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A less reported detail of the migrant fishing boat disaster in Messenia, where 750 people were abandoned by the Greek Coastguard, is the fact that most of them were Pakistani nationals. As the plight of ultra-rich tourists dominated news bulletins entire villages in Azad Kashmir mourned the loss of a generation of men at sea. What was fictionalized in the Pakistani movie Zinda Bhaag a decade ago came to life: the desperate and life-threatening journey Pakistan’s young men were willing to make for a better life; a reminder that emigration by any means is not a new thing.
Yet the scale of the latest exodus is something rarely seen. Over 800,000 people are said to have left Pakistan last year, a figure likely to be far higher given only those on work visas are counted. According to Frontex data a record number of Pakistani nationals were detected crossing the Mediterranean in 2023 and with legal routes limited, plenty of ‘agents’ offer illegal alternatives to the desperate and the dreamer.
Whilst most of those attempting the alternative routes are labourers and the unskilled, recent figures show how 400,000 highly qualified professionals have also left the country in just six months, a brain drain unprecedented in its history.
The reasons some experts believe are governance issues, high unemployment, and a burgeoning population. Two young professionals working for major banks in the country explain just how the economic conditions impact them.
Nabil, 24, comes from the serenity of a village bordering the Jhelum and Azad Kashmir districts and has just started his career. He already complains that his wage at one of Pakistan’s most recognizable banking institutions “goes hardly anywhere” given the spiralling inflation. This is despite him earning far more than the average monthly salary in Pakistan. And yet the 37 per cent year-on-year inflation rate is the highest the country has faced since 1965 and has – according to Nabil – forced the average Pakistani into “survival mode.”
Jamshed, who is from the livelier setting of Jhelum’s Machine Mohalla, spent years unemployed but is now working for another of the country’s banking behemoths. By day, he looks after the accounts of some of the city’s wealthiest business tycoons, but constantly dreams of looking outside for any progression in his career and life. I suggest they ask for a pay rise. “That’s a one-way ticket out of a job”, they respond, laughing at the absurd suggestion. “There are plenty desperate enough to work for half of what we earn, we are in no position to bargain.”
Imran Khan and the Economic Malaise
Some kind of bargain is the order of the day for Pakistan’s interim government which finally secured a $3 billion IMF loan it hopes will stabilize the economy against the malaise of a balance of payments crisis. The strict conditions imposed by the IMF mean that life for the common people is not likely to get much better. With 2 million potential entrants to the labour force each year just having a job is a precious commodity.
The site of Qadir University, a white building erected on barren land in the Sohawa area of Punjab – seen vividly from the Grand Trunk Road – is a reminder that many both inside and outside of the Country hoped for a new beginning when its patron Imran Khan was elected as Prime Minister just 5 years ago.
The most significant building in Pakistan right now is the centre of a controversy surrounding its trusteeship which saw the National Accountability Bureau arrest Imran Khan on charges of corruption and impose a jail sentence of three years on him is of lesser interest to our host and fellow passengers who argue over its label as an Islamic University. An identity crisis; which its patron Imran Khan also seems to endlessly suffer from.
Western media descriptions of Khan often refer to him as the playboy turned Islamist politician with the Economist magazine calling him “a terrible Prime Minister.” This sentiment ua surprisingly more common among the citizens these days, more so than what a Western-based Pakistani might believe, given the support Khan enjoys from afar and is often shown in polling data.
Domestically it is not difficult to find those who are less enthused about the deposed leader who one Islamabad journalist tells me is “the best Prime Minister for Pakistanis who don’t live in Pakistan.” The mass exodus of Politicians from the Pakistan Thereek-e-Insaf (PTI) after attacks by Khan’s supporters on defence installations across the country suggests that those wanting position and power sensed the change of mood.
The two young bankers typical of the demographic who you would expect to support Khan now show little regard for him and instead with the calm of apolitical professionals explain how “we voted for him but he stopped all the work,” they say. “At least with the last Government, you saw roads, buildings, development of infrastructure. But he has shouted corruption and shut everything down. Life got worse under him, he’s not a leader.”
That’s a view shared by many we encounter, including in Lahore itself where Ghulam curses what “they” (PTI) have done to the city of his birth. A generous host, his religious credentials go beyond the hat and long beard he wears and involves a morning routine of feeding the poor at the city’s famous Data Darbar. And all this before he moves on to meetings around his business interests which include importing clothing from China and selling the odd property to wealthy businessmen in the new Defense Housing Authority.
“I couldn’t care less about any of them, but whoever is in power they should let the development continue,” Ghulam says. “They (PTI) stopped the development in Lahore and our city has gone to the dogs. You guys in the West don’t get it Pakistan needs development and the biggest project we had the CPEC with China his Government screwed that up and it hit our economy hard. That was for Pakistan’s benefit, but he thinks about himself, not Pakistan.”
‘How Do I Get to Britain?’
The old shrine housing the eleventh-century scholar and ascetic Data Sahib Ali Hujwiri Ganj Baksh, widely considered one of the most important figures in South Asian Muslim history, is a buzz with activity as devotees come to seek blessings.
Outside the resplendent mausoleum, the atmosphere teems with desperation as beggars and drug addicts plead for a note. A holy man resting in an unholy place. The city is among the most polluted in the world with its fine particulate count 40 times over the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline value.
Ghulam loves his city, but the greener pastures of Birmingham await him on the promise of a contact. “He (Khan) is not Pakistan’s saviour – no one is.”
There is cleaner air to be found in Pakistan – something Gulzar from his plush village mansion in Gujrat, boasts about. The untapped beauty of Pakistan, which the portly father of four has built a business around, takes tourists to the picturesque landscapes of Naran Kagan and further on to Gilgit-Baltistan where the mountains and lakes are another world from the dusty polluted urban areas of the Punjab.
But despite his obvious enthusiasm for this paradisiacal landscape, he also wants out. Over a four-hour dinner conversation, the most used word is VISA. Almost everyone a UK national meets eventually asks the same question, “How can I get to Britain?”.
It’s not just the UK where they hope to come. Turkey, UAE, Saudi, Greece, Italy, and Spain are all locations considered: in short, anywhere but Pakistan. It wasn’t always like this as professionals, businessmen, the religious and those not so much, all say much the same as my host utters: “If only you had come 5 years ago, things were happening, Pakistan was going places”.
Now it’s the people who want to go places: anywhere but Pakistan.