Escape route

June 24, 2011


The recent exodus of Syrians into Turkey following the massive unrest in Syria seems to be just the beginning in a wave of refugees within the Arab region. A hotbed of revolutionary activity, the Middle East is desperately trying to fight back after decades of abuse at the hands of its dictatorial leaders.

Pakistan is probably not about to follow that path of resistance anytime soon. That is already the subject of many raging debates. The revolution that is taking place though is more in the form of a mass exodus from the country. Westward migration was always the preferred form of improvement for the well-off in Pakistan, since it was primarily only they who could afford to migrate.

But since early this year, following the backlash against support to repealing the blasphemy law and more recently, the OBL takedown, the rush towards immigration to countries like Canada and Australia, has seen a massive surge among Pakistanis of various economic backgrounds. This includes those from within Pakistan’s minority Hindu, Christian and Ahmadi communities who are desperately (now more than ever) trying to seek asylum in countries like India and Thailand.

But not everyone can afford to migrate to the West. It takes a great deal of money and time to emigrate abroad, something only a fraction of the population can afford. The waiting time for various countries also varies between two, to an excruciating five years. Other Muslim countries like the UAE and Malaysia, do not encourage immigration and instead allow only residency status, that too conditional on a great deal of fixed financial investment. EU countries, already Islamophobic in many cases, narrowed down their immigration options for South Asian’s a long time ago. Plus, we don’t speak the language. So choices for even the well-off are now more limited.

Ordinary Pakistani’s on the other hand, don’t have any choices at all. Most are not literate, barely make enough to support their families and many don’t even have passports, let alone ever been out of the country. According to a wild guesstimate, that’s probably at least 90 per cent of the total population. And those belonging to the expat labour class in the Middle East are on the verge of being sent home any time their employers choose.

So hypothetically, in the event of a catastrophe that seems to be in the making everyday in Pakistan, where would ordinary Pakistani’s flee to if they had to? Let’s take a look at the options.

To the West, we have Afghanistan. Join the Taliban in one of the world’s most barren and hostile countries anyone? Maybe an option for our own Taliban, but not for the majority, considering we were never very hospitable to the Afghans in their time of need.

A tiny tip of Iran lies South-West across Balochistan. Ideal for those who have been smuggling humans and contrabands for the last few decades, but probably not the best option for the rest of us. They don’t like us very much in Iran anyway. It’s our nukes versus theirs.

To the East, lies India. Any takers? I didn’t think so.

To the North, lies the frigid landscape of the Khunjerab Pass, offering a gateway to our brother-in-arms (for now), China. But they have too many of their own to start with. Plus, we were never very nice to the Chinese engineers. How many have been cold-bloodedly murdered while serving here?

Further North-West, lies Central Asia; never one of our closest allies and themselves mired in a mess of dictatorship and poverty, the region is probably not a good choice, given the limited direct travel routes also fairly harsh and unforgiving. And Uzbek Airways, would have probably suspended its services by then anyway.

And finally to the South, lies the vast open Arabian Sea. The only ones able to navigate that exit, would be our coastal fishermen, who will surely be happy to leave behind anyone who can’t swim, which is most Pakistanis. Besides, the only land across this sea may just be one of the usurpers to begin with, so one would be playing into the hands of the enemy so to speak.

So it seems that Pakistan is literally sandwiched between a rock and a hard place; take your pick.

This diatribe of morbid sarcasm is meant to raise two questions. Firstly, why have we created a situation for ourselves, where we are out of favour with not one, but all of our neighbours? The world beyond is a different story. You can’t keep everyone happy. But at the bare minimum, shouldn’t it be our immediate neighbours we should be amending ties with?

Secondly, how close are Pakistanis’ to considering exit options in case of an emergency? God forbid, we are not a Somalia or Sudan (yet), but simply the fact that matters are getting beyond our control, is enough cause for most of us to start thinking of alternatives, not just for economic reasons, but for security as well.

The truth is, that whatever transpires over the next few years, or maybe even months, most Pakistanis’ will stay in Pakistan, not because they choose to stay, but because they were never given any other option. Domestically, the majority of the population does not have the life skills to survive anywhere else in this fast globalizing age. Internationally, we have scarred ourselves so badly that no one really wants us, not even our refugees.

So for better or for worse (probably the latter), the majority of Pakistanis’ will never be able to escape the madness, unless they risk being trapped in no-man’s land around any one of our borders.

Ideally, their only choice then would be to fight to improve their lives here, but the waters passed under that bridge a long time ago. But whatever, the odds, there is still a choice Pakistanis can make. It’s up to them to choose wisely and choose fast.

Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.