Pakistani Migrants: A Tightrope Between Opportunity and Disappointment

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When 26-year-old Nasir Khan went to Saudi Arabia to work as a taxi driver, he found no shortage of customers. One day, however, when Khan picked up a passenger in Riyadh’s blistering heat, the customer refused to pay him. When Khan insisted on his money, the man stabbed him and fled.

Khan eventually recovered from the ordeal, but he never relayed the story to his Pashtun family back home in Pakistan’s remote Bajaur Agency, situated along the Afghan border. Douallah Attaullah, his 25-year-old cousin in Lahore, says Khan glossed over the more unpalatable dimensions of life abroad, preferring only to highlight the stories about money streaming in. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the family lived, the quest for financial betterment had propelled many young migrants across borders, and few were inclined to inform family members that life in the Gulf had dark days.

Umer Din Khan by Sabrina Toppa
Umer Din Khan. Photo by Sabrina Toppa

“They are spending their lives as prisoners in these foreign countries,” says 20-year-old Umer Din Khan, a Pashtun from the federally-administered tribal areas (FATA). Eight of Umer’s family members work in the UAE as taxi drivers, and he says their wages are integral to the financial survival of the larger family unit. “Our family is completely dependent on them, but they’re facing problems with their visas.”

Douallah Attaullah by Sabrina Toppa
Douallah Attaullah. Photo by Sabrina Toppa

Pakistan’s Pashtun belt has many extended families depending on one person to make ends meet, Umer says. “Most of the time, 30-50 members of an extended family are dependent on a single worker’s salary,” adds 22-year-old Sajjad Hussain, a student from Waziristan. The burden is much higher on Pashtun families.“The main reason they go abroad is because there are no job opportunities in Waziristan.” The region is beset by economic underdevelopment and the fall-out of Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes, and there are few industries to employ young men outside of subsistence agriculture. Residents of Waziristan often migrate to other provinces in Pakistan in search of economic security, but often return empty-handed. “They’re living overseas for five to six years because life is better there,” Sajjad says.

More than 95% of Pakistani migrant workers are employed in just two countries: Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, both of which have been attracting Pakistani workers in large waves since the 1970s. Over the years, the majority of Pakistani migrants have come from Punjab province, which sent more than a quarter of a million workers overseas last year. However, while Punjabis dominate overseas migration, other ethnic groups like the Pashtuns face unique challenges and migration profiles. Pashtun families generate a larger share of their household income from remittances compared to other ethnic groups, and their position in Pakistan’s peripheral zones highlights the link between migration abroad and political neglect at home.

Amir Mehmand Khan by Sabrina Toppa
Amir Mehmand Khan. Photo by Sabrina Toppa

Further, Pashtun overseas migration also engenders internal migration: remittances from the Gulf are often reinvested in children’s education at home, often requiring the school-aged offspring to shift from the tribal areas to large urban centers like Lahore and Islamabad.

Today, Pakistan is the second-largest exporter of migrant labour in South Asia, and remittances account for 7% of the country’s GDP. In 2017, approximately half a million Pakistanis migrated overseas through legal channels, though it is estimated that a far higher number sought out migration through irregular channels. Many Pakistanis spend up to USD 9,000 to find a job in countries like Saudi Arabia — in some cases spending 14 times their monthly salary for the opportunity to work abroad.

However, the return on investment can be dismal. Amid the growth of aggressive infrastructure projects like the UAE’s World Expo 2020 and Qatar’s World Cup 2022, demand for temporary contract labour has accelerated throughout the Gulf. At the same time, plummeting oil prices and Gulf-wide nationalisation campaigns — such as Saudi Arabia’s campaign of ‘Saudisation’ to partly replace the migrant workforce with citizens — are likely to slow recruitment. Indeed, the number of Pakistani workers going to Saudi Arabia dropped by almost 70% last year.

Marginalised at home
While Pakistan recorded its highest economic growth in a decade last year, this wealth is likely to remain distant from Pashtun-heavy areas of the country, where industries are scarce. Even the well-educated feel a desperation to leave, says 21-year-old Sohail Khan from Zhob, Balochistan. Khan points to the example of his own cousin, who has a master’s degree but works as a taxi driver in the Gulf, earning around 50,000 rupees ($453) a month. “He has no choice,” Khan explains, underlining how a pall of economic desperation has fallen over Pashtun-dominated cities like Zhob, driving millions abroad. Even the ticket home presents a financial obstacle: “He’s not visited us once,” Sohail says.

