‘Exodus’ from Pakistan

By Nasra M. Shah
Published in Business Recorder on September 22, 2023

Recent times have witnessed much hype around the whole phenomenon of mass emigration -or as some like to term it the ‘brain drain’ – from Pakistan as we are told that more and more of our skilled professionals are leaving the country while others are in the process of doing so.

Politicians, journalists, and the general public continuously lament the outflow of 832,339 Pakistanis in 2022, presumably comprising an exceptionally high number of professionals and high-skilled workers.

This outflow is often compared to the previous two years, 2020-21, when the number of out-migrants was less than 300,000. Different commentators blame the previous or the current governments for this “massive” outflow in 2022.

While popular opinion seems to suggest that Pakistan is currently undergoing a mass exodus, the reality may not present such a bleak picture.

There is no denying the fact that uncertainty on both the political and economic fronts has certainly been on the rise and we are indeed living in testing times. However, is the current wave of emigration really that unparalleled and unprecedented as the popular opinion seems to suggest?

A closer look at the trends and composition of migration from Pakistan is necessary to accurately contextualize and understand the recent upturn in 2022. Four facts should be considered. First, the data on migration from Pakistan, collected and reported by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE), includes only those migrants who register with the various protectorates and are proceeding overseas for work.

These numbers do not include dependents, students, or other types of migrants who are not obligated to register with the BEOE. Irregular migrants are also not included. Furthermore, about 90 % of these workers proceed to the Gulf countries.

Second, while comparing 2022 with the previous two years it must be remembered that migrant outflows were seriously halted in 2020-21 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments across the world responded to the Pandemic by closing their borders and the administrative machinery responsible for regulating migration came to a halt in sending as well as receiving countries. Business closures in the host countries greatly reduced the demand for foreign workers. Once conditions returned to normal, a return to higher outflows was expected.

Third, worker migration from Pakistan is not a new phenomenon and is typified by yearly fluctuations since it started increasing in the 1970s, owing to the heightened demand in the oil-rich Gulf countries.

The yearly fluctuations continued to be witnessed during the last decade, and the average number of out-migrants was 612,409 in 2010-2021. However, the number had reached 946,571 in 2015, before declining to 839,553 in 2016. Thus, past years have seen a higher outflow of workers than witnessed in 2022, which can therefore not be considered unprecedented.

Four, popular observation claims that a majority of the migrant workers in 2022 were highly skilled such as doctors and engineers. This assumption is incorrect since it contradicts the occupational composition of worker migration.

Roughly, half of all out-migrants have consistently comprised of unskilled and semi-skilled workers during the last several decades. Furthermore, less than 10 % of all workers have been categorized as highly qualified and highly skilled.

Considering doctors and engineers, a total of 8557 comprising these groups (1 % of the total) left in 2022. No major spike in the number of outflows in these categories is visible during the last decade.

The single largest category of migrant workers consists of laborers recorded as 357,995 followed by drivers numbering 232,120. Thus the hype about the brain drain from Pakistan is really based on an incomplete and incorrect interpretation of the data.

Prior to the misplaced alarm about the apparent brain drain, worker migration had been recognized as a life-saver for the country and a major contributor to the economy resulting from the remittances sent home by the temporary migrant workers, as well as the permanently settled Pakistani diaspora.

The predominant policy of the government still centers around encouraging the outflow of Pakistani workers to additional destinations beyond the Gulf countries as well as devise mechanisms to improve the skill level of these potential workers.

A more alarming issue not addressed by the above debate relates to those migrants not covered by the BEOE, aiming to go overseas through irregular channels with the help of migrant traffickers.

It is estimated that about 300,000 irregular migrants leave the country every year and the number may be rising. Some of these migrants meet a horrifying end to their lives, including the latest boat incident and drowning of 300 Pakistanis off the coast of Greece in June 2023.

It is thus important that overseas migration is understood and contextualized accurately to devise the best policies that would optimally benefit the country as well as the migrants.

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