TOMORROW, Prime Minister Imran Khan will attend the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Makkah. While domestic policy challenges continue to mount for the PTI government, Mr Khan’s willingness to reach out to his foreign counterparts has yielded significant economic and social gains for his administration. Notably, the Saudi government announced in February that it would release over 2,000 Pakistani prisoners (only 250 have returned thus far). It is time to extend this diplomacy to multinational forums.
Out of 11,000 Pakistani prisoners abroad, 7,786 are incarcerated in OIC member states. There are various ways to interpret this — the most obvious being that Pakistan’s economic, social and political ties to some OIC members are strong, leading to a greater exchange of capital and labour. However, it is sometimes this level of friendly cooperation that overshadows the significant issues Pakistanis face moving between, for instance, Pakistan and the UAE, which has over 2,500 Pakistani prisoners.
The current government deserves a lot of praise for the work it has done to raise the plight of Pakistani prisoners and work towards their repatriation. But the issues these imprisoned Pakistanis face are structural and require multilateral cooperation if they are to be completely resolved. The summit would be an excellent place not only to raise the issue, but also to work on something more permanent: an exemplary labour migration policy that ensures the dignity of workers leaving their homes for a livelihood. What better place to do so than at a summit of an organisation whose mandate is to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony”?
There are various steps to achieve a consensus. For one, countries within the OIC could begin by ratifying international law such as the Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97) and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Both outline key protections that should be afforded to all migrant workers including, but not limited to, the right to life; protection from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the provision of free service to assist employment overseas; and the provision of medical and legal assistance to migrant workers and their families before, during, and after their journeys.
Furthermore, Pakistan and its OIC allies should also pursue a model already in place: bilateral commissions that allow Pakistan and other countries to exchange information on and develop policy related to Pakistani migrant workers imprisoned abroad.
In January 2018, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Overseas Pakistanis Zulfiqar Bukhari established a commission with the Dubai police to exchange information on Pakistani prisoners imprisoned there. Such a commission can be expanded in scope to include investigations on Pakistanis that are defrauded by subagents in Pakistan, develop procedures that collect information from Pakistanis at exit and entry points, and coordinate across international borders to clamp down on criminal actors that exploit low-wage Pakistani migrant workers. Such steps could help protect vulnerable individuals forced to traffick drugs across international borders and curb the flow of drugs from Pakistan into other countries.
The arrests of Pakistanis also afflict the general image of Pakistani workers abroad. In 2015, Kuwait’s central jail housed 215 Pakistani prisoners — 175 of these were imprisoned on drug-related charges. Kuwait, an OIC member, had a six-year ban on Pakistani workers, only recently allowing the issuance of visas for Pakistanis under stringent checks and circumstances. More recently, in 2018, Lt-Gen Dhahi Khalfan, head of general security of Dubai, urged employers to hire fewer Pakistani workers, saying, “The Pakistanis pose a serious threat to the Gulf communities for the drugs they bring with them to our countries.”
Mr Khan wouldn’t be the first prime minister to harness OIC’s potential in service of imprisoned Pakistanis. In 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto hosted a historic OIC summit in Lahore, following a traumatic period for Pakistan. The event was a show of unity by the Islamic world, with Pakistan recognising Bangladesh, providing Pakistan the leverage to negotiate the eventual return of 95,000 prisoners of war from India.
There is no doubt that the moment Imran Khan stood up and asked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to facilitate the release of Pakistanis prisoners in Saudi Arabia will be remembered as one of the most defining moments of his tenure. However, there is still much to be said and done, and it is my hope that his is a legacy of unwavering support for some of the most vulnerable Pakistanis.