Sohail Khan by Sabrina Toppa.
Sohail Khan. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.

In areas like Balochistan and FATA, more than 70% of the population faces dire poverty, making the territories particularly prone to overseas migration relative to their small population size. In the first three months of this year alone, more than 2,000 men from FATA and over 200 from Balochistan have fled overseas thanks to a multitude of factors, ranging from rising insecurity to high unemployment. Although the government has recently considered integrating the tribal areas with the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, most Pashtun migrants are unsure if opportunities will materialise from the merger, and many are looking elsewhere. “The Pashtun belt is under-invested in and there is a lack of education,” says Gulzeb Tareen, 23, from Pishin, Balochistan. “We are marginalised in Pakistan.”

Others point out that the government unevenly distributes migration-related facilities critical to overseas labour, such as acquiring a passport or renewing national identity cards. Amir Mehmand Khan, 22, from Qilla Abdullah, a district of Balochistan, says that his entire village cannot apply for a passport without harassment or an extensive security check from government officials. “My father and cousin faced trouble making passports just to go abroad,” Amir says.

Despite these obstacles, once migrants from Balochistan, FATA, or Punjab land in the Gulf, their outcomes converge. Jameel Haider, a 24-year-old migrant, entered the United Arab Emirates on a two-year visa, expecting to make 1,300 dirham ($354) a month as an electrician. However, by the time Jameel arrived in the UAE, he discovered that his salary was a paltry 800 dirham a month ($217). This barely constituted a living wage in the Gulf, and nearly equaled what he could have earned back home in Pakistan, without the added expense of a 4,500 dirham (about $1,225) UAE visa, or a 28,000 rupee ($253) flight ticket, paid for by his brother.

The Emirati sponsor also never issued a written contract to Jameel, who later learned that the job he had been recruited to perform did not exist. He was told that his only option would be to work as a daily wage labourer, alongside others engaged in masonry work. The task would differ each day. His food was not covered, as originally promised, and the accommodation involved sharing an uncomfortable, cramped room with twelve people.

In August 2017, Jameel, alongside other labourers, filed a complaint in the UAE labour court, asking for permission to end their employment with the Emirati sponsor. Realising the headache to come, the Emirati sponsor promised to let go of the workers. At the court, the Emirati sponsor brought a document worded in English, which Jameel did not understand. “This is a cancellation paper,” the Emirati told the group of labourers, promising to send them back home. Later, Jameel discovered that the paper falsely said that everyone was being paid a wage of 1,500 dirham (around $408) a month. No one was released from their job.

By the time Jameel and other labourers persuaded their sponsor to cancel their jobs, another problem remained: everyone’s passports were held by the sponsor, rendering it impossible for them to leave the country. Jameel again contacted the labour court, and eventually secured his identity documents; however, he had to buy his own ticket home to Pakistan. He has yet to receive the wages for the last three months he worked in the UAE. Today he sits in the Punjabi city of Dipalpur, unemployed.

Family members of a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.
Family members of a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.

Like Jameel, more than half of Pakistani migrants borrow money to finance their migration, and of these more than three-quarters rely on a friend or relative to finance the journey, according to a 2016 ILO survey. Pakistani migrants pay some of the highest recruitment fees in the world for the opportunity to work abroad, says Nasir Iqbal, an Islamabad-based researcher who has studied the cost of Gulf migration. Migrants who rely on friends or family to find jobs often pay astronomical recruitment fees, resulting in asset depletion and heavy debt traps. Part of the problem derives from the fact that most Pakistani migrants organise their jobs outside of the government’s official channels – raising the cost exponentially. If a migrant pursues labour migration through formal means, he normally pays $200-$900 for a bundle of services, the two largest components of which are visa fees and the recruitment agent’s fee. To go to Saudi Arabia outside official channels, the average labourer spends upwards of $4,000 toward the cost of migration. To reach the UAE, the amount is $2,000 on average. Migrants seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia are required to work through a licensed recruitment agency in Pakistan and the Saudi embassy, but some skirt this altogether.


