Blurb: Report highlights systemic issues with recruitment regimes that land thousands of Pakistanis in jails abroad
ISLAMABAD, 23 APRIL 2019: The weak regulation of labour migration in Pakistan leaves thousands of mostly low-wage Pakistani male workers vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour, ill-treatment in detention overseas, and even the risk of death, finds a recent report by Justice Project Pakistan. The urgency of the matter is amplified by its magnitude: there are close to 11,000 Pakistanis languishing in foreign jails, with 3,309 in jails in Saudi Arabia alone.
Titled “Through the Cracks: The Exploitation of Pakistani Migrant Workers in the Gulf Recruitment Regime”, the report launched in Islamabad on Tuesday. It is based on interviews of family members of Pakistani nationals imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on drug-related charges, former detainees, and individuals representing Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs).
KEY POINTS “THROUGH THE CRACKS” THE EXPLOITATION OF MIGRANT WORKERS IN THE GULF RECRUITMENT REGIME
- Over 1.5 million Pakistanis have left the country for work in the last three years, joining the country’s estimated 10 million diasporas. Benefits for Pakistan include one of the highest levels of remittances in the world. However, the regulation of labour migration remains weak, promoting human trafficking, forced labour, ill-treatment in detention overseas and even risk of death.
- There are close to 11,000 Pakistanis languishing in foreign jails, with 3,309 in jails in Saudi Arabia alone. The frequent criminalization and commodification of Pakistani migrant workers points towards alarming problems with the way these workers are recruited, the importance that is attached to their safety abroad, and the marked indifference towards their plight in jails abroad.
- Although a comprehensive legislative framework and public institutions are in place, the weakness lies in their implementation and monitoring. Government-backed channels (Overseas Employment Corporation – OEC) are largely seen as incapable of providing support. Thus, practically the totality of migrants resort to private Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs).
- Authorised OEPs and the OEC have limited outreach in rural areas. Subsequently, the recruitment of semi-skilled or unskilled workers from remote areas is delegated to unlicensed persons with no capacity to grant official guarantees to potential migrants.
- The utilisation of these unregistered agents appears to be the only accessible means to keep the flow of remittances steady and tackle unemployment at home.
- The predominant method of migration to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from Pakistan is thus easier to understand as an informal “network building” process, which – due to its unofficial nature – is difficult to monitor and regulate.
- Although Pakistan’s law sets out a clear and mandatory process for labour migration, these steps are easy to avoid. A number of migrants use Direct or Process visas (also known as Azad Visas), which can be bought and sold in the “migration market”. Unlike the traditional Kafala system visa, Azad Visa promises job mobility, and freedom under the sponsorship of a generous employer. It enables a migrant to illegally do multiple jobs and thus obtain multiple streams of income, making it a more attractive option than a regular visa.
- The susceptibility of low-wage migrant workers to trafficking, coupled with insufficient checks and balances on the way recruitment agencies operate, increases their vulnerability – often making them pawns in international narcotics smuggling rings.
- Moreover, stringent laws in the GCC on narcotics smuggling and the absence of adequate grievance mechanisms for workers means coerced drug mules are often criminalized without due process.
- Treating victims of human trafficking as perpetrators of drug trafficking crimes, when they have been coerced into committing them, has significant adverse human rights impacts.
In 2014, Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) filed a petition in the Lahore High Court on behalf of ten families that represent 10 men who were sentenced to death on drug-related offenses in Saudi Arabia, 8 of whom have already been executed. All 10 men were deceived by fraudulent actors.
It identifies key issues that plague the recruitment regime for low-wage migrant workers in Pakistan: the illegal use of Azad Visas, the lack of attendance at pre-departure briefings, and the illegal use of subagents who exploit underprivileged and vulnerable individuals. The frequent criminalization and commodification of Pakistani migrant workers point towards alarming problems with the way these workers are recruited, the importance that is attached to their safety abroad, and the marked indifference towards their plight in foreign jails.
The report also documents loopholes within the recruitment regime. These gaps are exploited by unauthorized intermediaries who operate, illegally, alongside private firms known as Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs) that are responsible for the recruitment of workers for jobs overseas.
Pakistani law prohibits the use of unauthorized intermediaries. But in practice, these prohibitions are poorly enforced, and unregistered subagents remain the critical intermediary between prospective workers and employers overseas. This is especially the case for individuals from rural areas who account for a significant portion of all labour migration from Pakistan. This means the first contact many individuals have with an “agent” is actually with an unlicensed individual or company operating outside the system that is supposed to regulate labour migration from Pakistan.
A number of migrants use Direct or Process visas (also known as Azad Visas), which can be bought and sold in the unregulated “migration market”, to travel to the Gulf. With direct visas, there is less oversight, no need for a Foreign Service Agreement, or even a contract with the employer.
The susceptibility of low-wage migrant workers to trafficking, coupled with insufficient checks and balances on the way recruitment agencies operate, increases their vulnerability, often turning them into pawns in international narcotics smuggling rings.
The report highlights how various government actors fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect vulnerable migrant workers before, during, and after they are incarcerated. It also urges the government to increase oversight over procedures of recruitment as well as ensure accountability for licensed OEPs. Individuals deceived and coerced into trafficking drugs must be protected, not prosecuted, and provided with the necessary consular assistance.
Executive Director, Justice Project Pakistan, Sarah Belal said: “Treating the victims of human trafficking as perpetrators of crimes, even though they have been coerced into committing them, has significant adverse human rights impacts. By effectively ignoring the reality of
migrant exploitation, government authorities in Pakistan and the GCC exacerbate the risk of further human trafficking and fail to target the individuals and groups actually responsible for these abuses in the first place. There is a need for Pakistani authorities to recognize their responsibility as an origin country and the impact of an effective policy on its people.”
A senior leader of Pakistan People’s Party and former Senator Farhatullah Babar gave the keynote at the event and highlighted the need for data compilation on this subject. “I have been a migrant worker myself and have witnessed these issues both as a worker and then as a parliamentarian. These workers are our valuable assets and we must understand their plight. It is essential to emphasize the illegality of the operations of subagents, the lack of accurate translation during trials and the importance of the transfer of prisoners to their native countries, Pakistan must keep the issues of migrant workers at the top of its agenda,” said the former Senator.
Member of the National Assembly, Andleeb Abbas said, “The issue of migrant workers imprisoned abroad is among the top priority items for the government. In their recent visit to Iran, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari discussed the transfer of several Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran jails to serve their sentences in Pakistan. We invite organizations like JPP to work with us to draft and implement laws that will benefit Pakistani migrant workers around the world.”
MNA Abbas also ensured that the 2,107 prisoners that Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman promised to release will come back to the country and the Pakistani government is actively working on the logistics of the return.
Member of the Senate Committee on Overseas Pakistanis, Sassui Palijo said, “The issue of migrant workers and Azad Visas is very serious and has come under discussion in the committee. It has also been raised in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. We have discussed the lack of support from the consulate to the prisoners in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries in committee meetings and are cognizant of the plight of these people. We are working to ensure efforts are being made on the legislation front and the implementation of the said legislation.”
JPP is a legal action non-governmental organization that represents the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners at home and abroad. In recognition of JPP’s work, in December 2016, it received the National Human Rights Award presented by the President of Pakistan.