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Coronavirus Hits Pakistani Labor Hard In Gulf Countries

FILE: Pakistani workers sit along a street in the Saudi capital Riyadh after losing their jobs.
FILE: Pakistani workers sit along a street in the Saudi capital Riyadh after losing their jobs.

For decades, remittances from hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers in the Gulf have proved a lifeline for Pakistan’s fledgling economy.

But politicians in Pakistan and activists among the stranded community now complain of receiving little or no help from the authorities as the coronavirus pandemic spreads among expatriate Pakistani laborers in the Arab Gulf countries.

Many have contracted the coronavirus in their crowded living quarters while also losing their jobs and livelihoods amid the pandemic. Survivors also worry about what to do with relatives and friends who have died and whose bodies are now piling up in mortuaries.

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani expats await Islamabad’s help in evacuating them from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf countries. For those who have managed to return home, their needs require a monumental government response.

“I appeal to the government to seriously think about helping the overseas Pakistanis,” lawmaker Ali Wazir told the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament on June 8. “They are in great difficulty. Many are sick while others have died, and there seems to be no way to bring their bodies back.”

Wazir, a leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a civil rights movement, reminded the government that the stranded Pakistani laborers are breadwinners for their families who have contributed to the country’s economy and now need urgent assistance.

“Many are queuing outside the [Pakistani] embassies while also constantly appealing to us and their families to somehow resolve their problems,” he told lawmakers.

Younas Habib, a Pakistani worker in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, has survived the coronavirus. Like a majority of Pakistani laborers in Saudi Arabia, Habib is an ethnic Pashtun. He says their community has been hit hard by the pandemic because most live in shared lodgings locally called Dera, where up to a dozen people share one room.

He told Radio Mashaal that most of them have already contracted the virus. “All 15 of us living together got it,” he said of his roommates. “Some became seriously ill while others recovered quickly.”

Muzamil Shah also lives in Riyadh and actively participates in helping members of his expatriate Pashtun labor community from Pakistan. He says the most difficult challenge for his community currently is how to deal with the dead.

“Sometimes we have to wait for hours or even a day after someone dies just to get an empty box in the mortuary,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Lawmaker Haider Ali, a leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party, is a member of the parliamentary committee on Pakistanis abroad. He told Radio Mashaal that the government is already helping stranded Pakistanis to return based on priority lists of the most vulnerable sent to embassies in Gulf countries.

“The issue of dealing with dead bodies in Saudi Arabia is a serious one,” he acknowledged. “Our people live in congested housing, so when someone among them dies it creates a major problem.”

On June 7, a Pakistan International Airline flight repatriated the remains of 21 Pakistanis from Saudi Arabia to Peshawar, capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where most residents are Pashtun.

“The information available … suggests that there are many more bodies still in the Gulf countries, waiting to be brought home,” Noor-ul Wahid Jadoon, a spokesman for Al-Khidmat Foundation, an Islamist charity, told the daily Dawn. His organization’s ambulances returned the bodies to remote districts across the province.

In Riyadh, Shah says the pandemic has obliterated his community’s livelihoods, confidence, and future prospects. “Many have not had any income for more than three months,” he said. "This whole thing has terrified many of the workers here who just want to go home.”

Shah wants Islamabad to offer robust economic aid and incentives to expatriate laborers in Saudi Arabia. He also says he’d like to see a more proactive diplomatic effort to help his mostly poor and illiterate compatriots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Shah Baaz Stouryani, a Dubai-based businessman, says the price of airline tickets has skyrocketed amid the pandemic as most carriers have grounded their aircraft because of lockdowns or flight bans. Testing and mandatory quarantine requirements pose additional challenges.

But in Islamabad, senior government officials say they are eager to help their compatriots.

“I have repeatedly said that we need to be grateful to our overseas citizens for dealing with the situation and waiting for their turn to return so patiently,” Moeed Yousuf, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, wrote on Twitter on June 7. “We will soon have a comprehensive new policy that will bring good news in terms of their ability to return immediately.”

Pakistanis in the Gulf countries contribute a bulk of an estimated $20 billion in remittances to their country every year.

Radio Mashaal correspondents Farkhunda Asad and Ghulam Ghaus also contributed reporting to this story.