Departing in Droves – The Exodus of Pakistanis for Foreign Lands

860,000. That’s the number of Pakistanis who left their country in 2023, and the trend of departing from Pakistan is likely to continue this year. The number is the highest in almost a decade. The previous year almost 800,000 professionals left Pakistan.[1] The figure was released by Pakistan’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE). The report reveals that among those who left, 22,760 had high qualifications, and 45,687 were considered highly skilled. The 8,60,000 people include 8,741 engineers, 7,390 accountants, 3,486 doctors, and 1,533 teachers. It must be noted that the recorded number is of those who were registered with the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment. So the released number might be a low estimate. Tens of thousands of people try moving abroad illegally every year, too. People leaving directly for jobs and study abroad opportunities are not part of the data.

The Pakistani passport is ranked as one of the worst in the world. Anyone who can move beyond the country’s borders finds a sense of achievement.[2] The bulk of Pakistanis emigrants depart the country to work as labourers and drivers by and large in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Malaysia. And even with no job lined up, Pakistani youth  are enthusiastic to leave as their homeland grapples with a worsening economic crisis that is driving thousands of young, educated workers to pack their bags.

With rocketing inflation of 26% in the current fiscal year millions of urban middle-class people have been pushed to the brink of poverty. Cataclysmic floods have ravaged the rural poor. In 2023 the Pakistani rupee was  Asia’s worst-performing currency and the losses are seen extending into 2024. Despite efforts at economic recovery, Pakistan’s growth is projected to stagnate at a meagre 1.8%, with poverty rates hovering around 40%.

As the government battles to alleviate the crisis, officials are also increasingly worried about the snowballing brain drain that could hamper the country’s eventual recovery. The huge exodus of educated youth is a clear indication that the government has failed to provide an enabling environment to stem the emigration.

Pakistan has always spent far more on imports than it has earned in exports. It is a big exporter of labour but the remittances Pakistanis working abroad send home are frittered away on consumption. They are not invested in industry. Though it is a cotton-producing country, the textile sector remains underdeveloped. Promising IT activity has not fructified into a tech boom.

Financial stress has strained the social fabric. Daily reports are circulated on WhatsApp groups of armed burglaries, muggings and carjackings at gunpoint.  With a third of its 230 million-strong population under the age of 14, Pakistan has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, and job creation cannot keep pace. A reason why liberal youth have been eager to emigrate is that the atmosphere of religious dogma, radicalization, and violence has been  pervasive  and commonplace. Any thought, comment, or exposition can quickly be deemed blasphemous, thereby guaranteeing harm and possibly death.[3] An extreme manifestation of this is religion-driven mob attacks becoming increasingly widespread in recent years. Meanwhile the Pakistani state seems completely helpless in stemming rising religious extremism. In fact, the state might even be complicit, considering the support it has been extending to extremist organisations. In an article for ‘The Diplomat,’ Arsalan Bilal writes,[4] “What remains most worrisome is that among those who want to leave the country are liberal youngsters who seem to have lost hope in the country owing to sharply rising religious extremism and violence. Many think the problem is irreversible in the near future. This is a recipe for disaster because Pakistan is losing vibrant future leadership.”

Successive governments have provided lavish and unfunded fuel, water and power subsidies but have not invested in quality education, health provision, alternative energy or even a strategy for population control. Meanwhile, the Pakistani army continues its political machinations, meddling in policy and seldom allowing elected governments to complete their tenure.

Quoting a  young Pakistani banking professional, Nazeer Ahmed, who had departed for the United Kingdom, “The economic conditions and uncertainties left me no choice. I had to find a way out,” “The salaried class is working hard, but the disparity between what we earn and what it takes to have a decent life continues to widen,” Gulf News reported that Saudi Arabia was the primary destination for Pakistani migrant workers.[5]

Speaking to leading technology daily, ‘Rest of World’ Zain Imran says, “My plan was never to leave Pakistan, but I saw that things were changing, companies were folding, VC funding was drying up, there were hiring freezes.” In August 2022 Imran relocated to Singapore.[6] Imran’s account echoes that of the thousands of tech workers leaving Pakistan.

Ordinary Pakistanis are struggling to maintain some semblance of normality. Every day brings new privations, new fears and new restrictions. And as Pakistan inches ever closer to full-blown catastrophe, anyone who can is fleeing the country. For all Pakistani families anyone who is able to  break the cycle of economic hardship and relocate to a foreign land is deemed a success.


[1] 800,000 professionals left Pakistan in 2022 – Daily Times

[2] Henley Passport Index

[3] Religion-Fueled Mobs on the Rise Again in Pakistan – The New York Times

[4] Pakistan’s People Are Fleeing Not Only Economic Crisis But Extremism – The Diplomat


[6] Post Airlift-collapse, tech workers are leaving Pakistan – Rest of World

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