Since times immemorial, human beings have been migrating to other lands for a variety of reasons, including political upheavals, social inequalities, wars and to secure better economic future for themselves and their families, known as economic migration.

The phenomenon of economic migration is mainly attributable to limited or non-existent opportunities for economic advancement and, consequently, a higher rate of unemployment in their own countries. This migration usually takes place from less developed countries to the more affluent ones. The post-World War II era has witnessed economic migration at an unprecedented level with the result that many countries of the developed world, including the USA, UK and EU, and some in the Middle East, have turned into multiracial societies. The immigrants are not only playing a significant role in the economic development of their adopted countries, but also contributing to their home country.

While migration to the US, UK and European countries by Pakistanis materialised through family bonds, students going abroad for higher education and settling there or through employment opportunities offered by multinational industrial concerns, the UN and other international bodies, the biggest exodus of workers to the Middle Eastern countries and other emerging economies was the result of the government’s effort in the 70s. The first step taken in this regard was to confer the right of securing passport on every citizen of Pakistan that hitherto was a prerogative of the elite. This was followed by the move to facilitate employment of millions of Pakistani workers in the job markets of Middle Eastern nations.

Today, remittances hover around $13-14 billion that account for almost 7 percent of the GDP and nearly 60 percent of the total tax revenue generated in Pakistan. Thus, foreign remittances apart from being the mainstay of Pakistani economy are subsidising the social security net in the country. These remittances pay for rents, medicines, education and other needs of the low-income household, who are unlikely to receive any meaningful support from the government. The total spending on social security nets by the federal government is in the vicinity of $5.2 billion. It is estimated that almost 600,000 Pakistanis go abroad every year for employment through the recruiting and employment agencies licensed by the government and the Overseas Employment Corporation (OEC) established in the public sector in 1976.

That is, of course, the brighter facade of the phenomenon of economic migration. There is another side to it - a much darker and the most painful aspect of the lure and craze for seeking jobs abroad. Presently, there are 1,500 recruiting agencies in the country, mostly owned and patronised by the politicians and bureaucrats. Although these agencies get commission from the employers on every individual, yet they charge exorbitant amounts from the selected persons. The poor souls have to sell their valuables and whatever possession that they have to meet their demands.

The most sordid fallout of the phenomenon of economic migration is the emergence of the most detestable pursuit of human trafficking. The fraudsters and unscrupulous elements within the society have destroyed many families by taking huge sums of money for facilitating their potential bread earners to go to European and other countries, and vanishing with the accumulated money. In certain cases, the job seekers die while on their way to foreign lands through illegal means. And if they manage to reach their destinations, most of them have had to bear the brunt of law.

Unfortunately, no effective measures have been adopted to deal with the illegal practices of employment promoters and human traffickers. Successive governments showed criminal apathy to the plight of the poor masses and even the media has not given much attention to this subject. However, the issue can be effectively tackled by educating the masses about the dangers of relying on unscrupulous and unauthorised elements for seeking jobs abroad. For this, the media needs to highlight the issue by giving it due attention.

In addition, the government must cancel the licences of all the recruiting agencies in the private sector and entrust the responsibility of sending Pakistanis to the international job markets through the OEC.

It is time to focus attention on the matter and promote the well being of the poor masses, who are victims of the inhuman practices that also tarnishes Pakistan’s image. That will require strengthening of the OEC on a priority basis.

The issue needs to be agitated persistently by NGOs, members of the civil society and the media until corrective measures are taken by the government. Since the expatriates are bringing valuable foreign exchange to the country, it is obligatory on the government to protect the would-be job seekers from the clutches of those who are exploiting the circumstances to their advantage at the people’s expense.

The writer is a freelance columnist.