In 2008, I left for Austria to pursue a PhD degree in Computer Engineering. I got a Schengen visa without any hassle.
My five-year stay in Austria was an unforgettable experience with some indelible memories.
During my stay in Europe, I visited several countries to attend scientific events — including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary among others.
Never did I face any ethnic or racial discrimination in Europe. Never was I made to feel like an outsider.
My wife and my two-year-old daughter, who accompanied me on some of my visits, were also recipients of the same respect and warmth. While adhering to my cultural values and religion, I made countless friends from varying cultures.
Nobody ever frowned at my wife's scarf or commented on my polite refusal to enjoy champagne at graduation ceremonies and departmental parties.
I completed my PhD three years ago and left Austria, my second home, with tears in my eyes.
I returned to Pakistan with an enthusiasm to promote quality research and contribute to the scientific and technological developments of my country.
Soon enough, I was surrounded by countless problems, and it occurred to me that continuing research in this part of the world is no walk in the park.
Political corruption in academic institutes, the deteriorating state of basic education, the flawed policies of higher education, the ridiculous criteria of promotions, the emphasis on quantity over quality, among other issues, soon demoralised me.
But with the help and motivation of like-minded Pakistani peers, I continue to find solutions.
A couple of months ago, my research paper was accepted at a European conference and I was invited to Rome from Feb 24 to Feb 26 for an oral presentation.
Besides attending the conference, my other motivation was to visit my friends in Austria, to meet my PhD supervisor, to visit the same streets in Austria where I had walked for five years, to see my tiny writings on the walls in different places at the university campus with the hope that I would still find them, to visit the house where I had lived with my family for five years.
I was overjoyed, to say the least.
I applied for the visa on Feb 4 with all the mandatory documents. I was assured that I would be notified about the decision at least a couple of days before my scheduled departure on Feb 23.
There was no reason for my visa application to be rejected. I ticked all the boxes — I am an associate professor at a university and an active researcher with a comprehensive profile. I've spent five years in different European states and have contributed actively in the field of research. I've earned an esteemed status in the scientific community.
Rejection was out of the question.
The next day, I received a phone call from the visa officer in the consulate.
He said, "Dr Khan, we have a question regarding your visa application. Since you have lived in Austria, we apprehend you may go to Austria other than the specific European country you have applied for. Now be honest with me and tell me what is your plan?"
I was of course taken aback. I had applied for a Schengen visa and I could visit more than 25 European countries on this visa — the same visa when I was pursuing a PhD.
I replied, "Yes, I intend to visit Austria after the conference. But what is the problem?"
He said, “I am sorry. Unless you promise to visit only the conference country, we cannot grant you a Schengen visa. After the Paris attacks, the immigrant rules have been made stricter. The situation is very bad. You may also experience mistreatment during immigration. You will have to assure us that you will not visit any other country."
This was heartbreaking for me. During my five-year stay in Europe, I had begun to consider it my homeland.
How could my homeland restrain my travel to a specific region? However, I unwillingly assured him.
On Feb 16, I received a call from the visa-pick-and-drop service that I should come and collect my passport. Based in Nawabshah, I travelled to Karachi on Feb 17 to collect my passport.
I had made all the preparations for my visit: purchased an air ticket, paid for the conference registration, booked a hotel, purchased the train and bus tickets in the conference country, and even packed my bag.
At the consulate's visa collection counter, I was handed my passport and a letter. When I read the contents of the letter, I was devastated to learn that my visa application had been declined.
This had never happened to me. How on earth could a visa application for a research-based trip be rejected?
I was going to attend an event which promotes research and serves as a platform for researchers across the world to exchange scientific ideas.
I hurriedly skipped to the reason of rejection specified in the letter. It said:
"One or more (Schengen) member states consider you to be a threat to public policy, internal security, public health or the international relations of one or more of the member states".
Never had I felt so disgraced. The letter suggested that I contact the consulate or embassy for further details. But despite my best efforts, I could not obtain a satisfactory reason for being rejected a visa.
Perhaps my other fellow countrymen, who are poles apart from this religious lunacy and barbaric philosophy, will keep paying the price in the days to come.
Such treatment to researchers, like myself, is disappointing and discouraging, especially when Pakistan has been ranked 131 out of 141 countries in the recent ranking of the Global Innovation Index (GII).
Scientific forums and conferences provide food for thought to researchers all over the world.
Under these circumstances, very little can be done for the progress of science and technology in Pakistan.