Migration As Self-Preservation

Migration As Self-Preservation
In Pakistan, we get to see shocking news every other day; though our threshold for such content is high, somehow, a mix of tragedies ends up jolting people from time to time. Recently, we saw the pictures and videos of a boat that sank in Greece while hundreds of people drowned with it.

As a lot of articles and opinion pieces were written on the incident, I came across a podcast where Mohsin Hamid spoke on the subject in a holistic manner. Through his writings, Hamid has explored migration and identity complexities. His work depicts the struggles of displaced individuals and the search for belonging across different cultures; he reflects on globalization, political unrest, and societal changes, shedding light on the human condition in an interconnected world. His book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations, is my favorite to re-read, it is a slender book, and I like the way it looks, the way it feels in my hands. I took it to the Bay Area during my fellowship in 2018 and read it whenever melancholic sadness appeared to make me think of the place called home.

Ali Khan, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Dean at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS, hosted the podcast on the Consortium for Development Policy Research (CDPR) forum. The conversation between Khan and Hamid goes on for about forty-one minutes. It opens with a question about why members of Pakistan's elite are migrating out of Pakistan, despite apparently enjoying unique privileges, including access to jobs and other economic opportunities. Hamid acknowledges the worsening financial situation, currency devaluation, and overall uncertainty within the country. He notes that while migration among highly educated and privileged individuals is not a new phenomenon, there appears to be a growing trend of seeking an exit strategy.

He also sheds light on the fact that right-wing governments in Italy and Britain, despite their anti-migration stance, are struggling to control the influx of immigrants. The clash arises from the high demand for workers in aging societies, forcing a difficult choice between curbing migration and meeting the needs of their populations.

The impulse to migrate extends beyond the working class, revealing a profound drive rooted in the desire for a better life. It encompasses not only the search for employment but also the pursuit of happiness, inspiration, and overall well-being—intangible yet crucial aspects that can't be measured but greatly impact one's quality of life.

The environment is bigger than will; that's why climate impacts, such as poor air quality, lack of safe green spaces, and water scarcity, can drive discontent, as individuals experience adverse psychological effects, reduced happiness, a disconnect from nature, and first-hand exposure to the consequences of climate change. Additionally, systemic issues such as corrupt justice systems and predatory practices further contribute to the push factor.

During the conversation, Ali Khan mentioned how in a recent tragic incident, former Pakistani field hockey player Shahida Raza lost her life in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy while attempting to immigrate. Her story raises multiple pressing issues, including push factors, her status as a Hazara minority, and being a single mother. These factors can push people like Shahida to migrate in search of improved living conditions, safety, and opportunities for themselves and their families.

Mohsin Hamid spoke about how in Pakistan, the desire to migrate extends beyond job scarcity. The country's environment of wild uncertainty, lack of safety, and predatory state leaves people feeling helpless and insecure. Even the most powerful individuals are discovering their vulnerability. With an economy struggling and a sense of helplessness prevailing, the push factor affects all levels of society. Safety, security, and inclusivity remain elusive for large segments of the population.

During my visit to Swat Valley, I witnessed the inadequate designs of bridges, posing risks to pedestrians. Working on a climate-resilient infrastructure project that considers socioeconomic factors, we discussed these challenges with local women; quickly their focus shifted to enrolling in BISP, highlighting the disconnect between immediate needs and long-term development. The historical significance of Swat, influenced by the Persian and Kushan empires, adds depth to the region's infrastructure legacy. The Kushans were tolerant people, allowing locals to practice their religions. They were also patrons of the arts and supported the development of Gandharan art, a unique style of Buddhist art combining Indian, Greek, and Persian influences. Swat has a rich history; however, the region is burdened with many challenges, ranging from climate change and inadequate infrastructure to the burden of heavy traffic and the pressing need for clean drinking water.

Upon my return, I stumbled upon a distressing video on Twitter. It showed women in Charsadda being brutally beaten by a constable while awaiting BISP funds. The camera pans to two men nonchalantly sitting with their feet up while the women suffer. This chilling scene serves as a stark reminder of the dire state of our society, and it signifies the sinking ship we are all aboard.

Hamid shared during the podcast that many well-off people in Pakistan will tell you that it's too late for them, but they're telling their kids never to return. He added that, like many people, he feels sort of more depressed and more pessimistic at the moment than he can remember having felt in a very long time. He said, I'm not writing Pakistan off and saying that it's game over for us, but the challenges are becoming increasingly acute, and breathing space to make these mistakes is getting smaller and smaller.

At the end of his essay, Feverish, and Flooded, Pakistan Can Yet Thrive, written in 2010, Hamid mentioned a Pakistani woman visiting Lahore from Hong Kong, whose friends abroad asked why she was traveling to such a troubled country. She said it was like visiting a loved one when they were sick. At the end of that essay, he added that Pakistan is feverish these days, but he finds much to admire and keep him here, and he hopes for the sake of his daughter's generation that one day soon, the fever will break. When I shared this with a friend, she drew a parallel, suggesting that when a body part gets sick or cancerous, removing that part can prevent the spread of the disease. The people fleeing Pakistan on a boat to Europe were possibly attempting a risky but hopeful act of self-preservation.

The podcast provided a comprehensive perspective, avoiding the usual rhetoric of solely focusing on job creation, building government capacity, etc. It acknowledged the complexity, and that's why we need to involve writers, poets, and artists alongside economists and policymakers. Only meaningful work can happen if we recognize the unquantifiable human factors underlying these issues.

The writer is a communications advisor for the development sector and can be reached at sahar.zafar@atlascorps.org.