Pakistani missions in the Gulf must rise to the repatriation challenge
Javed Hafeez
About seven million Pakistanis live and work abroad, a bulk of them in the Gulf countries. COVID-19 has hit businesses and industries, forcing them to reduce their workforce around the globe. Even corporate businesses have been obliged to scale down work and review their salaries.
Most Pakistani workers in GCC countries work in the construction and transportation sectors. Many construction companies lodge their workers in makeshift camps where the incidence of coronavirus has been on the higher side. Suspension of international flights has complicated the situation further. While many have already been repatriated via special flights, thousands more await departure.
Pakistani diplomatic missions in the Gulf face a formidable challenge. Redundant workers are edgy and want to return home at the earliest possible. Diplomatic missions in the GCC have to perform the unusual task of managing a large redundant work force, helping the sick among them and organize a smooth repatriation.
Expat Pakistani workers have already staged a demonstration outside the Consulate General of Pakistan in Dubai. When the Consul General tried to assure them of all material help, they said they were not interested in rations but wanted a quick return home.
I witnessed a similar situation, albeit at a smaller scale, in Riyadh in 1990. After Saddam’s forces overran Kuwait, about 10,000 Pakistanis took refuge in Saudi Arabia. The ambassador of Pakistan in Riyadh called a senior officer from the consulate general in Jeddah and gave him the exclusive charge of boarding and lodging of refugees and their repatriation to Pakistan. Volunteers from the Pakistani community were tasked to prepare lists of each and every person, with full details. A number of Pakistani schools were vacated for lodging purposes and food was outsourced to Pakistani restaurants. Local community provided makeshift bedding. The repatriation operation was completed within a couple of weeks through special PIA flights.
The problem being faced by Pakistani missions now is, of course, much larger. Right now, about 100,000 Pakistani citizens are awaiting repatriation from GCC countries. Certainly, they must have got themselves registered with the missions. While our missions in the Gulf have sufficient amounts in the Community Welfare Fund, they may need extra personnel to organize the big task. There are many officers in Pakistan who have worked in the Arab Gulf countries as Community Welfare Attaches. Some of them could be sent immediately to the cities with a greater concentration of Pakistanis. The heads of mission would continue to be overall in-charge as officers on temporary duty cannot have access to local authorities.
There are a host of issues involved here. All pending accounts of workers have to be settled with the employers before their departure. The destitute among them, some out of jobs for more than two months now, will need immediate financial support which diplomatic missions and consular posts can provide. Lodging could be provided in Pakistani schools for those who may have lost shelter. Those who are COVID-19 positive have to be isolated until they recover. They must not be allowed to travel to Pakistan till they are medically cleared.
Chartered flights have to be arranged through the national carrier and other airlines. Families and the most destitute workers must be sent home first. All others should be repatriated in an organized manner, in accordance with the date of their registration with the mission. Extraordinary problems demand out of the box decision making and round-the-clock vigilance. Pakistan’s foreign ministry and its missions abroad are not short of capable officers to meet this challenge. Additional personnel can be deputed by the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis.
Pakistanis returning home would be, in most cases, coming with some savings and skills. They should be productively rehabilitated within Pakistan’s economy. The government should advise them about investment opportunities. If properly utilized, their capital and skills could give vital support to an economy suffering from the internal and external effects of the coronavirus. A large number of small businesses could be started with the additional capital expected to come with returning expatriates. With Pakistan’s economy already in recession, the country needs additional investments for recovery. If the matter is not handled with prudence, the number of unemployed people in Pakistan will increase with possible political and social consequences.
Phases of adversity are often followed by economic recovery and better times. Pakistan’s government should organize training workshops for its returnees. Their skills could be improved and multiplied. When the recovery phase starts in the Gulf region, some of these could go back and claim better remuneration. But right now, the focus must remain on their early and smooth repatriation home.