Recent reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have thrown more light on the consequences of Pakistan’s precarious security situation: according to the international agency, thousands of Pakistanis flee the country every year hoping to get respite from violence and religious discrimination.
It is well known that Pakistan has housed a record number of Afghan refugees over the years, even topping the UNHCR’s list of refugee-hosting countries in 2008. However, relatively little is said about the spike in Pakistanis seeking asylum. Records of asylum applications kept by host countries and international agencies are often the only way to corroborate this trend. A glance at immigration figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, for example, tells us that that a total of 2,411 Pakistanis applied for asylum in 2011 — almost double the amount of asylum applicants from Afghanistan in the same year and more than any other country in Asia.
Poor security, a rise in extortion and kidnapping, lapses in the justice system and growing intolerance for religious and ethnic minorities are all reasons why a growing number of Pakistanis have become desperate enough to flee. These problems are slowly getting so acute that professionals like doctors, journalists and artists have now joined the ranks of those who seek asylum — a tell-tale sign that even the average man in Pakistan is not safe if he speaks his mind.
Although the possibility of new leadership in 2013 has kept hope alive for many, things are not looking up for those contemplating asylum abroad. As a first step to counter this crisis, the government should publicly acknowledge this trend and accept that it has not been able to keep its citizens safe. Measures that have long been talked of, like depoliticising the police force and educating the public about minority rights, must be prioritised.
Unfortunately, with a government so mired in constitutional controversy and political parties vying for mass popularity before the looming general elections, it appears that difficult decisions will continue to be sidelined and more Pakistanis will slip across the border in search of a future they could not find at home.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2012.