Plane to prison

Updated 24 Apr 2019


The writer is an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.

OVER the past few months, the government has devoted significant attention to the issue of Pakistani migrant workers in prison abroad. Most notably, it announced in February that Saudi Arabia plans to release 2,107 Pakistani prisoners, after an appeal by Imran Khan to the Saudi crown prince.

But even if all 2,107 Pakistanis return safely — only 250 have returned so far — there will be just as many that will eventually replace them in Saudi prisons, initiating the need for further efforts to secure their welfare and release.

Nine Pakistani prisoners in Saudi Arabia have been executed since the order was issued, including a woman. This underscores how important it is for the government to take a long, hard look at the overseas recruitment regime for low-wage workers in Pakistan, and work on eliminating the systemic reasons for why Pakistanis end up in prisons in other countries in the first place.

Subagents coerce and deceive many Pakistani migrants.

A new report by Justice Project Pakistan, Through the Cracks: The Exploitation of Pakistani Migrant Workers in the Gulf Recruitment Regime, highlights some key issues plaguing the recruitment system for low-wage workers migrating to the Gulf.

Read: 11,000 Pakistanis suffering in foreign jails: JPP study

Under Pakistani law, workers’ recruitment should take place through either the Overseas Employment Promoters, the Overseas Employment Corporation or through a direct employment visa. The majority of migrant workers secure their jobs through OEPs, which are private recruitment agencies registered with the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment. The BEOE and its seven Protector of Emigrant Offices are responsible for issuing licences for OEPs and generally overseeing and regulating the migration of Pakistani citizens.

Unfortunately, multiple loopholes within the recruitment regime are exploited by subagents operating illegally, alongside the OEPs. Although Pakistani law prohibits the use of unauthorised intermediaries, in practice, subagents are critical intermediaries between prospective workers and employers overseas, especially for individuals from rural areas who account for a significant portion of Pakistani labour migration.

These subagents are able to coerce and deceive many Pakistanis largely because the latter are desperate for work to support their family, educate their children, or marry off their daughters. Here is one story in the report:

“In 2010, subagent Imtiaz told Umer [not his real name] that he could help him make a lot of money by facilitating his travel and work in Saudi Arabia. The subagent assured Umer he would handle all the passport and visa processing. Umer was then taken to Mardan where he was held at gunpoint; he was told his and his family’s lives were under threat if he did not swallow the heroin capsules they gave him. Left with no choice, Umer was forced to swallow the capsules and made to board the flight to Saudi Arabia from Lahore under duress.”

A critical loophole in the regime is the use of Azad Visas, which can be bought and sold in the ‘migration market’, to travel to the Gulf. Individual citizen visas are granted by GCC governments to local sponsors for hiring of household workers such as female domestic staff, drivers, gardeners etc. However, instead of being used for its intended purpose, the visa is often sold on to those wishing to come to the GCC but unable to find appropriate job opportunities. This opens up migrants to exploitation since there is considerably less oversight over Azad Visas.

Low-wage migrant workers also remain at risk of being exploited by criminal actors because of lack of information about the migration process. This is why, as per the Emigration Ordinance, 1979, it is mandatory that all prospective migrants attend a pre-departure briefing. The briefing is essential to providing the intending migrants information on how to protect themselves and alert them to the life-threatening dangers of fraudulent recruitment practices. However, most low-skilled migrants, especially from rural areas, fail to appear before the Protector and attend the briefings.

Previous governments have done little to remedy this situation, where migrant workers might as well be taking a flight directly to jails in the Gulf. There is no common database shared between the authorities that are supposed to regulate migration. Drug smuggling rings are often not investigated, pushing the burden of criminality onto the poorest and most vulnerable. Pakistan still does not have a consular protection policy that directs missions to facilitate Pakistanis in prison abroad.

The situation need not be this dire. By understanding the gaps in Pakistan’s labour migration framework and adopting policies and practices that lead to adequate enforcement of existing protections, the authorities can ensure that those journeying abroad for work are safe from human trafficking and exploitation. And that they do not have to pay for their dreams with their lives.

The writer is an advocacy officer at Justice Project Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019