On the morning of every working day, a long queue forms outside the Pakistan embassy in Rome. Unlike the lines outside western embassies in Islamabad, these people are not applicants for visas: almost every single one is a Pakistani reporting that his passport has been stolen or lost and applying for a new one.
Once they prove their citizenship either through an ID card or some other document, they are issued new passports, often on the same day for an 'urgent fee' of $100. Armed with a passport and a job offer, they can approach the Italian authorities for permission to work. Given an aging population and a proportionately shrinking workforce, the Italians are glad to allow them to do so.
The reason for tearing up the travel document they originally entered Italy on (almost always illegally) is that with a new passport, they can claim they have been in the country for longer than they actually have, thus becoming eligible for a work permit. The Italian authorities and the Pakistan embassy are obviously aware of this transparent scam, but nobody makes an issue of it as it suits all the parties concerned.
Talking to some of these adventurous Pakistanis, I soon realized that each of them had his own story to tell, but the common strand running through their tale is that amazingly, almost every one of them is from Gujrat district in Punjab. Aziz Bhatti is a pleasant, stocky man who tells me that getting a job in Italy is no problem.
Apparently, most Pakistanis are employed in the industrial north of the country around Milan where the average monthly wage is around $700. Many Pakistanis have sent for their families after their legal status has been regularized, and their children are studying at local schools. While there are no precise figures available, an embassy official guesses there are between 40,000 and 50,000 legal and illegal Pakistanis living in Italy.
Describing the ambassador as an 'angel' (farishta), almost all those I talked to were full of praise for the embassy staff. According to some of them, Pakistani embassies in other capitals often extract bribes for passports.
A photocopier and a cold drink dispenser has been installed for the convenience of passport applicants, and their requests are quickly processed. Those who had no documents whatsoever to prove their citizenship are interviewed to check if they know the basic facts about their native country. One Swati boy with a Swiss girlfriend in tow did not know the Wali of Swat's name and was almost rejected until his uncle appeared to assure embassy officials that he was indeed a Pakistani but was too ignorant to know much about his country.
Talking to embassy staff, I discovered they were stretched to the limit as the office had suffered economy cuts and as a result, even had to press typists and drivers into service when the pressure for passports increased. On average, they have around 60 new applications per day; but this number can double after each weekend. Often, the ambassador personally conducts interviews and gives his decision on the spot.
While the Italians are generally accommodating, many other countries aren't. The Australian government has earned a lot of notoriety for its insensitive handling of economic refugees. But then nearly 25 per cent of the Australian workforce was born abroad against only 2 per cent for Italy. Clearly, there is a critical mass above which foreigners cause resentment and friction. While this varies from country to country, some nations are better equipped to deal with the whole issue of foreign immigrants.
The decision to leave one's home for an uncertain future abroad must be one of the most difficult a person can take, specially as it is becoming riskier and more expensive every day. According to a study cited in a recent issue of The Economist, an intending illegal migrant from Pakistan has to pay an average of $25,000 to get into the United States. The voyage is long and risky, and unscrupulous agents exploit unwary and inexperienced travellers mercilessly. Every year, hundreds suffocate to death in containers and drown when leaky ships capsize. But the tide keeps surging as the lure of a better tomorrow attracts millions of migrants.
Despite social and political problems that often accompany large-scale immigration, its economic benefits are clear and substantial. In many advanced economies, population growth rates are now below replacement levels, and the average age of citizens is growing constantly.
By 2050, 34 countries will face this problem. In order to maintain the present standard of living and therefore the current size of workforce, the EU will need an annual inflow of nearly three million migrant workers. As this is twice the present numbers of legal and illegal migrants, this projection is disquieting: already, resentment against foreigners in countries like Sweden, Britain, Austria and France is reaching disturbing proportions. What will it be like if the numbers double?
As we talked in the compound of the Pakistan embassy in Rome, I asked those clustered around me if they missed home. A couple of the younger men looked away, as though to conceal the tears in their eyes. One hardened worker laughed and said: "Of course we all miss home. But we also know there is nothing for us to do there, so even if we dream of returning, we know we have to stick it out here for the sake of our families."
But while immigration is to the economic benefit of advanced countries, the sad fact is that the departure of our most enterprising young people represents a serious loss to developing nations. Had they stayed, they might have contributed to effecting the kind of change countries like Pakistan so desperately need. As it is, those left behind are either the ones happy with the status quo, or those defeated by it. Those restless spirits tired of living in an environment of nepotism and corruption move away to thrive in meritocracies. They know that their sacrifices and risks will ensure a decent education for their children, who will not have to do the menial, low-paid jobs they themselves have had to accept. Above all, they want their children to have the kind of equality of opportunities they were denied in their own countries.
Unfortunately, people like Aziz Bhatti who dream and are determined to make their dreams come true are voting against their homeland with their feet.