Sher Afsar, Change-maker Rises Against Pakistani Migrants

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© Shayan Ali Khan

In the Swabi District of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, people frequently go abroad for employment. They have fascinating ideas about life abroad as presented on television and in films.

The situation is changing following the activities of Sher Afsar. Afsar works as a “community-based change-maker” as part of the EU-funded Global Action to Improve the Recruitment Framework of Labour Migration project (REFRAME), that aims to ensure fair recruitment and safe migration for migrant workers from Pakistan.

Recently, he sat with a group of 20 people in a village. The group listens intently to what he has to say about life and work in Saudi Arabia.

They share stories – good and bad – about family members’ experiences living and working abroad and they ask many questions, such as how and where they can obtain a passport and how much it will cost them. For many, it is the first time they are hearing about safe labour migration procedures and costs.

“I am glad to witness a visible change in the behaviour of people after they joined my awareness sessions”, says Afsar.

‘’The local agents used to tell them tales that their lives would be transformed once they started earning. People had no information on government institutions that support the protection of overseas workers.”

To address this crucial information gap, the REFRAME project partnered with a local social enterprise organisation, Mera Maan, to train 27 women and men as community-based change-makers. These change-makers host information sessions in ‘high-migration’ districts.

The training covers key topics such as the risks of irregular migration, the channels and processes for regular migration, the rights and responsibilities of migrant workers, and the support services available, including complaints and legal mechanisms.

Change-makers ensure that sessions are delivered in regional languages, are tailored to local circumstances and are embedded in local community structures – for example by including local counsellors, religious scholars, social workers, teachers, the local judiciary and community-based organisations.

So far the change-makers have delivered awareness sessions to more than 9,800 prospective and returned migrant workers and their families.

The information has also spread through the community, via word of mouth, messaging apps and social media, reaching, it is estimated, more than 89,000 people. Network members have also received requests to host sessions in other communities.

Labour migration from Pakistan has steadily increased in recent decades and continues to provide an important opportunity for improving family and community livelihoods.* 

However, a lack of good information about safe migration, fair recruitment channels and related services is a key challenge for those interested in becoming migrant workers.

Without accurate information they can be vulnerable to deception and even abuse during recruitment – a risk that can increase if they use informal or unlicensed intermediaries.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) REFRAME National Project Coordinator, Munawar Sultana, says “this lack of information – and sometimes deliberate misinformation from different sources – often leads migrant workers to pay large service fees for their recruitment, putting them in a danger of debt bondage.”

Afsar agrees. “People used to pay PKR. 200,000 to 250,000 ($1200-$1500) to local agents for obtaining visas, but now they are paying PKR. 80,000 to 90,000 ($480-$540) for visas. They are happy about this monetary benefit.

‘’People are now aware of their rights and the government organisations that help them access justice when they have problem”, he said.

Although the workers welcome the reduction, the ILO maintains the principle that no recruitment fees or related costs should be borne by workers.

The REFRAME project is, however, supported by the ILO and European Union. It has brought important, visible, and informed change to local community organizations and tens of thousands of beneficiaries.

President, Samaaji Behbood Raabita Council District, Swabi, Rooh-ul Ameen, says “the intending migrant workers are now seeking the support of licenced Overseas Employment Promoters (OEPs) rather than only relying on informal brokers. They are even contacting the Protectorate of Emigrants Offices and Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment to verify the authenticity of OEPs working in their areas.”

Intending migrant workers are also increasingly using official services. “Earlier, most people were not aware of the [government-run] Migrant Resource Centre. Now many aspiring migrant workers have contacted the Helpline of the Migrant Resource Centre, seeking pre-employment guidance”, says Shahzad Murtaza, President of the Youth Employability Network, Multan.

“Empowering communities with information is an essential first step towards ensuring fair recruitment, safe migration and decent work for the millions of Pakistani workers abroad”, said Munawar Sultana. “We look forward to continuing this support throughout rural communities in Pakistan.”

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