It’s time for illegal expatriates to return to Pakistan


It’s time for illegal expatriates to return to Pakistan


Only if done right, expatriates can prove to be an effective bridge between their home country and their host, especially in terms of cultures, economies, and regions. 
In the case of Pakistan, it is a mixed bag. What’s bizarre is the lack of policies that are needed to build people-to-people bridges. Islamabad’s envoy to Washington, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi must be given due credit for energizing the role of Pakistani expatriates in the early 1990s and especially after 9/11. 
During her prolonged ambassadorial tenure in the UK, she replicated an optimized model of her previous success. It’s difficult to recall other such successful attempts elsewhere.
Pakistan has nearly three million citizens working in Saudi Arabia — the figure doubles if one takes into account the entire Arabian peninsula. Though remittances from the Kingdom are soaring to more than $5 billion, resident Pakistanis continue to be devoid of synergy and a shared sense of community.
Through the decades, the disconnect between the needs of the expatriates and priorities of the embassies has only grown wider. 
Several overseas residents lament the fact that both Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have failed to do much for them. 
PM Khan visited Riyadh twice last year but returned without interacting with his own people. However, the premier’s push for the plight of overseas Pakistanis and the appointment of career officers does offer a glimmer of hope.
Every region requires a different approach to solving its community’s problems and realizing their genuine potential. 
Pakistanis in the peninsula are divided in every possible manner, thereby becoming a microcosm of their homeland. 
Additionally, one needs to take into account the fact that expatriates in the Gulf region comprise a community that’s a stark contrast in terms of skillset and socio-economic background.
Besides, there are those who overstay by violating the duration of their work permits or Umrah visas — a shortcut to entering the Kingdom. 
The majority of such violators are from Muslim countries, with Pakistan featuring at the top of the list. Either way, unskilled laborers or criminals evading law-enforcement agencies end up being stranded in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Due to these factors, it has become ominously difficult to send savings back home in the past couple of years.
It is pertinent to note that members of the unskilled workforce immensely outnumber the highly professional ones. 
Since requitals have continued to remain Islamabad’s prime concern for decades, the issues and nuisances caused by Pakistanis unfortunately damages and symbolizes Pakistan’s image, too.

Pakistanis in the peninsula are divided in every possible manner, thereby becoming a microcosm of their homeland.

Naveed Ahmad

From traveling as drug mules to over-staying on Umrah visas, the list of offenses is endless. Meanwhile, setting its house in order as part of its Vision 2030 initiative, Saudi Arabia is going after illegal residents, whether they are Umrah-visa violators or laborers hunting for work. 
The first to come under the chopping block will be the employers who hire illegal residents. Already in place, localization measures have steadily created space for the locals to enter the workforce, be it in the form of taxi drivers who are employed by mobile-app hailing services or as owners of small shops. 
With that in mind, it leaves very little room for the unskilled labor force to find a place in the larger scheme of things. It is time for the illegal residents to return to Pakistan.
Arab News reported this week that the Saudi General Directorate of Passports can jail employers of illegal expatriates for up to six months, in addition to issuing a maximum fine of $27,000. 
Furthermore, an expatriate can also be deported for the crime, while nationals who employ over-staying residents will be banned from importing manpower for up to five years and face a jail term of up to a year.
The ensuing crackdown is set to embarrass Pakistan for the right reasons. The country’s political elite and some media houses may typically overlook the compatriots’ violations but propagate the figure of the arrested and deported against the Gulf countries for acting against the brotherly relations. 
In fact, Islamabad should have taken measures to ensure that the Umrah visa facility is not abused in any manner. It is only through the resumption of healthy economic activities in Pakistan that the country can rid itself of the menaces of illegal migration.
Additionally, the issue must feature in forthcoming bilateral engagements which could touch upon the abuse of powers by kafeels, violation of maximum work-hour limit, lack of prescribed facilities and excessive delays in payment of salaries for the legitimate expatriate manpower. The Gulf states have increasingly focused on these issues by reforming the bureaucratic and regulatory measures.
The rude awakening comes at a time when Islamabad has embarked on a challenge to set it’s economy on track. While the Pakistani embassies abroad and more so in the Gulf region have focused on other priorities rather than serving their community, the government lacks a coherent approach to tap into the vast potential which the friendly Gulf states offer, besides economic packages and military collaborations.
Over the past few months, several initiatives introduced have been encouraging, to say the least, but Pakistan’s embassies have little capacity to synergize the community. 
Each new ambassador posted in the Gulf wants to reinvent the wheel. The diplomatic missions need immediate revamping, from the tradition of toxic officialdom to community welfare projects. The Overseas Pakistanis Foundation or its parent ministry remain paper tigers, having little to show in terms of community engagement and development.
Even if the criticism is dismissed, the question remains: does Pakistan have a clear-cut vision of how it aims to develop and solidify it’s relations with the Gulf nations? Ambassador Lodhi’s success with the overseas Pakistanis was a result of a combination of the state’s view of relations with the US and the UK, and her artful stewardship.
– Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view