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Pakistanis in Italy: Searching for belonging on foreign shores

Pakistani diaspora faces bureaucratic obstacles that make it feel hard for some to feel like they belong

By Daud Khan/Ahmed Raza |
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PUBLISHED April 03, 2022

The Pakistani diaspora in Italy of around 150,000 people is the largest in continental Europe. Most Pakistanis living in Italy are first-generation immigrants with limited education and are stuck working menial jobs picking fruit and vegetables, managing livestock, and working in factories.

But a new generation of Pakistani is coming of age, and they are set to have a different experience from their parents. Many of them were born in Italy or arrived as children; They have high school diplomas and university degrees and are working to build a life for themselves in Italy, which comes with a unique set of challenges.

Pakistani youth that have grown up in Italy are often sandwiched between two worlds, which can become a major source of friction. Social norms and religious values among young people in the Pakistani diaspora differ from their parents and grandparents, resulting in inter-generational conflicts. Young women bear the brunt of the trauma from these familial clashes as they become the victims of violence and murder in the most extreme circumstances for their behaviour.

In addition to family conflict, young Pakistanis must deal with barriers from the bureaucratic machinery of the Italian Government. As they reach adulthood, they need to get a tax code and a health card, and they need to register with the local municipality. When they start working, they need to negotiate with employers about terms and conditions of employment, decide if they want to be a full-time employee or a service provider, and start filing tax returns.

For people from Italy navigating these processes in their native language, transitioning into working life is relatively straightforward; They have friends and family members to guide them and a network of trade unions to provide them with services. But for young Pakistanis, these steps can be daunting and mistakes costly if they result in sanctions and fines.

The visibility of the Italian bureaucracy has only increased over the past two years. During the pandemic, the government put into place several special assistance programs and schemes, and it was hard for some Pakistanis to sign up and benefit from these programs. The bureaucratic hurdles many in the diaspora face have pushed some Pakistanis, like Mohsan Luqman, to help.

Luqman, a former lecturer in Government College Jhelum, came to Italy in 2014 on a temporary work visa to work in a factory in the Marche region off the east coast of Italy. After some time on the job, he realized that kind of repetitive work wasn’t for him. He’d seen how difficult it could be for Pakistanis to sort out documentation and other logistics to live in Italy, so he stepped in to help.

In 2016, Luqman started providing advice and counseling to Pakistanis in the area where he was living. He initially started this work after he finished his day job at the factory, operating out of a small room in the back of his friend’s grocery shop. But in 2017 he decided to quit his job at the factory and dedicate himself full time to his consultancy work. He spent his savings on a laptop, a printer, and a scanner. He made leaflets advertising his services and distributed them around the city.

His business boomed. Now, he has an office of his own and part-time staff to help him. He travels frequently to Rome to meet with the staff at the Pakistani embassy, and to other towns around Italy with Pakistani diaspora communities. In addition to various routine services, he also produces informational videos in Urdu to educate people on new laws and regulations and to help them file tax returns and claim benefits.

Luqman spoke about traveling from Marche to meet with staff of the Pakistani embassy to understand how to better manage his interactions with them. He said officials from the Pakistani embassy in Rome frequently discuss the benefits of the Pakistani community in Italy. He also said the Pakistanis he has met are satisfied with the embassy’s staff.

On a cold evening in Rome, Luqman answered a few questions to explain his experience helping other Pakistanis in Italy:

What brought you to Rome and what made you stay?

When I first came to Italy in 2014, I thought I would be here only [for] a short time. My plan was that, after getting my residence card, I would return to Pakistan.

But then I saw that there were opportunities here In Italy. The Pakistani community is relatively new and finds it difficult to deal with even simple things like renewing documents and getting registered with the local government and health services. They needed help and I was happy to provide it.

Also, there are wonderful things in Italy, which are difficult to find elsewhere, such as the weather, the beauty of the landscape, and the general kindness and friendliness of the people. Like Pakistanis, the Italians are very family-orientated and enjoy being together over a good meal.

Living costs are also much lower here, especially if, like me, you live in a small town and not in Rome, Milan, or Turin. Plus the education and health systems are very good and accessible to all.

How do you see the future of the Pakistani Community in Italy?

There are several groups of Pakistanis and they are evolving in different ways. The most important are the children of Pakistanis that came here 10-20 years back. These “new Italians” born and raised here are moving up the skills ladder. They speak the language and many are getting themselves a good education. Some are finding themselves well-paid jobs and others have started their own enterprises.

For example, the Marche region, where I live, is famous for its shoes and all the famous Italian brands have their factories here. There are several families that own and operate factories making soles and lining for the big manufacturers. The children in these families are slowly taking over. They have a more professional approach to production and marketing.

However, not all second-generation Pakistanis are successful and often the fault lies with families who discourage them from studying and integrating. They do this to “maintain their own culture” hoping it will be easier for the family to return to Pakistan at some future date.

As in any community, there are sometimes problems related to violence and crime. There is a tendency for a section of the media to sensationalize such events. In such situations, people like me have to work hard to counter negative perceptions.

What other groups of Pakistanis are there in Italy?

Apart from those [who are] already here, new immigrants continue to arrive. Many arrive legally on temporary work visas. These visas, [good] for up to a period of nine months, are mainly for seasonal work in agriculture and the tourist industry, as well as in transport or industry.

Italy depends heavily on such immigrant labour as birth rates are low and the population is declining and getting older.

In November this year, the authorities have authorized the issuance of 79,000 such visas for 2022 -- more than double the number authorized last year. For unskilled and semi-skilled workers, this is the best option as they are here legally, and they get a decent salary, as well as health and accident insurance. There [are] also provisions for visas for artists, scientists, and businesspersons investing over €500,000. But few people from Pakistan take up this option.

Unfortunately, there is also a constant flow of illegal immigrants. Most of these make a long and dangerous journey overland through Iran, Turkey, the Balkans, and Greece, or through North Africa and across the Mediterranean. With few skills and [an] inability to speak Italian, they end up doing low-paid menial jobs without any rights and benefits. Often, they earn little and most of what they earn goes to paying rent and meeting primary needs. If any money is left over, it gets sent back to repay debts taken on to pay the traffickers to smuggle them into Italy. They have an unviable life and I would strongly discourage anyone from “trying their luck” in this way.

Any other important groups?

A very dynamic group is made up of students coming here for university studies. Italy grants scholarships per year to students from Pakistan. These students, the majority of who are female, are studying at just about every good university in Italy. The government covers their fees and provides a stipend. They are also given permission to work and can make good money for example by working for courier companies, freelancing, [working in] hotels, or teaching English.

Most courses for foreign students are in English. But after spending 3-5 years getting their master’s or Ph.D. degree, they speak excellent Italian and can get good jobs here.

How do you see your future in Italy?

I am an optimist and I see a good future for myself and my family here. I feel I am doing an important job and many young people see me as a role model.

I also see myself as a catalyst for the community. I interact with many people and keep stressing the importance of education. When Pakistanis have gone in for higher studies and professional qualifications, they have found good well-paying jobs. If not, the best they can do is get a job as a factory worker or washing dishes in a Pizza shop.

Do you miss Pakistan?

My love for my country is in our blood. We not only love our country but with our hard work and remittances, we make a big contribution to the economy of Pakistan. Last year remittances of the Italian diaspora of Pakistanis were higher than in all countries of Europe.