Young Pakistanis are increasingly inclined to leave their country in the quest for better lives abroad. Empirical evidence suggests that there is a striking surge in young people attempting to emigrate from the country, primarily to settle in affluent Middle Eastern and Western countries. It is hardly surprising that young people in Pakistan feel compelled to move abroad. The country has been marred by crippling economic crises in recent years, but not all those who want to leave Pakistan have economic motives.
The security situation in Pakistan has been precarious for almost two decades. Many who want to move away from Pakistan desire to ensure that they have both physical and economic security, which can translate into sustained prosperity.
What remains most worrisome is that among those who want to leave the country are liberal youngsters who seem to have lost hope in the country owing to sharply rising religious extremism and violence. Many think the problem is irreversible in the near future.
This is a recipe for disaster because Pakistan is losing vibrant future leadership — a leadership that is liberal, progressive, and thus has the capacity to steer the turbulent and failing country in the right direction.
The Growing Pakistani Diaspora
Pakistan has a large diaspora. According to the International Labor Organization, 11 million Pakistanis have moved to countries around the world for overseas employment since 1971.
That number might be a low estimate. Tens of thousands of people try moving abroad illegally every year, too. No one knows exactly how many, but according to estimates around 40,000 attempt illegal passage into Europe alone each year.
Statistics made public by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment reveal that more than 800,000 Pakistanis went abroad to seek better economic prospects just last year. The actual figure is certainly higher as it does not factor in illegal immigration but also misses those on student, family resettlement, and permanent residency visas.
Whether it is legal or not, relocation to another country is generally deemed a success in Pakistan. Considering the fact that the Pakistani passport is ranked as one of the worst in the world, anyone who can move beyond the country’s borders finds a sense of achievement.
For the family, it is a matter of pride. The idea is that someone in the family can break the cycle of economic hardship that they and their ancestors have faced since the country’s independence in 1947. Also, since Middle Eastern and European countries where most Pakistanis move are relatively safe, physical harm can be warded off to a certain degree.
Rapid population growth in the face of Pakistan’s many economic woes means that there will always be more people moving abroad. Around 75 percent of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 35. A third of the population is below the age of 14. The number of people added to the population every year is much higher than the number of economic and employment opportunities available.
But is the exodus all about demographics and the economy, or is there more to it?
How Bright Young People Lost Hope
For a very long time, those in policy corridors thought that the Pakistani diaspora was a great strength for the country. This is true to a certain extent. Pakistan is largely a poor country, and a bigger diaspora means higher remittances. In the last fiscal year, remittances amounted to $31 billion – worryingly, the value of all exports was roughly the same.
But this growing diaspora should no longer be considered a blessing. It reflects not only the failure of the state to provide for its people but also the waning of the unquantifiable yet priceless hopes of the progressive youth. It goes without saying that the progressive youth constitute the future critical mass of any country.
Young people’s hopes vis-à-vis their country hinge on two elements. First, what the country can furnish them with – politically, ideologically, economically, and so on. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the ways in which they can contribute to the growth, development, and prosperity of the country. Pakistan has gone wrong on both fronts.
In the recent years, Pakistan has been bogged down in dramatically rising Islamic fundamentalism coupled with religious extremism and violence. This means not only declining freedoms in general but also a shrinking space for critical thinking.
Thinking minds cannot survive and thrive in such an environment. Young people with the capacity to lift the country often have a critical approach and liberal worldview. It is for this reason that liberal societies, which offer abundant political and socio-cultural as well as religious freedoms, produce good leaders in all domains.
But Pakistan, in the recent years, has been moving in the opposite direction. Religious dogma, radicalization, and religious violence are so commonplace that a thought, comment, or exposition can quickly be deemed blasphemous, thereby guaranteeing harm and possibly death. An extreme manifestation of this is religion-driven mob attacks becoming increasingly widespread in recent years.
The liberal youth might want to mitigate and also eliminate rising radicalization, extremism, and religious violence in the country, but we have not largely seen that. This is because Pakistan seems completely helpless amidst rising religious extremism. A top government official admitted some time ago that “neither the government nor the state is completely ready to fight extremism.” In fact, the state might even be complicit, considering the support it has been extending to extremist organizations.
So, why would someone with a liberal and critical mindset want to stay in such a country, provided there is no possibility for change in sight? Also, if the state and society capitulate to bigotry and hate, how can they contribute to the well-bring and progress of the country?
What Policymakers Should Do
Pakistan’s policy, since its inception, has been to freely allow outward migration. It has been buttressing the country’s fragile economy, after all. But this is hardly a concrete policy, and reflects lack of vision on part of the national leadership.
A few years ago, Pakistan’s then-prime minister was asked about the large number of people wanting to leave the country. “And why don’t they leave, then,” he answered, reflecting the government’s poor understanding of – or unwillingness to reflect on – the reasons behind the growing trend.
But what remains a fact is that more and more people, including potential future leaders, are convinced that they should migrate to other countries. Robust policy discussions should thus be generated on how and why this is happening as well as the degree to which the state will benefit or lose.
More importantly, the state’s efforts ought to be aimed at meeting the expectations and needs of its people. A holistic approach to this needs to be taken. Citizens cannot drive a country from the outside, nor can people who have the opportunity to relocate be expected to stay in a country where both the economy and society are faltering.
It is about time Pakistan understood that extremism and progress do not complement each other. Extremism is incompatible with the sociopolitical and economic realities of the modern world. A state cannot be socio-culturally regressive and achieve durable growth in tandem – what is happening right next door in Afghanistan, and even Iran, is a perfect example.
What the state needs to do, therefore, is pursue a two-fold policy: Set its house in order wherein domestic growth and societal liberalization are nurtured, while progressive young people are cajoled into staying and turning Pakistan’s politics, society, and economy around.