Opting out – 02 Mar 2023

More and more young Pakistanis are opting to leave the country, rather than face a situation where political instability has brought economic crisis and the future is uncertain. According to the Bureau of Emigration, in 2022 at least 765,000 people, most of them young and many of them highly qualified doctors, engineers or information technology experts chose to leave the country rather than live in a situation of perpetual chaos.

The data has been collected from travel agents, educational institutions and the Bureau’s own mechanisms to gauge how many leave the country legally. Of course, there are many less educated people who may have left through illegal means.

The number is the highest immigration level since 2019, when 625,000 young people left the country. These figures fell in the years that followed 2020 and 22,021 but grew to new levels in 2022. We can all understand why. As most Pakistanis know, Pakistan is already in a situation of virtual default. According to economists like Dr Atif Mian, the country has, in fact, already defaulted and therefore must turn to the IMF. In addition to this, we have a situation where terrorism is rampant and people are simply afraid for their lives.

Pakistan turns out a large number of engineering, medical infotech and graduates in other subjects each year and the fact that they are choosing to leave the country means the country is deprived of its brightest minds and people who could perhaps bring about change. Their choice is easy to understand and in many cases, pressure comes from families on young graduates to try and find jobs overseas so that they do not come back to a situation in which few people have faith in the future and worry about what it will bring. This, then, is what we have done to our nation. The situation is far bleaker than that of other South Asian countries and many of the Pakistanis going abroad have opted to take up positions in the UAE and parts of the Middle East or countries such as Turkiye and Romania. Indeed, in some cases entire families with their children have emigrated to Turkiye in the belief that this will give their children greater opportunity and themselves greater stability.

Yet in spite of these very clear indications of a disaster in terms of the social and political health of the country as well as the prospects of the future, our political parties do very little to bring in the stability that is so badly needed. It can be argued that the chief culprit for this is the PTI with its refusal to talk to other parties or to stay away from disrupting tactics at a time when Pakistan is in an economic crisis. People naturally remain concerned about their savings and whether they are safe in a country which has been so badly managed for nearly all the years of its existence, that it has reached this point in its history.

It is worth noting that young people themselves are often eager to serve their country, no matter what the conditions. A number of graduates from top institutions, including those in the US or Britain, have decided that they wish to set up startups which can offer people jobs or even run soup kitchens in areas where people are destitute or in need of any kind of relief that can be offered to them after the floods devastated Sindh in particular. The sacrifice of these people in their twenties, or perhaps a few years beyond this of course has to be commended. But can we really blame those who wish to get away and start life elsewhere? No, we cannot. The situation is so unstable that very few feel confident about building futures within Pakistan.

This is perhaps especially true for young women. The number of cases of rape and gang-rape which occur each day and the high profile of some of these cases which have occurred in the very midst of large cities, such as the incident in the F-9 Park in Islamabad, as well as the victim blaming which follows, makes them even less certain that they wish to return at all. Many seek the very basic freedoms of life, such as the right to go out as they please and to dress as they choose. In many countries, including Muslim nations, this is perfectly possible. Our interpretation of our religion and culture has left us held back in a vortex which essentially takes us back into a medieval age.

The results are now before us. More and more young people wish to opt out and simply not try to make their futures in Pakistan. These are the people we badly need to stay so that a difference can eventually come. But of course, it is difficult to ask for individual sacrifice for the sake of a nation which has in so many ways been so inept in terms of serving its people, offering them security and meeting their basic needs. The talented youngsters who then wish to leave cannot really be blamed for their decisions. Yet at the same time, something needs to be done to give those who are in the country or wish to stay there, options. At the present time, there are simply no jobs available for the excellent engineers graduating from top institutions or even for doctors, lawyers and others with degrees in fields which in many countries would bring them almost instant success. We do not have the firms, industries, the offices, the workshops or the other places of employment which could properly use their talent and give them a sound footing on which to begin life. This in itself is a disaster and will hold us back for many years to come.

Pakistan’s students do extremely well in overseas settings in many cases. Of course, privilege is a part of this. Those going abroad often come from the most privileged schools and colleges in the country as well as from families which can afford to send them there. As Miftah Ismail, the former finance minister, recently said: much of the cabinet and even the judiciary and the corporate world comes from the two most elite schools in the country. Other schools are also coming up to produce the same class of elite students who excel in what they do, but in the future are not willing to stay in their country or feel it is too dangerous to do so for the sake of their families, for the sake of their children and for the sake of themselves.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

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