my family is not worried that I might get killed over a mobile phone or a car.”
Experts confirm that people usually migrate for better opportunities and economic conditions, even if they have to live in miserable conditions as second class citizens. For Pakistan, this is certainly the case, although of late it is buffeted by security concerns.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated that Pakistan has the sixth largest diaspora in the world. According to the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis, “there is an evident increase of 20 percent between 2014 and 2015 in the number of Pakistani migrants to the Middle East and other countries. Approximately one million Pakistanis migrated in 2015 alone for better employment as compared to 752,466 migrants in 2014.” Earlier, in 2012, the Pew Research Center’s survey revealed that Pakistani-Americans have become the second-fastest- growing and seventh-largest group in the US. According to the Norwegian government, around 32,000 Pakistanis migrated to Norway in 2011 alone.
These figures point to the painful reality that a large number of qualified and technical professional continue to leave Pakistan even in this day and age. Although brain drain from Pakistan is commonly associated with the Dubai Chalo (Let’s go to Dubai) phenomenon of the late 1960s and 1970s, the slow trickle of professionals moving away from Pakistan continues almost 50 years later. And while industry in Pakistan was nascent back in the 1960s, a sustained outflow of professionals means that the country’s employment market fails to utilise skilled and unskilled labour.
From 1971 to 2015, approximately 8,771,567 people migrated to at least 50 countries for employment opportunities. The maximum number of Pakistanis went to Saudi Arabia (2,885,295) in search of gainful employment. This was followed by the United Arab Emirates (4,429,510) and the United Kingdom (1,174, 983). Other popular destinations included Oman (652,743), US (363, 699), Kuwait (181,455), Canada (155,301), Bahrain (143,625) and Qatar (125,386).
There are about 8.7 million migrants living abroad but the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis claims that around 3.5 million citizens moved abroad in search of jobs over the past five years alone.
Here’s the kicker: there are about 8.7 million migrants living abroad but the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis claims that around 3.5 million Pakistanis moved abroad in search of jobs over the past five years alone. On a yearly average, this figure includes 40,000 to 50,000 professional and technical workers. These young and middle-aged professionals are willing to go any country, where they can live a peaceful and respectable life with equal opportunities. For a majority, it is no more a choice but a quest for survival.
A nationwide poll in 2015 indicated that “around 47 percent Pakistanis are eager to leave the country due to deteriorating socio-economic conditions and uncertain political situation.” Quite often, the lure of a foreign passport and a fascinating life in distant lands entices migrants to reach their destination by hook or by crook. Besides security concerns, the presence of civilized systems and processes, easy access to basic necessities, a better quality of life, peace of mind and chances for equal opportunities and growth are some of the key factors that attract youth to the idea of immigration.
“Common people struggle throughout their lives for roti, kapra and makaan in Pakistan,” argues Absar. “My son was born in a government hospital in the UAE and the standard of healthcare services here is equal to the best private hospitals in Pakistan.”
“We opted to leave Pakistan despite our well-paid jobs and a circle of close friends and family back home in pursuit of a secure and prosperous future for our children,” says Tariq, who moved to Australia with his family about two years ago.
Like most immigrants, Tariq knew he’d have to pay a heavy price for this decision in terms of his career and comfort zone. “It is not easy to start from scratch in an alien country specially when someone has crossed their teens and 20s and has acquired a certain position in native lands.” And yet, he has no regrets: “It’s worth it because the greatest reward is a blue [Australian] passport and a dual nationality.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 8th, 2017