Often, we romanticise the life of travelling, living and working abroad. We forget that to most immigrants, their lives are far from a dance on roses. True, they get employment and better pay than at home, and that is the main push factor. We should be grateful to the many Pakistanis, who work abroad. We should know that the money they send home is important to their families as well as the country.

In this article, I shall first present some quantitative information about international and Pakistani migration, and then I shall discuss some of the difficulties that immigrants experience.

Pakistan is a main sending country of foreign workers and immigrants, or overseas Pakistanis, as we also say! Even if we include refugees and undocumented aliens, there are still more Pakistanis abroad than foreigners living in the country. Overseas Pakistanis are important to their homeland, or their parents’ homeland, since they send back money to their relatives.

In the UK alone, there are some two million of Pakistani origin, many from Kashmir. Birmingham and Manchester would have been smaller cities if it were not for the Pakistani immigrants. Immigrants helped revive Leicester, which was in the backwaters. In Germany, there are at least seventy-five thousand Pakistanis, in Denmark about twenty-five thousand and in Norway thirty-five thousand. Spain, in spite of high unemployment, has a large Pakistani diaspora. In Sweden, there were up to ten thousand Pakistanis a few years ago, most of them students, but the number declined fast when Sweden, like the rest of the European Union, began charging full-cost fees.

Globally, statistics show that at least three percent of people were born in another country, rather than where they later live. Figures from a few years back show that immigrants were more than two hundred million. Of them, five to six million are from Pakistan.

In addition, there is a growing number of trafficked people, but figures are not reliable, not even the definition of what a trafficked person is; conservative estimates show four million, but other sources suggest 10 times that number. Sometimes, it includes modern-day slavery.

Refugees are forced migrants, or they may sometimes become refugees as a strategy for economic and social betterment. The United Nations Refugee Agency - UNHCR - says that over forty million people are refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the latter group is growing. Many refugees stay away from their home country for many years; most refugee situations are protracted, such as the Afghan and Palestinian tragedies. Three-quarters of the refugees are Muslims; 80 percent are women and children. Pakistan still hosts over three million Afghan refugees, with half of them registered. Many receive support from relatives, who are refugees and foreign workers in the Middle East, Europe, America, and Oceania. Many refugees contribute to Pakistan’s economy, as is obvious when refugees live for long in another country. Yet, Pakistan also wishes that the refugees return to Afghanistan.

The importance of remittances is significant to many countries. It has been estimated that remittances count for some 5 percent of Pakistan’s economy (GDP). It is difficult to calculate the exact amount, since remittances not only come through official bank transfers, but also through other channels and as gifts. The informal channels for the transfer of remittances are often cheaper and faster than the ordinary bank transfers, and they are less transparent.

We often take for granted that most immigrants live comfortable and envious lives abroad, earning better than they would have done at home. When I grew up in Norway in the 50s and 60s, we had similar perceptions about sailors, and Norway had many sailors that time, being the second largest shipping nation in the world, after Japan. At school, we used to learn that it was due to shipping that Norway could have international trade balance. Today, most of the crew comes from the countries where they accept lower wages, earlier from southern Europe and now often Asia, including Pakistan.

In my hometown, I knew many sailors’ families. Yes, they were often quite well off, bought a TV set and a refrigerator before other families, new bicycles for the children, and secondary school for them. I also remember an uncle, who got very upset when my grandfather recommended a job at sea for the young boys, not for girls, of course, since it was considered unsuitable for a decent woman. My uncle never wanted the next generation to become sailors because that would mean a life in longing and loneliness for the sailor and his wife and children at home. This is how it often is for Pakistani foreign workers and immigrants, too, the Kashmiris, Punjabis, Pathans and other Pakistanis abroad, and the Afghan refugees in other countries.

Last week, I met a young Pakistani man, who was waiting for his papers to be processed so that he could leave for a job in the Middle East. His father and uncle were already there, and the young Kashmiri himself was going. He had not done too well at school and had finished after lower secondary school. His father had arranged a job for him in a carton making and packing company, he told me, perhaps not quite as good a job as his current one as a shop assistant. He was excited, but yet sad to leave his friends and family in Islamabad and Kashmir. But what else was there for him, he asked, the pay would be better abroad and that was the path for him, at least for a good number of years.

I have myself lived abroad for many years, first as a student and later as an international civil servant, diplomat and consultant. True, such groups are “luxury migrants”. They are paid well and have high status. Yet, some of the everyday problems are the same as for other migrants, such as getting used to a new land, finding friends and holding contact with family, friends and colleagues at home. For children and youth, who accompany their parents, it can be particularly difficult. Many become rootless and restless. On the one hand, it is an advantage to live and work abroad, and on the other hand, it is often an extra burden in life.

We are often quite inconsiderate when we talk about immigrants, including refugees and other forced migrants. In my home country Norway, immigrants are sometimes criticised for not integrating fast enough. Sometimes, old and successful immigrants, such as the Pakistani diaspora in Norway, criticise other groups of immigrants who have come later. And in the public debate, some politicians may talk about immigrants as a liability, rather than an asset. All this is due to lack of knowledge, of course. But it is very discouraging for immigrants wherever they are - Pakistanis in Norway or Afghan refugees in Pakistan. It is especially problematic for children if they feel they are not entirely accepted in the community.

When I have worked with migration issues, I have often been impressed to learn about the efforts that immigrants and refugees make, and how important their contributions are to the land where they live and their relatives at home. It was good policies and luck that led to Norway now having about 10 percent immigrants, up from a few percent a generation ago. There will be some turbulence in the process. But in the end, the host countries benefit tremendously from the contributions that immigrants make. It is through diversity and multiculturalism that a country becomes stronger. For a sending country, the remittances help, although the country is also drained of good people.

What impressive people the immigrants are, everywhere on the globe! Let us not forget the sacrifices they make. Often they simply do that to give their children better opportunities and better lives, and to build the new land they barely feel they can call “home”.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com