More Pakistanis are keener to leave Pakistan than ever before. Unfortunately for them, travelling, let alone emigrating, while Pakistani is an unenviable ordeal. Pakistan’s passport remains the fourth worst in the world, according to UK-based citizenship and residence advisory firm Henley and Partners’ Global Passport Ranking, with Pakistanis only able to travel to 34 destinations visa-free. Of the countries that those saddled with a Pakistani passport do have access to, none can be said to be among those Pakistanis most want to live and work in – destinations primarily found in the West and among the Arabian Gulf countries. Pakistan’s passport ranking is also the lowest in South Asia on the Henley and Partner’s index, reflecting a country that is isolated both within its region and the globe in general. One can argue that these passport rankings are reflective of a deeper geopolitical and economic decline, with other countries in the region and Asia as a whole pulling ahead while Pakistan flounders. Paradoxically, the very reason so many Pakistanis want to leave the country appears to be precisely what makes it harder to do so. With an economy struggling to stay afloat, a deteriorating security situation, a permanently unstable political scene, and strained ties with at least two neighbouring countries, Pakistan seems stuck with its quasi-hermit status for the immediate future.
Last year alone, the country counted around 863,000 emigrants, not too far off the 2015 record of 947,000, as per Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE) data. While low-wage labourers heading to the Arabian Gulf and other countries make up a significant number of Pakistani emigrants, the number of ‘highly qualified’ migrants seeking well-paying jobs and a first-world standard of living has grown rapidly from 3,155 in 2001 to 17,976 in 2022. These are the kind of people any country would hope to retain, particularly if it is already struggling to adequately staff key fields such as healthcare. With Pakistan’s population growth rate reportedly at over 2.5 per cent in 2023, the country needs every doctor, lawyer, and engineer it can get to cater to the needs of the growing population.
However, a bad passport ranking will not help Pakistan in this respect. The country’s large number of emigrants underscores the fact that the restrictions that come with a Pakistani passport are a hurdle that many citizens are willing to try and jump – by any means possible. Those from underprivileged yet upwardly mobile backgrounds find that the global immigration system is rigged against them. These aspiring emigres share the same aspirations for better jobs and standards of living but lack the money and glitzy qualifications, often amounting to the same thing, as their wealthier countrymen. This makes Pakistan fertile ground for human smugglers looking to prey on this new aspirational class. We have already seen the tragic results of this illicit trade, with over 200 Pakistanis drowning off the coast of Greece while trying to get into Europe after their overcrowded fishing boat capsized last June. As opportunities to travel legally and freely remain highly restricted for all but the most privileged of Pakistanis, this is a tragedy that is likely to play out several times in the coming years.