A FEW months ago, The Guardian ran the story of a 30-year-old Pakistani man named Hassan, one of 99 Pakistanis who have been stranded in Dubai ever since the pandemic began in a largely abandoned labour camp on the outskirts of the city. They have no money and no way to return home. Lately, they have begun begging for food because they are starving. At the moment, they are at the mercy of charitable organisations that are trying to provide for this hapless population, still living in the squalid and cramped labour camps, and without the means to live. The construction company that employed them has largely cut ties with them, meaning there is little if any possibility that they will be paid their arrears.
I had read Hassan’s story when it was first published and was alarmed at the fact that even as late as this autumn, these stranded Pakistanis had not been able to return to Pakistan. But returning to Pakistan is itself a complicated issue, not only because of the pandemic but also because of the ways of the middlemen who get young Pakistani men into the Emirates in the first place.
The despair and darkness of that inherently exploitative process, when combined with the continuing problems caused by the pandemic, were revealed yet again in the responses to last week’s column that dealt with visas. One of these was from a young man from the Upper Dir region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
A graduate of the University of Agriculture in Peshawar, this young man tried his best to find employment in Pakistan. Eventually, like many others in the same situation, he gave up and decided to move to Dubai. It was then that he came into contact with an agent who was referred to as Ali. Ali’s job is to gather up young men from all over Pakistan and help them procure visas to Dubai with the promise of getting them well-paying jobs. To allow him to pay the agent and airfare to Dubai, the women of his family had to sell all of their gold.
It is not just those who are being forced into manual labour that are facing problems.
When he arrived in Dubai, Ali and some of the other agents met them at the airport. They provided him and all the other young men who had arrived accommodation for a few days. Then, they were taken to the company run by Ali and his compatriots. Before long, he was sent off to work at a labour camp.
Even though he had been promised a good job for an educated graduate, he was now sent to do manual labour 12 hours a day, every single day. His passport and documents are still with the labour supply company. He has not been paid and so he has no money to go home, and going home in itself is a challenge because he does not want to dishonour the sacrifice his family has made. When he wrote his letter, he said he was contemplating suicide to get out of the hell that that his life has become.
It is not just those who are being forced into manual labour that are facing problems. Young physicians who had been planning to move to the UAE are facing their own challenges given the time-sensitive application and arrival procedures. Many of those applying expected to receive their licences authorising them to practise in Dubai in March. Some who had already received employment offers in Dubai resigned from their jobs in preparation to leave. All of those waiting for approved licences had paid the required fees, passed licensing exams, purchased air tickets and spent a significant sum of money to become eligible for licences. Then Covid-19 hit, and everything was up in the air.
All of those who were undergoing the licensing process for Dubai have been left without answers. As the months passed, their applications have expired, meaning that they would have to pay for an entirely new application, take the exams again, etc, just to become eligible for the licence. Some attempted to restart the process in September when travel restrictions were lifted, but things are once again up in the air as the UAE recently suspended processing visas for Pakistani citizens.
Pakistan’s young people who are in or bound for Dubai are confronting tremendous challenges in this moment. Their stories must serve as a warning for others who are looking to go to Dubai. The pandemic has exposed once more the cruelty of labour supply companies that gather up young men who are used as the fuel that power Dubai’s gaudy skyscrapers and gluttonous excesses. The callous licensing agencies that have not provided special concessions for those who have paid for procedures and licences are representative of an inhumane mindset that refuses to consider the humanity of those it expects to run its health systems.
In these specific cases is the story of an emirate that used to be rich and lucrative but is now merely an unsustainable desert playground for the world’s former dictators, political drifters and the royal family that sits atop them all. The oil crash and the pandemic have revealed Dubai to be a place that is devolving. Its inability to promise citizenship to anyone, even after decades of working in there, is one reason thousands of expatriates have chosen to leave after the pandemic.
Many complain about the complete lack of social services for the vast population that does not enjoy citizenship, a factor whose significance has been underscored by the pandemic. The only people who will be left in Dubai, then, will likely be the completely desperate, and too many Pakistanis belong to this category. If their lives and livelihoods are important to the country and to the government that is supposed to serve them, immediate interventions need to be made to help the young men and women who are suffering from the unthinking negligence of the Emirate’s exploitative bureaucratic machinery.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2020