Migrant workers languish

Under the Constitution of Pakistan, the Government of Pakistan (GOP) has a right to not only uphold the fundamental rights and protect the lives of its citizens in Pakistan but also those outside its geographical boundaries. Unfortunately, however, the GOP has repeatedly failed to extend constitutional protection to its migrant workers in the GCC region who have been imprisoned, executed and/or facing imminent execution under criminal justice systems that fail to abide by international standards of fair trial. GOP keenly encourages its citizens to seek employment abroad through manpower agencies regulated by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, however, the second these workers fall prey to corrupt labour agents it is quick to disassociate itself from them.

Out of the 8,597 Pakistanis currently detained abroad over 4,209 are in 6 Gulf Countries (GCC). The GCC holds over 96 percent of Pakistan’s migrant worker population which has earned over 8Billion (USD) in remittances since July 2015. Out of this 4.73 Billion (USD) are received from Saudi Arabia alone – the highest sum received from any single country. Despite the immense contribution of these workers to the Pakistani economy, the government is unwilling to support those who end up in prisons thousands of miles away from home with any form of counsellor services and/or assistance. It is no secret that corrupt labor agents dupe uneducated and impoverished workers to serve as unwilling drug mules with promises of a better life. Once caught they must represent themselves in an alien justice system and in a foreign language and as a result inevitably face conviction and execution.

This week, the Lahore High Court will hear a petition that was filed by the families of wrongfully convicted Pakistanis in the Gulf Countries.

The petition also includes families of Pakistanis whose loved ones were executed last year in Saudi Arabia but are yet to receive their bodies. These families seek an embargo on laborers going to Saudi Arabia or any other GCC until charges against their family members are investigated, their trials and sentences reviewed. They also seek an investigation into migrant worker recruitment practices.

The petition has become even more crucial in the year 2016. Saudi Arabia started off the year by executing 47 people in a single day, through beheadings and by fire squad. Among those executed was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominenet Shia cleric sentenced to death in 2014 after a Saudi Court convicted him on a host of vague terrorism charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of the Saudi regime.

Following Sheikh Al-Nimr’s execution, a large number of groups in Pakistan have also issued strike calls, various Shia organizations calling it a violation of basic fundamental rights. Leaders of opposition parties have also criticized the Saudis for pushing the Muslim world into more sectarian clashes. The GOP in this case, has reassured the country of taking a proactive role in normalizing tensions not only between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also in Pakistan. Special Assistant to Prime Minister for National Affairs Irfan Siddiqui has said that Pakistan being a ‘respectable, sovereign and atomic power, was trying to defuse tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia’.

The GOP may have spoken up in light of Al-Nimr’s execution but why has it maintained silence of the plight of its workers imprisoned and executed in Saudia Arabia. As the world and Pakistan stands together to condemn the trial and execution of Sheikh Nimr, it forgets the 23 Pakistanis that have been executed in Saudi Arabia – all of whom were denied their right to fair trial and due process. These poor and hardworking Pakistanis left their countries in the hope of a better life only to face the harshest of punishments due to their lack of understanding of legal processes, no access to lawyers and a failure of the GOP to provide them with any counsellor assistance.

Pakistan’s blatant abandonment of its migrant workers in Saudia Arabia is a true demonstration of its relative disregard of fundamental rights of its citizens compared to the rest of the international community. In 2015, the government of Indonesia heavily protested at the beheading of an Indonesian maid convicted of stabbing and beating her employer to death in 1999. The current President of Indonesia and three of his predecessors appealed directly to the Saudi government for clemency. In response to the execution, the Indonesian government summoned the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Jakarta to protest. In April 2014, the government paid 1.8 million USD to secure the commutation of a death sentence against another domestic worker sentenced to death in Indonesia. Following the execution, the Indonesian government issued a ban on Indonesian domestic workers traveling in 21 countries, including Saudia Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt. In 2013, the government of Sri Lanka protested strongly to the beheading of a Sri Lankan domestic worker on charges of murdering a baby in her care. Members of the country’s parliament observed one minute of silence in her memory. Additionally, in October 2015, the Indian Minister of External Affairs condemned the attack on an Indian domestic worker by her employer who chopped her arm off. The victim was extended counsellor and legal help by the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia to pursue charges again her employer.

Clearly, Pakistan stands alone in writing of its migrant workers detained in the GCC as drug mules unworthy of its assistance. Such blatant disregard for the lives, liberty and security of the poor and impoverished who provide our economy with billions of dollars of remittances every year is condemnable and inexcusable. The Lahore High Court has taken a much needed step in the direction of providing some form of relief to the many families who are waiting for their loved ones. The petition stands as an important mechanism into compelling the government to recocognise its duties towards abandoned citizens who are living their worst nightmares thousands of miles away from home.

The writer is a lawyer currently working with the Justice Project Pakistan

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