Escape and helplessness

Published June 26, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE travesty of hundreds of Pakistani and other lives lost in the sinking of a migrant boat near Greece puts several flaws into sharp perspective. It shows the hypocrisy of European governments, who pay lip service to unfettered globalisation and the need to uphold universal human rights but adopt inhumane border practices. It shows the unequal structure of the world economy, which has enriched a small number of countries and created monopolies over who can have a better life at the expense of others. It shows the impunity with which human traffickers operate as they profit off the aspiration and desperation of young people across the developing world. And it shows the callous failings of states, such as Pakistan, in creating domestic circumstances that force so many to seek better lives abroad at unimaginable levels of personal risk.

As a response to the tragedy, the government of Pakistan is focusing on the human trafficking aspect, turning it into a rule of law issue. This framing probably sits well with European authorities since it bypasses the issue of their border practices, and their broader complicity in global inequality. It also makes sense at a perverse level domestically, because the state cannot admit that it has failed its citizens at such a level that hundreds willingly risk their lives for a chance at working (often as part of the underclass) in some European city.

The issue of migration — whether legal or illegal — and the push factors that compel people to leave Pakistan are more frequent topics of conversation these days. Every day, a set of stats about the number of credentialled and uncredentialled Pakistanis leaving the country comes into circulation. The uptick these days is largely due to a precarious, high-inflation economy along with coercive and unstable politics. While the overall numbers may be small, the trend among highly educated Pakistanis in particular is becoming clearer. There are days when it seems everyone is looking for a way out.

Migration is not a new phenomenon, even if it has become a subject more frequently mentioned these days. For the better part of four decades, migration has served as a lifeline for the rural lower/middle classes in Punjab and KP, helping create pockets of subsistence and prosperity through remittances. The attraction of seeing a family in your village or town upgrading their lives because some members found a way out of the country is immense. It is exactly this desire for prosperity and mobility that traffickers knowingly exploit.

We are in a situation where no one has anything to offer when it comes to a larger cultural and political vision of where the country is heading.

Economic compulsions and the desire for greater mobility are central to how we understand the demand for migration. When people across the income and educational spectrum express a desire to leave, they are also communicating an assessment of the country’s future. They do not think that things are going to improve enough in the next few years for them to stay on. So it’s not just a judgement on how bad things are right now, but also how unlikely it is for things to be better in the future.

The prospects of earning more and getting a better quality of life abroad suggest a rational trade-off. But there are a range of social intangibles that are being willingly given up in this trade-off as well. These include proximity to family, friends and community, and the comfort of being in a culturally familiar context on matters of faith, language and norms and values. A desire to migrate means that economic gains trump all of these as well.

It also means that the prospect of economic gain, at severe personal risk in many instances, and pessimism about the future, overrides any immediate cultural affinity with the country. This is perhaps the issue that the state has shown the greatest blindness towards. Decision-makers can talk about their deeds in government and their efforts at improving the economy. But we are in a situation where no one has anything to offer when it comes to a larger cultural and political vision of where the country is heading. Empty talk of prosperity at some unspecified date along is never going to be enough. People need to feel like citizens with voice, rights, and stakes in the country as well. This is especially important in moments of economic hardship because it helps to imagine a shared and better future.

The cultivation of a basic sentiment that binds people to their society is something that the Pakistani state has struggled with since inception. Faced with alternative conceptions (ethnicity, language, caste, or tribe) of community, it has frequently resorted to violence and suppression, rather than providing inclusive alternatives. The events of the past few months have brought this out sharply once more, with crackdowns and suspension of civil rights accompanying callous intra-elite politics. The idea of building a life in a village or a city surely has to be anchored in the feeling of being a part of something bigger and better, beyond just an accident of birth. But as in the past, it seems another generation of citizens will go through life without experiencing this.

Inclusive politics, sentiments of attachment to the community, or a sense of belonging to a country are not going to end migration, legal or illegal. Economic factors are a much bigger determinant of people leaving the country and an economy that provides for everyone is the first thing that the government should focus on. But the cultural aspect of belonging and detachment cannot be ignored either. The despair and listlessness that characterise so many conversations around migration is alarming, not just because it forces thousands to take unnecessary risks and uproot themselves, but because the millions who simply can’t get up and leave are left feeling even more helpless.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2023

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