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Migration and mobility during COVID-19: A Pakistan perspective

THEMRISE KHAN  |  20 JUNE 2020  | ISSUE #10

Transport restrictions have led to hardships for many workers. Source: Aamir Bilal on Flickr.

The coverage of migration and mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic has largely focused on the state of migrants in refugee camps or labour migrants stranded outside their country of origin. But there are, in actuality, multiple levels of mobility restrictions due to the pandemic, both outside and within countries, that are negatively impacting migrants in varying forms.


In Pakistan, mobility has been severely restricted not just due to the closure of international air traffic, but also due to the closure of inter- and intra-city rail and road travel. This has not just stranded thousands of Pakistani migrants outside the country, but also several inside. In addition, city-wide lockdowns have left many undocumented and/or stateless migrants from Afghanistan without any access to support, let alone mobility.


In Pakistan, restricted mobility for the most vulnerable migrants during the pandemic is reflected at three key levels:




There are currently approximately 11 million Pakistani labour migrants globally, over 90% of whom are based in the Gulf States. Once Pakistan closed its borders on 25 March, these mostly unskilled and semi-skilled labour migrants were trapped in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan eventually initiated a repatriation effort to bring many stranded workers back from the Gulf in late April. However, upon return, a large number of them tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantined in government facilities upon immediate arrival, with no way of contacting their families as they did not have local phones. There are still many who remain stranded overseas. Relations between Pakistan and the UAE, a major host of Pakistani labour migrants, were also affected with the Pakistan government accusing UAE authorities of infecting the returning migrants via unsanitary living conditions. 


Pakistan is also home to scores of undocumented Afghans, mostly in the city of Karachi. Many of them who lived in unofficial refugee settlements in Karachi were unable to access relief services during the pandemic from the Government, leaving them with no choice but to return to Afghanistan. As stories of Afghan refugees left to fend for themselves began to circulate, the Afghan government requested Pakistan to temporarily open its land borders to allow them to return. In early April, thousands of stranded Afghan migrants rushed across into Afghanistan, also taking with them the threat of infection.




As Pakistan began to take measures to curb the spread of the virus, the country’s National Highways were shut down to all public traffic, save the transport of goods and services. This effectively also cut off millions of seasonal labour migrants across the country, most of whom were working in Pakistan’s booming agricultural sector in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, and who were subsequently unable to return to their families. 


Pakistan has currently almost 9 million internal seasonal labour migrants who work across its four provinces. With the accompanying shutdown of inter-provincial and inter-city public transport, many were unable to afford the private cost of transportation, which came with the added burden of allowing only two people per vehicle, as per government orders. As Pakistan, like other countries, began to shut down, the threat of layoffs to millions of these internal seasonal labour migrants added to their woes. While unlike in neighbouring India, these migrants did not attempt the perilous journey home on foot, it nevertheless left them stranded in their temporary abodes with the imminent threat of eviction and job loss.




Lockdowns in Pakistan’s major urban centres also led to bans on public transportation within cities. In Karachi, the country’s financial centre and home to (unofficially) almost 20 million people, this ban stranded millions of workers whose only mode of travel across this vast city was via public transport. Despite the fact that the lockdown rendered most businesses closed, essential workers still required a way to travel to work. Others, such as daily-wage earners who had no means of income, defied the transport bans and decided to become labour migrants themselves, leaving cities and provinces to travel outwards in search of employment, using any form of travel they could find, legal or illegal. Those who remained within the city were effectively cordoned off in various neighbourhoods and were unable to move freely, thus curbing their livelihood.




In all three cases, the restrictions on mobility reflect the constant movement in the life of a migrant, whether internal or external. In the case of international labour migrants, the question of migrant rights overseas comes sharply into focus. Most Pakistani labour migrants in the Gulf are provided inadequate means of support by the Pakistani Government in terms of their rights overseas. This includes the right to repatriation under emergencies, as demonstrated by Pakistan’s extremely slow and non-committal response to flying back its workers.


Likewise, inefficient forms of mobility within Pakistan include a failing transport system in its largest city, which works against its own residents, let alone refugees and undocumented migrants. The same applies to seasonal migrant workers, who like their international counterparts, do not have any formal access to social protection measures. These serious limitations in mobility are only further amplified during a global pandemic. 


While the pandemic has made a migrant of almost everyone who is stranded outside their homes, the fact is that it has also affected both the mobility and, as a result, the livelihoods of even those who are technically not migrants. This demonstrates how, at every level of labour, mobility is key in ensuring migrants safe access to not just their families, but also their livelihoods. 

Themrise Khan.jpg

Themrise Khan

Themrise Khan is an Independent development professional with over 25 years of experience in international development, social policy, gender and global migration. She is based in Karachi, Pakistan and blogs at

Twitter: @themrise

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