Six years ago, down a narrow gulley in Lahore’s Badami Bagh neighbourhood, 22-year-old Majid Ali* was sitting in his family’s home after completing a course for automotive mechanics in the port city of Karachi. His neighbour’s son had just failed a vision test, and could not clear the medical exam for a job in Saudi Arabia. Majid’s family gathered a small fortune — 500,000 rupees (approximately $4,520) — to send his documents to the neighbour’s recruiter instead. “I will earn more there compared to Pakistan,” Majid told his family. His mother, 55-year-old Tahira Bibi, expressed anxiety mixed with a hint of fatalism. “Children, they have their own likings and dislikings,” she said about Majid’s looming journey.

Majid applied to work in Dammam, a historic city situated on the Persian Gulf. Pakistanis already formed the second-largest group of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, and Majid trusted that the Gulf would offer him a new foothold on the economic ladder.

Not long after the plane descended in Saudi Arabia’s eastern quarter, however, he quickly regretted his choice. He discovered he had been swindled on the visa price, overcharged by more than $3,400 dollars. Soon, it also became clear that the job on Majid’s visa did not exist. At first, he reached out to the Lahori neighbours that had helped him, hoping he could fix the situation. “It’s not our headache to deal with,” the neighbours replied.

For a year, Majid relied on odd jobs he learned about through word of mouth from other migrant workers. However, barely eking out an existence, Majid turned to another path. He offered his sponsor 500 riyals a month ($133) for permission to register a car repair shop under the sponsor’s name. Things seemed to be going well — until his sponsor saw how lucrative the business had become, and swiftly moved to seize it.

Initially, Majid did not want to acquiesce to the sponsor’s demand to forfeit the business — he had invested more than $6,000 of his own money in the project — but Majid says the sponsor threatened to arrest him, forcing him to relinquish the business and agree to pay 4,000 riyals ($1,066) to transfer him to another kafeel.

Majid’s employment sponsorship was transferred to a second Saudi man. The new sponsor offered him a workable arrangement for the first few years, by Majid’s own account. Majid used 10,000 riyals ($2,666) of his savings to set up an air-conditioner repair shop, and he paid his new sponsor a monthly fee of 500 riyals ($133) to operate the business license under the Saudi sponsor’s name.

Last October, however, the circumstances shifted. The Saudi sponsor told Majid he was constructing a house. He said he needed Majid to pay 5,000 riyals ($1,333).

This proved difficult; Majid only turned a profit of 1,000-1,5000 riyals a month ($266-399). “I was unable to pay him 5,000 riyals,” Majid tells Migrant-Rights. Last November, the sponsor threatened to withhold the renewal of his Saudi residence permit, if Majid could not produce the money. Majid tried to reason with the sponsor, but the Saudi kafeel kept barking at him for money. “Where do I get money from if I’m not earning?” Majid replied. The sponsor, incensed by Majid’s refusal to pay, allowed his to expire. The sponsor also filed a formal complaint against Majid at the police station, declaring that he was a worker who had run away from his employer and that he should immediately be deported. Fearing the repercussions, Majid asked the sponsor to return his passport, which had been seized by the sponsor at the start of his employment, but the man refused. Without a valid residence permit and a pending complaint against him, Majid was now afraid to work out in the open.

For Majid’s family, who dimly understood the imbroglio Majid was entangled in, Majid’s time abroad seemed worthless. “Pakistan is a better country,” his brother Abid said inside his family home. “If he had been living here with his family, we could have enjoyed happiness in the pure sense.”

“He isn’t getting anything,” his brother Abid added about Majid’s ordeal. “He doesn’t have a passport, he works in hiding, and his status is illegal.”

Tahira Bibi in Lahore. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.
Tahira Bibi in Lahore. Photo by Sabrina Toppa.

Recently, Majid phoned his mother and relayed his anxieties to her, entreating the family to arrange an alternative business opportunity for him in Lahore. The family wanted him at home, but recognised that Majid needed to bring home money and share in the family’s expenses. “My heart is too small. It’s a mother’s heart. I was angry with myself at first, asking why is my son going abroad?,” his mother Bibi said. “I kept saying to myself why is there a need to go there? He can work here in Pakistan and find opportunities for himself.”

The worst part of watching his brother’s struggle overseas was knowing that it was all unnecessary, Abid said. “If he can work here, then he should come back.”

For more than a year, Majid has not sent any money home. His mother looked stricken about not seeing Majid in months. “My son is gone, what can I do?” she asked.

This article originally appeared on

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