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May 2, 2019

Passport blues

Opinion

May 2, 2019

Have children, will travel. This appears to be the credo of underprivileged people across the world and through the ages. World history is punctuated by waves of migration due to economic or climatic reasons. The climate change now underway is aggravating economic conditions in many parts of the world, exacerbating migration towards wealthier regions.

President Trump’s obsession with building a mighty wall along the US-Mexico border, the UK straining to get away from free borders with EU countries, and the EU’s persistent efforts to stem the tide of immigrants from Africa and Asia are visible signs of how nations want to tighten the arrival of the poor of the world. Human trafficking, a modern variation of the slave trade, is a multi-billion dollar business, involving desperate poor youth, immigration officials and powerful mafias. It is thought to be one of the fastest-growing activities of transnational criminal organizations.

Human trafficking is described as trade in people, especially women and children, and does not necessarily involve the movement of a person from one place to another. Human trafficking within the country is prevalent but no serious work has taken place to document the practice. As for Pakistanis trafficked abroad, the National Commission of Human Rights has estimated the number of Pakistanis deported from foreign countries at 80,000.

A large number of visitors entering wealthier countries legally overstay the authorized period and work underground to support families back home. Pakistan has been identified as one of the major sources of human trafficking as well as a country of origin of a large number of those overstaying beyond their authorized period of visit. There is also a rising trend of luring young women for trafficking through legal channels.

It may be recalled that in the early decades after Independence, passports for travel abroad were only issued to the ‘gentry’. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who after having failed to deliver ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ to the people, and witnessing the Gulf States’ oil bonanza opening up hundreds of thousands of new jobs, had ordered issuance of passports to all.

According to official statistics, 7.6 million Pakistanis live abroad, with a majority of 4 million residing in the oil-producing Gulf States. Their second largest concentration is in the UK with 1.5 million Pakistan origin people. The US accounts for half a million and Canada a quarter million Pakistanis. Large Pakistani communities are settled in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands and Greece. Australia, Thailand and Norway also have significant numbers of Pakistanis, with around a hundred thousand each. All told, they repatriate over $20 billion to Pakistan every year, providing a vital source of foreign exchange earnings.

The success stories of Pakistanis abroad and the demonstration of wealth by their families back home enticed a lot many to try to go abroad by both legal and illegal means. The number of those overstaying in foreign countries and thus becoming illegal visitors runs into hundreds of thousands. Pakistan had to enter into readmission agreements with the UK and the European Union to repatriate those staying illegally.

However, no such agreement exists with the US, which continues to deport illegal foreign nationals and imposes visa sanctions on countries which fail to cooperate fully in accepting their nationals. Pakistan finally ran out of luck as it has now made it to the list of ten countries placed under visa sanctions by the US Homeland Security Department. The implementation of restrictive visa measures is left to the US State Department and it is feared that thousands of Pakistanis – especially students – may suffer in the process.

As it is, the green passport is not very popular internationally. In fact, it is now ranked almost at the bottom of the world list of passports which translates into enormous difficulties in obtaining visas for travel abroad. That has made it difficult for the Pakistanis to proceed abroad for higher studies, business or leisure. The situation worsened after 9/11 when Pakistan passport-holders were viewed with greater suspicion even after it had joined the US-led 'war on terror'. The US and its European partners followed a tougher policy of deporting illegal Pakistanis on their territory.

The Pak-EU Readmission Agreement only partially eased the difficulties of Pakistan nationals applying for the common Schengen visa. Statistics made available by Schengen visa info in Brussels reveal that 80,807 Pakistanis applied for visa in 2018, representing a 10 percent rise compared to the previous year. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and France – which happen to have the largest number of Pakistani settlers – received the bulk of the visa requests. Although the number cited above is only a fraction of the over 16 million applications for Schengen visa worldwide, that does not alleviate anxiety of the Pakistan passport-holders as one third of the applicants were turned down.

Pakistan’s fast-growing population on the one hand and its economic slowdown on the other can only lead to more desperate efforts by young Pakistanis to move abroad by legal or illegal means. This situation provides more opportunities to human traffickers for trapping even larger numbers of our nationals, including women, to be trapped in dangerous and inhumane conditions. The ‘host’ countries too will be adopting more stringent conditions in the grant of visas and the deportation of illegal Pakistanis. The latest US measure shows that hesitation in accepting deportees can lead to even bigger problems.

It is now time for more determined and concerted efforts to curb human trafficking on both the domestic and international fronts.

Email: [email protected]

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