“I have been travelling to and from Italy for ten years now and working in Milan and Sardinia but this year on 3rd May I was stopped at the Lahore airport by immigration authority and not allowed to board” , said Muhammad Asif teary eyed. “My whole year’s income and my family’s livelihood depend on these four or five months of work selling artificial jewelry and small souvenirs to the tourists. What will I do without work if I am stuck here in Pakistan?”

33-year-old Muhammad Asif is now among ten thousand Pakistanis working in Italy and carrying the work permit called Permiso de soggiorno who have been detained at the airport and turned back by the Federal Investigation Authority; not allowed to travel to Italy. He is the sole breadwinner of his family including parents, wife and young children.

All of these people returning to Italy have valid travel documents and work permits and they have been regularly travelling to and from Italy for many years. According to the Italian law the person carrying the ‘permiso de soggiorno’ for two years can stay in Pakistan for one year, those with one year permiso can stay for six months and the ones with indefinite permiso can stay for any period of time that they want.

“I had a valid ‘permiso’, passport and ticket and the FIA had not reason to stop me from travel”, said Asif. He was most disgruntled by the fact that he was not given any reason other than that there is an official letter received by FIA that the persons carrying permiso de soggiorno who have stayed in Pakistan for more than six months should not be allowed to travel. FIA officials did not bother to clarify or give details as to where the letter originated from or what were its exact contents.

There are around one hundred and twenty thousand Pakistanis working in Italy and majority of them are labourers, small business men, hawkers or traders. They live and work there in the summers and return to Pakistan during the winter months when there is no work. They carry the work permits issued by the government of Italy and also pay the government taxes. They have legal and valid travel documents and many of them also carry the indefinite permiso which allows them to travel and stay in Pakistan for as long as they want.

This year however, in the month of May the FIA set up a special counter at all the international airports for the people returning to Italy carrying the permiso de soggiorno and started to detain them from embarking the flights. On 3rd May 2016 as many as seventy people including men, women and children carrying valid documents were offloaded from their flight at the Lahore Airport.

They were not provided with any reason other than the reference to an ‘official letter ‘and asked to go to Islamabad to Italian Embassy or to Gerry’s FedEx for applying a re-entry visa.

Muhammad Asif left for Islamabad later at night and reached Italian Embassy in Islamabad where he found that huge number of people were reaching from all over Pakistan in order to get some redressal for their unexpected problem, but according to him there was no senior embassy official available to meet him. He said that there were some members of Pakistanis staff standing outside the embassy who told everyone that they had to go to Gerry’s FedEx to reapply for visa. The visa fee per person is around sixteen thousand rupees and that is also an added burden for families who have to travel not to mention the long time it would take.

This situation is extremely trying and grave as there are at least twenty thousand families and extended families that are dependent on the people working in Italy who are now stuck in the homeland. As mentioned earlier most of the income is in the tourist season and therefore the departure of the workers cannot be delayed indefinitely.

There are people who have also complained that the FIA officials at the airport are demanding huge amounts of money from the people travelling to Italy and that some people have given as much as sixty thousand to board their flight.

In 2012, there was a similar issue, when people returning to Italy were stopped but several complaints were made and letters were sent to the Italian Foreign Office and the relevant embassies and they assured that there was no directive by the Italian authorities to stop the people from travelling if they have valid travel documents. The Italian embassy in Islamabad sent the clarification to the relevant Pakistani authorities and the issue was resolved and people were allowed to travel. After four years this issue has come up again.

Myra, a young woman from Saray-e-Alamgir told me that her husband works and lives in Turin and she came to Pakistan to attend to her mother who was very ill and needed her. She stayed for seven months and now she is afraid that she will also be stopped at the airport. “My uncle was stopped a few weeks ago and his ticket went to a waste. I tried to get a ticket and the travel agent told me that if I had stayed for more than six months it was useless to try to travel unless there is an official directive”. She said that last week she and her sister went to Italian embassy to find out what the next step was and the number of people standing outside the embassy was really surprising.

The people desperately want some solution to this issue. They are clueless as to why they are being stopped and why the Italian embassy staff is not willing to share any information. Many of the people have been living in Italy for more than a decade and speak Italian fluently and want to talk to the Italian officials.

It is up to the Federal Investigation Agency and Interior Ministry to give correct information as to who has given directive for detaining the people returning to Italy when they have valid documents. It is also the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to follow this up with the Italian Embassy in Islamabad as to explain the law and give suggestions to solve the issue on priority basis.

The weather might be extremely pleasant in Italy and the tourist from all over the world coming to visit the most beautiful and enchanting cities of Rome, Venice and Florence but in Pakistan this is the cruelest time of the year when the sun beats down mercilessly and the temperatures soar high. In this time of the year it is excruciatingly difficult for people to come to Islamabad from small towns and stand for hours in front of the Italian Embassy in this merciless weather.

The world owes so much to the great taste and supreme art and craft of the great Italians and they are indeed the custodians of what is the best in art and culture in the world.  We only expect the most cultured response from them and hope that they would appreciate the gravity of the situation and find a speedy solution.