ISLAMABAD -  Due to oil crisis, Saudi labour market for Pakistani workforce is shrinking fast but the travel agents and promoters continue to fleece innocent youth promising lucrative jobs in the kingdom.

Having a small office in thickly-populated areas - spread all over the country - these agents assure handsome salary and benefits in the oil-rich kingdom.

They ask for some advance money and when someone pays them they keep on asking for more.

The jobless youth craving to do something for their bright future become easy targets of these fraudsters.

“I contacted Shahzad to get information about Saudi visa, but he lured me and I paid him money,” said Tassawaur Hussain, a young man from Khanewal.

He showed me such a rosy picture that I sold my livestock and gave all the money to him, since my childhood I have seen people getting wealthy by going to Saudi, so it was a dream.

Hussain showing bank transfer receipts said that after he paid Rs150,000 to Shahzad he kept asking for more and when he refused to pay more money until he get his visa, Shahzad started giving threats.

“He refused to give me my passport back and said I can get the passport only when I gave him [the] remaining money,” he said, adding, since then he was without passport and the ID card.

When contacted, Shahzad of Iqra Travels, located near 6th Road, Rawalpindi, admitted taking Rs150,000 for visa from Tassawur but said since Tassawar did not gave him full money in due time his visa expired and his passport could only be returned, if he paid the remaining amount.

Tassawur claimed that during his visits to Iqra Travels, he came across a large number of people, who gave money to the travel agent.

Shahzad insisted that his business was legal and he was selling legal visas. I have contacts in the Saudi embassy and [officials at] the Federal Investigation Agency know me, he claimed.

Insiders believe as per law it is illegal to sell visas or to retain someone’s passport and ID card, but the travel agents and promoters continue to carry out these illegal practices.

Fraud overseas promoters are spread all over the country, they promise visa against some fee and then flee away, a law enforcement agency official said.

He said that they had links at lower levels and whenever the FIA planned a raid they runaway.

According to Muhammad Naeem Sharif, central chairman, Travel Agents Association of Pakistan, there were more than 1,600 travel agents in the country.

Sharif said that only travel agents having overseas employment promoter license could sell work visas for Saudi Arabia or other countries.

According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment there are a total of 4,235 licensees.

Every travel agent or promoter is not fraud. There are many genuine agents who actually send people abroad.

Bureau’s data shows Pakistan exported 77,600 workers to Saudi Arabia in January-June, this year. Last year, 462,598 Pakistani workers went to Saudi.

As the job opportunities continue to crash in the oil-rich gulf countries especially the Saudi, those who manage to get visa, after paying huge money, find them no more appealing.

Many believe it is unlikely that the Middle East will welcome more Pakistani workers in the near future as oil prices have not recovered yet.

I was promised 2,500 riyals per month in salary and free accommodation, but when I reached there I was offered 1,500 only and I had to live in inhuman conditions, said one, Zulfiqar Ahmed.

He said that he got a loan from his relatives to buy the visa but after one year of hard work, he was unable to pay back the loan.

Last year, the prime minister announced compensation money of Rs50,000 for each family of the stranded Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia.

The prime minister approved a total amount of Rs500 million to be distributed among the families of 10,000 stranded Pakistanis. More than 8,000 Pakistanis were stranded in Saudi, when companies stopped paying them salaries.

Those who came back narrated horrible stories.

We were eight Pakistanis when our company refused to pay us, we went to the labour court and won the case, but the company went in appeal and got a favourable decision from a higher court, said Nizam Ahmed. He said that in the meantime they were hiding in a factory where they worked for food.

Nizam said that one of them died of fever as they did not had money to provide him medical care.

He said that they did not have any money to buy tickets and the consultant hired by the Pakistan Embassy, near Dammam, was non-cooperative.

There were long queues of Pakistanis, nobody was even willing to listen to us, he said.  Nizam was all praise for Nafees Zakaria of the Foreign Office.

Coming back to Pakistan after going through a horrible episode is like coming back to life again, we cannot thank Mr Zakaria in our lifetime, Nizam said. How many have returned and how many are still stranded in the holy land is anyone's guess as Foreign Office have no figures.

Many believe a large number of people are still stuck, struggling hard to get their salaries and dues and to come back.

During my recent visit to Saudi Arabia, I met many stranded Pakistanis, said Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Yousef.

He said that bringing them home and helping them in getting their dues from Saudi companies was the job of the Foreign Office.

I have asked Pakistan Embassy in Saudi Arabia to facilitate all the stranded Pakistanis, the minister said.