Published On: Wed, Jan 8th, 2014

The money movers in Pakistan RAFIA ZAKARIA

THEY were found in rickety boats in the winter waters of the Mediterranean. On Jan 1, as the world was heralding in the New Year, over 200 migrant workers — most of them Pakistanis — were rescued by the Italian coastguard off the shore of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. The next day, more than 800 more were rescued, shivering in the cold. Included in their numbers some 30 women and 42 children. A good number of them were also Pakistani.

The rescued were the lucky ones. A few months ago in October, another group of migrants — again including a sizeable number of Pakistanis — drowned off the coast of the island in their effort to make it to land. Unlike them, the survivors of Lampedusa could live to try again.

Every year, millions of workers from Pakistan and other countries undertake similarly perilous journeys in order to escape economies where they have little hope of a livelihood. The migrant workers of the world are in fact the great global equalisers; their labour pumps wealth from the economies of rich industrialised nations to poor ones struggling to develop in a race otherwise weighted against them.

According to a study by the Pew Research Foundation, the amount of money that migrants send home in remittances has tripled since the year 2000 to nearly $500 billion. Worldwide, the number of total migrants increased from 154 million to 232m in 2013.

The US continues to be the number one destination for migrants from all around the world. The number of immigrants there has doubled from 23m in 1990 to 46m in 2013. During this time, no other country has come close to the number of foreign-born people living within its borders.

Located in Asia, from where the largest number of migrants originate (India being the world’s number one labour-exporting nation), Pakistan relies on migrant remittances to keep its economy moving.

According to the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, Pakistanis living abroad sent home a record $13.920 billion in the fiscal year 2012-2013, registering a nearly 6pc increase from the year before. The Pakistani workers labouring abroad span across classes — from low-wage labourers to highly skilled technical workers such as engineers and doctors.

According to the ministry’s numbers, a staggering total of nearly 2.8m Pakistanis have left the country in the past five years. Nearly 50,000 highly skilled workers were estimated to have left in 2012 alone.

As can be seen from the Pakistani workers rescued off the coast of Italy last week and the numbers provided by the ministry, the exit of labour from the country, whether high skilled or low skilled, is a national reality transcending class and education.

Whether it is poor households in the rural areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, or affluent suburbs in Karachi or Lahore, almost every family has a son, husband, brother or uncle living and labouring abroad. Yet while this may be a national reality, little or no acknowledgement is found of it in the policies of successive governments.

If and when the Pakistani worker does make it abroad, smuggled either on a rickety ship traversing an unknown sea or under the auspices of a visa to some faraway land, he finds himself alone in every sense. While consulates exist in all the nations where Pakistani workers tend to migrate, they provide few or no services to the workers.

Whether it is a low-skilled worker facing abuse at the hands of this or that employer, or the family of a deceased worker attempting to get his body home, the task is arduous, with consular staff and services ill-equipped to serve the purpose.

The issue is not one of resources or institutional incapacity alone. The dominant frame through which ‘leaving’ Pakistan is understood is that of a betrayal of the country, love for which can be best attested by geographical presence.

Absent in this understanding are the global dynamics of labour movement and the contributions that those leaving for economic reasons make to the economic regeneration of their home countries. The consequences of this narrow understanding of migration not only do a disservice to migrants, but also prevent labour-exporting nations such as Pakistan from wielding power at a governmental level.

A quantification and organisation of the number of workers Pakistan sends to Saudi Arabia, for instance, reveals the extent of control Pakistani workers consequently have over the workings of the Saudi economy. Knowledge and utilisation of this can be used not only to improve the working conditions of the labourers themselves, but also to recognise the interconnections between the two economies.

The case of highly skilled workers, the Pakistani doctors who enable Saudi healthcare and the Pakistani engineers who help pump Saudi oil, could in turn become a viable source of power in international relations.

The world is an unequal place, the garishness of its inequities playing out constantly before our eyes in the largesse of wealthy nations and the pressing impoverishment of poor ones. It is the migrants of the world, the men and women chasing jobs, braving the cold waves of oceans or the heat of deserts, who are the world’s ultimate warriors of equality.

From the maid that sends her wages home so that her children can attend a better school, to the doctor that establishes a hospital in his hometown, their contributions to their native lands are not those of presence but of attempting to enable an otherwise elusive parity.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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