Worldwide, migrant workers are exploited by countries that build entire economies on their backs. Earlier this year, it was revealed by The Guardian that over 6,500 migrant workers (estimate includes Pakistani citizens) have died since the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was awarded to Qatar ten years ago. Amnesty International’s recent report also criticised the situation in Qatar, stating that migrant workers who have been working to build the colossal stadiums for the upcoming 2022 World Cup are abused in many ways, such as being paid below their agreed rates, given substandard accommodation, and made to endure arbitrary confiscation of their passports. Out of over 200 interviewees, every single one said that they had experienced some form of abuse.
In the past few years, millions of Pakistani citizens have emigrated and joined the Pakistani diaspora of nearly 10 million, the 6th largest diaspora in the world. While Pakistanis from all walks of life move abroad to earn a living, most come from marginalised communities and backgrounds, never having traveled before and with little knowledge of local laws and their own legal rights. Migrant workers such as these are the most vulnerable if they are abroad and get into trouble with law enforcement.
Weak regulation of labour migration leaves vulnerable Pakistani citizens living in poverty (a sizeable amount of the population) susceptible to human and drug trafficking as well as forced labour. Migrant workers as well as religious pilgrims are targeted and exploited during the recruitment process, usually through illegally operating intermediaries and sub-agents, as well as through private firms known as overseas employment promoters (OEPS).
These ordinary citizens are often manipulated, threatened or forced into carrying drugs and are immediately arrested upon arrival abroad. Some of them are manipulated using religion and offered the money and resources to perform religious pilgrimage (hajj or umrah), an act regarded extremely highly in Islam and a dream most cannot afford on their own. Most overseas Pakistani citizens reside in Gulf countries, working as labourers, drivers, and technicians, to build a better life abroad and send money home to provide for their families in Pakistan. This results in a huge increase of foreign exchange remittances, which contributes greatly to Pakistan’s economy.
Currently, there are 9,227 Pakistani citizens imprisoned worldwide. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates currently hold the highest number of incarcerated Pakistani citizens
However, if arrested, Pakistani citizens abroad find themselves with virtually no consular support. Their fates are usually left to the discretion of local courts, which do not adhere to international standards of fair trial and due process. Because of the language barrier in foreign countries, these citizens cannot even understand or interact in their own legal proceedings. Pakistani prisoners overseas are also executed for non-lethal crimes such as crimes related to drug offences, and research shows that many of them are deceived, coerced or forced into committing the offence. If a Pakistani citizen is executed abroad, their families usually find out through unofficial sources and bodies are rarely, if ever, returned. Due to the lack of a uniform consular policy, Pakistanis abroad are left vulnerable and without protection.
International Migrants Day, held every year on December 18th, is an excellent opportunity to draw attention to these destitute citizens, who spend decades in prison abroad, while their family and loved ones back in Pakistan suffer hand in hand. Currently, there are 9,227 Pakistani citizens imprisoned worldwide. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates currently hold the highest number of incarcerated Pakistani citizens. In 2020, the number of Pakistanis imprisoned in Saudi Arabia increased from 1,509 in 2015 to 3,248. On the other hand, countries such as Bangladesh have successfully managed to reduce the number of their citizens imprisoned abroad. This requires diplomatic efforts to sign prisoner transfer agreements (PTAs), improving consular assistance and other such endeavours made by the government.
It must be remembered that overseas prisoners are not hardened criminals but ordinary citizens. Targeted and manipulated into international drug trafficking schemes, they are used by powerful entities, then discarded and imprisoned alone in a foreign country. All Pakistani citizens abroad are deserving of support from their government as well as protection from false charges and unfair trials, which lead to wrongful imprisonment and executions. We must do more to protect Pakistanis jailed abroad.
Kazmi is a criminologist interested in international crimes and conflict, criminal justice reform, gender-based violence, and women’s rights. She currently works with Justice Project Pakistan and tweets @mariaskazmi