The time to demand Saudi Arabia to treat Pakistani workers properly is now

Updated October 01, 2018

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Pakistani workers, who were stranded in Saudi Arabia after losing their jobs, stand outside the old Islamabad airport after their return from Dammam in September 2016.—Online
Pakistani workers, who were stranded in Saudi Arabia after losing their jobs, stand outside the old Islamabad airport after their return from Dammam in September 2016.—Online

Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan made his first foreign trip. His visit to Saudi Arabia marked another historic step in the 71-year friendship between the two countries.

Many promises and agreements were made. Saudi Arabia to join CPEC and support Pakistan financially. And Pakistan reassuring the Kingdom of its commitment to their security and expressing to the world how much it cherishes their relationship.

But it is not just economic investment and aid from the Saudi government that has and will continue to support Pakistan’s economy. There are approximately over two million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia.

They make up the second largest migrant community in the Kingdom. In 2016, their remittances amounted to $5.8 billion.

Due to unemployment and poverty, thousands of Pakistanis migrate for work. According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, last year that number was 183,382 just in the category of labourers.

Pakistan relies heavily on labour migration to curb poverty and support its economy. At $19.3bn received in remittances in 2017 from its nationals worldwide, Pakistan is the fifth highest recipient of remittances globally.

Uninterested attachés

In his inaugural address, the prime minister said, “They need to be told they are not alone and helpless, we are with them.” He was speaking of the estimated 11,000 Pakistanis imprisoned abroad.

Of these detainees, over 5,000 are in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where 96 per cent of Pakistan’s migrant worker population is concentrated, where most remittances come from.

Yet, these are the countries that have the highest population of Pakistani prisoners.

The highest number of Pakistanis imprisoned abroad is in Saudi Arabia at 3,309, which also executes the most Pakistanis: 74 since 2014 and 15 so far this year, mainly for drugs.

Most ‘drug smugglers’ are poor labourers or families coerced or duped by recruiting firms and agents.

Related: Pakistani citizens, including children, on death row in Saudi Arabia and Iran

Given the contributions of these hard working Pakistanis, Islamabad should treat their cases with the highest level of sensitivity as they are at the mercy of local courts without access to impartial lawyers, adequate translators or consular assistance from Pakistani diplomatic missions.

Every mission has community welfare attachés whose job is to support the migrant community, but the situation on the ground is quite different.

According to detainees in a report by Justice Project Pakistan on Pakistani prisoners in the Saudi criminal justice system, they did not seek consular services from the Pakistani embassy or consulate because they did not believe assistance would be provided.

Prisoners said that Pakistani officials rarely visit Saudi prisons, unlike representatives of other countries.

Those who contacted embassy officials said that the only assistance provided was with deportation procedures. Only one defendant said he met with a Pakistani official during his trial.

Senator Sehar Kamran, who has spent time in the Kingdom, has said that welfare attachés are not interested in supporting the community and act like ‘viceroys.’

Saudi apathy

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had a long and friendly history. From offering support during times of war and hardship, to signing a friendship treaty and building cultural ties, for 71 years Pakistan has said that this is its most important bilateral partnership.

However, Riyadh has displayed apathy towards Pakistani citizens. Last year, the Saudi government imposed a tax on foreigners which impacted poor migrants.

Thousands returned due to financial insecurity.

The Kingdom also stands in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which it ratified in 1988. They are obligated to inform Pakistani officials when they arrest a Pakistani citizen, but have repeatedly failed to do so.

Families are not allowed to visit their imprisoned relatives or retrieve bodies after executions.

Footprints: On the death row in Saudi Arabia

The lack of adequate legal assistance leads defendants to sign confessions which harm their interests. According to the report above, one detainee accepted a verdict and sentence of 10 days and 80 lashes without knowing that it also contained a deportation order.

In 2016, migrant construction workers were abandoned by Saudi employers in filthy desert camps. Naseer, a Pakistani, said he was owed 22,000 riyals ($5,900) and did not receive wages for eight months.

Recently, a wave of unexpected hangings has occurred in the Kingdom. Prisoners have been told that their sentences have been changed to death sentences and are executed.

Not difficult to resolve

A high level Saudi delegation arrived yesterday and the Pakistani government must raise these issue.

While this is an economic delegation, this issue is still pertinent. The members of this delegation should be reminded of the crucial role of Pakistanis in the development of the Kingdom.

Pakistani economist Anwar Ali became the head of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority in 1957, which controls all the resources of the Kingdom and works as its central bank.

In 1978, Pakistani engineers and technicians helped set up communication networks in the Kingdom.

In 1970, Dr Naeem Ghani joined the Military Hospital in Riyadh and established its surgical department.

Additionally, Pakistani unskilled labourers work as maintenance workers, construction workers, taxi drivers and sanitary workers, in the retail sector and food industry, amongst others.

Opinion: Bad Saudi vibes

For decades, the Saudi economy has been reliant on the migrant workforce. At one point, over 50pc of the Saudi workforce consisted of migrants.

This supported the Saudi middle and upper class and propped them up as they became unwilling to take certain jobs, considering them to lack social value.

It has been reported that Islamabad has raised the issue of increasing the job quota for Pakistani workers in the Kingdom. While this is a good step, the government must also create and implement safeguards for Pakistani workers.

These workers not only support their families, but also the economy and industries of the countries in which they work as well the economy of Pakistan. But their treatment and plight often goes unnoticed.

The governments must work together to identify Pakistanis in jail, and provide them with immediate legal support. Pakistan must also push for the prisoner transfer treaty with the Kingdom which the federal cabinet approved in March.

The government should work to create an on-the-ground support network. The Sri Lankan government signed a labour agreement with Saudi Arabia to protect its 500,000 citizens in the country and established a 24-hour hotline for distressed workers.

Following the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently, Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry announced that the Embassy in Tehran plans to work with the Tehran Prosecutor General to identify and support Pakistanis imprisoned there.

Saudi Arabia is a closer partner and given such a close friendship, resolving this should not prove be difficult.

Read next: Behind Saudi Arabia

This is an emergency. Lives are at stake. The new government has massive support from overseas Pakistanis, seeks and speaks of their contribution and raises its voice for justice.

Prime Minister Imran Khan made a promise that he will support the overseas Pakistanis suffering in jails, and now their families are looking to the government with hope.

And the government has demonstrated its efficiency; this recent economic cooperation came together in a matter of days.

But for prisoners, relief has yet to come. Warrants are being issued and executions scheduled.


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