Photo by Caroline Brady of Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner in Dublin

Applications by Pakistani asylum seekers to Ireland have jumped eightfold so far this year, the Irish Times reported earlier this month. What is driving the departure of Pakistanis from their homeland to Europe, and elsewhere? In a guest column this week, Nasir Jamal, chief reporter for Dawn, gives the view from Pakistan.

In May 2010, a Gallup Pakistan poll showed that 27 percent of Pakistanis wanted to leave their country and settle abroad.

If that survey was described as an understatement, given the perception that “a sea of Pakistanis” was ready and willing to ditch their homeland for safer shores, there were few surprises in the list of the favourite foreign destinations before the dream-chasers: the United States of America, Europe, Canada and Australia.

The only countries producing asylum-seekers faster than Pakistan are Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia/Kosovo, and Eritrea. The number of Pakistanis who had applied for asylum in 44 industrialised countries rose to almost 26,300 in 2014 from approximately 11,000 in 2010, according to the UN refugee agency.

But even the numbers shared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its report, “Asylum Trends 2014”, do not quite capture the true picture.

There is another set emerging, those who are looking for a place among the most preferred destinations owing to relatively easy availability of visas. More and more Pakistanis are fleeing to Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other places – countries that are not covered by the UNHCR report.

A majority of these dream-chasers spend their life savings and risk illegal travel on rickety boats in extremely bad conditions. They don’t mind spending weeks, or even months, in destitution as long as there is this hope that they can make it to the land of their dreams.

Even an advertisement placed by the Australian government last year, warning Pakistanis against trying illegally to enter that country, has failed to deter asylum-seekers from testing their luck. Likewise, there has been little effect from the Sri Lankan decision to cancel the on-arrival visa facility for Pakistanis, or the harsh, squalid conditions at refugee camps in Bangkok.

While deportations of illegal immigrants by several countries, and arrests and deaths at sea, might have deterred a few, there are always others ready to take up their places in the outgoing queue.

Historically, most Pakistanis left their country for economic reasons: a lack of sufficient jobs commensurate with their academic qualifications, lower wages, scarce healthcare and education facilities. These often combined to compel young middle-class men to become a part of the brain-drain from the country.

If this is a trend that holds true worldwide, the global financial crisis and economic slowdown has made a profound impact on Pakistani human-resource exports – legal and otherwise. It was the difficult macroeconomic conditions here that pushed the number of asylum seekers to more than 18,000 in 2011 from 11,000 the previous year.

There are cases of people escaping political persecution in Pakistan. Many of them, for example, originating in the period after the military ousted the elected civilian government in 1977, unleashing a reign of terror on pro-democracy forces and political activists.

While economic factors have motivated more Pakistanis to settle abroad, analysts argue, the rise in terrorism and armed conflicts across the country since the early 2000s have created fewer asylum-seekers than in the rest of the world, particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and now Syria.

Still, the hobbling economy is not to blame alone for the drastic jump in the number of asylum-seekers in the recent years. The increasing violence against non-Muslims, particularly Christians and Ahmadis [sic], and Muslim minority sect [sic], Shias, is creating a significant number of asylum-seekers from Pakistan.

At least 1,725 Shia Muslims have been killed by militants linked to hard-line, banned Sunni terrorist outfits in 476 violent attacks across Pakistan since 2011, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). The number of attacks against Christians and the Ahmadiya community and their places of worship are less frequent and produce fewer casualties than the anti-Shia raids and killings by the militant groups; the majority of Shias in Pakistan are living under the shadow of fear and uncertainty.

It is difficult to obtain the exact number of non-Muslims leaving the country in recent years, but Pakistan’s immigration officials admit privately that religious persecution and violence is making a large number of them run away from the country. The number of Shias, Christians and Ahmadis leaving the country, they say, has drastically increased. It was this sharp spike in the number of asylum-claimants seeking refuge for religious reasons that forced both Sri Lanka and Thailand to impose restrictions on migrants from Pakistan.

Even as the number of asylum-seekers from Pakistan because of religious persecution and violence is on the increase, the government appears loath to acknowledge that these factors are forcing more families to flee the country than ever before.

It is quite clear that an economic turnaround, howsoever distant it might be, will not be enough to arrest the rush of Pakistanis on the run. It is inequality and a lack of justice and peace – not just financial, but cultural and social factors– which feed the unrest that is then manifested in extreme tendencies such as ditching your homeland.

There has to be a large-scale social and economic correction.

Nasir Jamal is a chief reporter at Dawn, one of Pakistan's largest English-language daily newspapers. He was a World Press Institute fellow in 1998.

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