A FEW days ago, Dr Moeed Yusuf, special adviser to the prime minister, held a press conference. One of its main goals appeared to be the provision of reliable information (and some explanations) about Pakistanis who have been stuck abroad. Dr Yusuf, who appears to be leading the government’s effort to repatriate Pakistanis, is a good candidate for this task, not least because he himself was an overseas Pakistani until not too long ago.
According to Dr Yusuf, thousands of Pakistanis remain stranded in places like the United Arab Emirates. Some are apparently so completely without means that they are literally homeless and living on the streets. Government-established criteria for repatriation prioritises such cases because of the obvious urgency of their situation. Others, stuck in over 80 countries, who meet the government-established criteria will also be repatriated but will likely have to wait longer.
All this must be good news for the more than 60,000 Pakistanis who are awaiting repatriation. Against their large numbers, the repatriation flights that the various Pakistani embassies abroad have been able to arrange seem like a small trickle. Fifty Pakistanis stuck in Columbo boarded a SriLankan Airlines flight a few days ago and were able to return. Another 40 were brought back a couple of days ago. In places where PIA does not have landing rights, arrangements are being made with other airlines (Qatar Airways was specifically mentioned) so that people can still be brought back home.
The task of finding out how to get back to Pakistan and which flights are available or which ones have been cancelled has been a near impossible task over the past few weeks. The pandemic lockdown has perpetuated many problems and confusion. The plight of these Pakistanis, a lot of them suddenly finding themselves ‘unwanted’ in the countries where they have worked for decades, is heartbreaking. Each lost job among the at least 60,000 Pakistanis means hundreds of thousands of rupees that will no longer accrue as remittances. Those are the very remittances that have kept Pakistan going for decades.
Apparently, some stranded individuals are completely without means and are living on the streets.
It would be more helpful to hear more about how the government plans to fill this giant hole in the country’s GDP. Those, perhaps, are conversations that have been relegated to the ‘after-times’, those blessed days when the crisis has past and we as human beings can look at each other without worrying about catching an unrelenting plague.
That may well be the case, but the issue of repatriation as discussed in the press conference ignored the other half of the problem. Thousands of Pakistanis who live or work abroad are stuck in Pakistan awaiting flights out. These are the Pakistanis who still have jobs and can still send remittances back to the country. Despite this, it seems that little priority has been given to get them back to where their jobs are, even as the world tentatively begins to open up again.
Not only are flights out hard to get, the treatment meted out to Pakistani workers seeking to get back adds further insult to injury. Take the case of Mr Muhammad Haroon, who happened to be in Pakistan when the Covid-19 lockdown occurred. Relating his case, Mr Haroon informed this writer that he had a valid PIA return ticket on a chartered flight from Lahore to Toronto that was scheduled for April 19, 2020.
That flight was cancelled and rescheduled multiple times to April 30. If the hassle of trying to discern the status of repeatedly cancelled flights was not enough of a burden, the national carrier decided to impose a new one. Mr Haroon said that it appeared he would now have to purchase a new one-way ticket to Toronto if he wanted to leave. In addition to this, the price of a new one-way ticket was set close to $3,500 — an exorbitant price given that such a round-trip ticket usually costs about $1,200.
Mr Haroon, who has had heart bypass surgery, does not have the money to purchase this new ticket, which appears to be the only way out of Pakistan. Instead of being understanding and helpful (imagine that), the authorities have chosen to get more money out of Pakistanis who were trying to return to jobs that will be few and far between in the post-pandemic world. Mr Haroon, for instance, says he has been sending remittances back to Pakistan for 40 years. Now the authorities seemed to be extracting more money by cancelling valid tickets and requiring passengers to buy a new ticket.
It would be extremely helpful if the government addressed the issue of such stranded Pakistanis and assisted them in returning to the countries where they hold jobs. While foreign governments like the US and Canada have taken out chartered flights for their citizens, these flights have not been open to mere visa holders. The consequence for many, especially as things begin to open up, is that they will lose their jobs because they are stuck in Pakistan. Mr Haroon has applied for a loan so that he can pay the new fare that is being demanded. He does not know if the loan will go through or when he will be able to leave.
The pandemic has thrust many uncertainties on everyone and created problems whose solutions are not readily available. In this particular case, it is entirely within the power of the government and the national airline to stop demanding that people whose flights were cancelled purchase new tickets at exorbitant prices. Repatriating Pakistanis stuck abroad is urgent and essential, but so too is helping overseas Pakistanis return to where they work and where they earn the money they send back to Pakistan.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2020