Saleem S Rizvi
The devastation caused by the massive flooding in Pakistan is one of the most catastrophic human and environmental disasters we have suffered. While the flooding has physically impacted millions in Pakistan, many millions more of them suffer from emotional agony and anguish abroad. Pakistanis living in the US are no exception, especially those Pakistanis who have no legal status in the United States.
Apart from the pain they feel because of the devastation befallen their families, relatives and friends, they also face insecurity and fear of deportation. Even if these Pakistanis wished to return, their country would be unable to take them in because of the horrendous situation it is facing.
Pakistanis living in the US without legal status need to be urgently protected on humanitarian grounds. These Pakistanis should not be facing the fear of deportation and the likelihood of their losing everything they have saved, which could be critical to their stricken families back home. They should be afforded legal protection in the United States currently available under immigration laws. They should be given Temporarily Protected Status (TPS).
By all counts, these Pakistanis are eligible for TPS and should therefore be given temporary legal protection urgently, so that they can focus on sending financial help to the victims of the flooding in Pakistan. Becoming a burden on the victims would be the last thing they would want, which could become unavoidable in many cases, should they be deported.
In the past the US has given such protected status to foreign citizens who were unable to return to their devastated countries in catastrophic situations. The nationals of Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan residing in the United States are beneficiaries of the concessions provided under TPS. Since the law pertaining to such relief already exists, no new legislation is needed to designate Pakistanis for the benefits accorded under TPS.
In 1990, the US Congress established a procedure by which the attorney general may provide TPS to immigrants in the United States who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home countries because of armed conflicts, environment disasters and other extraordinary humanitarian situations.
The procedure was created under the Immigration Act of 1990. But on March 1, 2003, the authority to designate a country for TPS was transferred from the attorney general to the Secretary of Homeland Security. The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions there which temporarily prevent its nationals from returning safely. The same applies in circumstances where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, during a designated period, eligible individuals cannot be deported from the United States. Nor can they be arrested and detained for immigration violations by the Department of Homeland Security. Furthermore, under the act, eligible individuals can obtain a work permit and may apply for travel authorisation. The legal relief of such nature, even though temporary, can be of a tremendous help to people in distress. This is exactly what Pakistanis without legal status in the US need.
It is a matter of deep concern for human rights organisations and Pakistani-Americans that Pakistan has not yet been designated for TPS status. When Haiti was hit by the massive earthquake of Jan 12, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano gave it a TPS country status three days later—on Jan 15.
Such a timely decision is now needed in case of Pakistan because of the sheer scale of the country’s “heart-wrenching” tragedy.
After his emergency trip to the flood-affected areas in Pakistan in August, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon gave this impression of the Pakistani calamity: “...This has been a heart-wrenching day for me. I will never forget the destruction and suffering I have witnessed today. In the past I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.”
Pakistan’s catastrophe is gigantic. Over one million homes have perished in the floods and approximately 20 million people have been displaced. According to UN estimates, an area of over 160,000 square kilometres has been deeply affected as a result of the flooding, more than the combined area affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.
Public health in the flood-affected areas presents a nightmarish scenario — and all this looks like being the tip of the iceberg. There is the danger of widespread outbreaks of gastroenteritis, diarrhoea and skin diseases because of lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. The United Nations recently estimated that millions of Pakistanis are at risk from deadly waterborne diseases. The World Health Organisation says around six million people — over half of them children — face the threat of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and hepatitis.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani economy has been debilitated by the devastation. According to preliminary estimates, only structural damages left by the floods exceed $4 billion. Damages to wheat crops amount to over $500 million. Officials estimate the total economic impact to be as much as $43 billion.
More than 1,400,000 acres of croplands in Punjab and Sindh have been completely destroyed, including 700,000 acres covered by cotton crops, 500,000 acres by rice and sugarcane crops and 300,000 acres of animal fodder.
The impact on the Pakistani textile industry is horrendous because the flooding destroyed at least 2.5 million bales of cotton. The devastation does not end here. The blow to Pakistan’s power infrastructure is equally severe, resulting in extensive damage to 12,000 transmission lines, transformers, feeders and power houses in different flood-hit areas, according to a later report.
A major public safety concern, according to the International Red Cross, is the large number of unexploded mines and artillery shells scattered in low-lying areas, after being flushed downstream by the floods from conflict areas in Kashmir and Waziristan, posing a future risk to returning refugees.
Pakistanis, whether at home or living overseas, have gone through many crises in the past. Their resilience, perseverance, hard work and ability to bounce back from calamities are exemplary, and they stay hopeful and positive in dire times such as these. As for those who are occupying positions of power in Pakistan, only time will tell whether they will really rise to the occasion or abandon the powerless amidst crises. Until now, the signs have not been promising.
The Obama administration deserves credit for understanding the scale of the Pakistani disaster and for moving forward to help. But it is not clear why the TPS designation for Pakistan, which was quickly announced for other countries, is still not forthcoming.
According to some reliable sources, one of the possible causes for the delay might be the reluctance on the part of high-ranking Pakistani officials to raise this issue with American officials. Their aversion to this issue was emphasised when they were confronted by Pakistani journalists at various forums in New York. It was a “Pandora’s box,” they said, which should not be opened!