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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.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

Nasra M. Shah

The writer is a Professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics


Comments are closed.

KU Sep 22, 2023 11:28am
It is a sad state of affairs that citizens have to leave their homeland to survive in the future. Where are the heroes of politics and democracy who were supposed to protect and deliver welfare to their voters? Probably languishing in their illegal wealth and thinking, ''Pakistan is the best place to make illegal money if you have the right kind of friends''. Added to these woes is the abetment of US and EU leaders who have encouraged the corrupt leaders to thrive in the name of democracy.
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Abdul sheikh Sep 22, 2023 11:46am
If you can’t make here you can’t make anywhere.
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Tigrs Sep 22, 2023 12:03pm
No one has invested in future of Pakistan...educating the youth.
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EQ Sep 22, 2023 12:54pm
Many people from our company, who are highly skilled, have gone abroad due to the political and economic situation. Every one is desperate to go even at low salaries abroad. This time the situation is much more grimmer than in the past few decades.
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John Sep 23, 2023 02:49pm
"While popular opinion seems to suggest that Pakistan is currently undergoing a mass exodus, the reality may not present such a bleak picture. " Hogwash! Most data are fake and manufactured and do not represent reality! The reality is much painful! To find out reality just find out how many Pakistanis are stranded in Iran, Turkey, Libya and Greece on their way to many are being drowned in high many are being eaten up by wild animals in the jungles of central America on their way to USA... For past 76 years no one thought about educating and investing in the youth of the country! They have no opportunities! Period! Country has no intellectual capital to progress like other nations in the region! Quota system, nepotism, class-divides, diploma mill based education, and the corrupt to the bone ruling elite have made the future bleak for the youth of the country! And that is reality! Time to wake up for generals before its too late!
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AZ Sep 23, 2023 03:04pm
@EQ, Looks like a sponsored narrative, author does not know what she is talking about.
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AZ Sep 23, 2023 04:39pm
@John, But generals are too busy trying to prevent IK from coming to power and supporting crooks to hide their own mega corruption.
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SianSumroo Sep 24, 2023 07:36am
@John, Regarding fake data...when the corrupt ruling elite keeps the largest economic city as hostage by not correctly counting its inhabitants no real change will ever take place as long as Waderas and generals are calling the shots.
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Awami Sep 24, 2023 10:18am
People are born at a place by chance. If it is possible to have reasonable life people live there permanently. But for any reason things are not good, people move to better places. People vote by their feet and move to better places. No body has right to worry about emigration , it is good and natural. Without emigration country can explode due to unemployment and resentment. Also more mentally energetic people emigrate , they can be more resentful. There leaving reduces temperature. It is also true if large energetic and educated people leave it can finally IMPLODE. But imploding is far better than exploding.
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Awami Sep 24, 2023 10:20am
@John, You say it all.
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