11,000 Pakistanis suffering in foreign jails: JPP study

Updated April 24, 2019

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PTI's Andaleeb Abbas says all 2,000 Pakistanis in Saudi Arabian jails will be returned. ─ AFP/File
PTI's Andaleeb Abbas says all 2,000 Pakistanis in Saudi Arabian jails will be returned. ─ AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Weak regulation of labour migration in Pakistan leaves thousands of mostly low-wage Pakistani male workers vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour, ill-treatment in detention overseas and even the risk of death.

Around 11,000 Pakistanis, including 3,309 in Saudi Arabia, have been suffering in foreign jails because of it. While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his visit to Pakistan in February had announced immediate release of 2,000 Pakistani prisoners, only 200 of them have been released so far, it was disclosed during the launch of a report on Tuesday.

The report titled “Through the Cracks: The Exploitation of Pakistani Migrant Workers in the Gulf Recruitment Regime” was launched by the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) — a non-governmental organisation working for Pakistani prisoners at home and abroad.

Former Senator Farhatullah Babar said only about 200 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails had been freed and repatriated. He asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to pursue the release of the remaining prisoners with the crown prince whom he had described as “Pakistan’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia”.

Saudi Arabia freed only 200 of the 2,000 prisoners it promised to send back to Pakistan in February, moot told

Mr Babar said he had not only visited a Saudi jail but also remained in a lock-up there for a few hours as a migrant worker some four decades ago. He said he had first-hand information about their problems.

“Overseas Pakistanis not only send foreign exchange but they also reduce the pressure on jobs in Pakistan. The law prohibits the use of exploitative sub-agents in the recruitment process but these unscrupulous elements continue to thrive in human trade. Parliament can only make laws but has no power to implement them,” said Mr Babar. He called for the preparation of a comprehensive database on issues faced by migrant workers, consular protection policy and agreements with host countries on transfer of prisoners and transportation of deceased.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf legislator Andleeb Abbas agreed that just 200 Pakistanis had been sent back since the announcement made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his visit to Islamabad in February.

“I can assure that all [2,000] Pakistanis will come back. The delay is because of some logistical issues and there should be no doubt that they will be sent back,” she said.

Senator Sassui Palejo also expressed the hope that the Pakistanis detained in Saudi jails would be released soon.

Earlier, JPP representative Sara Bilal said that 11,000 Pakistanis were suffering in foreign jails but their suffering could not be mitigated due to lack of coordination among government departments.

The report identifies key issues that plague the recruitment regime for low-wage migrant workers in Pakistan: the illegal use of Azad Visas, the lack of attendance at pre-departure briefings, and the illegal use of sub-agents who exploit underprivileged and vulnerable individuals. The frequent criminalisation and commodification of Pakistani migrant workers point towards alarming problems with the way these workers are recruited, the importance that is attached to their safety abroad, and the marked indifference towards their plight in foreign jails.

The report also documents loopholes within the recruitment regime. These gaps are exploited by unauthorised intermediaries who operate, illegally, alongside private firms known as overseas employment promoters (OEPs) that are responsible for the recruitment of workers for jobs overseas.

The report highlights how various government actors fail to fulfil their responsibility to protect vulnerable migrant workers before, during, and after they are incarcerated. It urges the government to increase oversight over procedures of recruitment as well as ensure accountability for licensed OEPs. Individuals deceived and coerced into trafficking drugs must be protected, not prosecuted, and provided with the necessary consular assistance, it suggests.

It stated that over 1.5 million Pakistanis had left the country for work over the past three years, joining the country’s estimated 10 million diaspora. Benefits for Pakistan include one of the highest levels of remittances in the world, but the regulation of labour migration remains weak, promoting human trafficking, forced labour, ill-treatment in detention overseas and even risk of death.

Although a comprehensive legislative framework and public institutions are in place, the weakness lies in their implementation and monitoring. Government-backed channels (Overseas Employment Corpora­tion) are largely seen as incapable of providing support.

The report recalled that the JPP had filed a petition in the Lahore High Court in 2014 on behalf of 10 families representing 10 men who were sentenced to death on drug-related offences in Saudi Arabia, eight of whom had already been executed. All the 10 men were deceived by fraudulent actors.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019