Nov 10, 2009

$1 billion a month

By Tayyab Siddiqui

The critical economic situation through which Pakistan is currently passing has placed expatriate Pakistanis in the spotlight. Their remittances are now the only available and reliable source on which the country can depend. The IMF loan, with its stringent conditionalities, is no longer an acceptable choice. The Kerry–Lugar Bill, which will provide 1.5 billion in assistance, is also in limbo. The emotional outbursts at all levels have put a question mark on its availability too.

The Friends of Democratic Pakistan pledged $5.13 billion in a Tokyo meeting on April 17, but this amount is also uncertain. Nearly seven months later, not a penny has been remitted by any members of this group, making the financial crisis more acute and alarming. The external debt has crossed $50 billion. The State Bank estimates only a growth rate of 2.5 percent due to revenue shortfall and excessive domestic borrowing.

The only silver lining in this dark horizon is the continuing remittances by the 5.5 million Pakistanis working abroad, mostly in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. These remittances have now reached almost $1 billion per month. The government, in desperation, is invoking the overseas Pakistanis' patriotism to remit the maximum amount through banking channels.

The situation raises some disturbing questions. What have the current or previous governments done for these expatriate Pakistanis? In any civilised society, the relations between the government and citizenry is based on an unstated covenant or social contract whereby the government assumes responsibility for the protection of the person, honour and property of those governed, who in turn, pledge their loyalty to the country and fidelity to its laws. The observance of mutual obligations provides the bedrock of the state structure and ensures its survival and security.

It is no secret that Pakistanis working abroad are living in the most inhospitable environments. They have no job security or personal comfort. They are entirely at the mercy of their employers and have few rights. In the country, these Pakistanis become victim to the mafia of human traffickers; abroad, they are totally dependent on the whims of their employer. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror have made Pakistanis objects of suspicion and a target of humiliation and intimidation with no avenue, national or international, to turn for justice. Recent statistics released by the government show the enormity of the problems, misery and agony that most Pakistani live through. Parliament was recently informed that over the last two years, 115,762 Pakistanis have been deported and 6,337 Pakistani are languishing in alien jails. There are 600 Pakistanis in Indian jails, most of them having completed their prison terms and awaiting their return to Pakistan.

It is about time that the government wakes up to its responsibilities and adopts a comprehensive strategy to extend legal and financial assistance to the aggrieved nationals, and demand a full report on legal processes and seek intervention with the countries concerned. The government must enter into an agreement with the host countries on terms of employment and the social and health facilities admissible under the ILO convention. The unfortunates who fell foul of the law of the land should not be abandoned. Pakistan must insist on full disclosure of the alleged crimes committed and also provide them consular access to its embassies. To look after the interest of these overseas Pakistanis, the government has set up a couple of organisations, such as the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation and Overseas Employment Corporation. However, their performance has been far from satisfactory. They need to be revamped and given a wider mandate and authority on issues dealing with the welfare of Pakistanis abroad.

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