Follow the latest updates on the Covid-19 pandemic here
Tens of thousands of Pakistani expats who were stranded abroad due to flight restrictions have returned in recent weeks, the country's new envoy to the UAE has said.
Nearly 12,000 flew from Pakistan to the UAE in the two weeks after restrictions were eased on August 4, Hassan Afzal Khan, Consul General to Dubai, told The National.
Many more are expected now that Pakistani airports have brought in rapid testing, while Etihad resumed flights from Pakistan to Abu Dhabi this week.
Hassan Afzal Khan, a diplomat with 19 years of experience with Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, joined the consulate general two weeks ago.
“During the last two weeks, I would say, a huge number of Pakistanis have rejoined their families and jobs here,” Mr Khan said.
The UAE holds the second largest Pakistani expat community in the world, and the official hopes to continue assisting the more than 1.6 million Pakistanis who call the emirates their home.
Many of his country's citizens have been facing difficulties since the start of 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He replaced Ahmed Amjad Ali, whose work was crucial at the height of the pandemic as thousands of Pakistanis were repatriated amid travel restrictions.
Mr Khan said he was focused on improving the welfare of Pakistanis and would continue to hold talks with local authorities to ease employment visa restrictions that often affect single Pakistani men.
Welfare of citizens
“There's over 1.6 million Pakistanis in the UAE and most of them are low-income, so our target is to provide them efficient consular services," he said.
“One thing we have to understand is that most of them are not well-educated, so our efforts are to guide them in a way where they don't have to visit us time and time again, and that we provide them digitised services, where they be able to understand the requirements and get services.”
Many people from Pakistan, especially labourers, seek work abroad to provide for their families.
Some earn less than Dh1,500 ($408) a month and often rely on the consulate and humanitarian agencies to help with donations or issues such as delayed salaries and repatriation costs.
Mr Khan said the pandemic created many other challenges and local authorities helped the consulate to tackle them.
When many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, they relied on the consulate for food and other necessities.
Pakistan carried out its biggest repatriation operation last year, with more than 60,000 people flown home. Now it aims to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates in the country, which will help those who want to work abroad.
Between flight restrictions lifting on August 4 and August 16, 11,995 Pakistanis had returned to the UAE, a number he expects has increased significantly since then.
“A year ago, our focus was on the repatriation of Pakistanis because a lot of them had lost their jobs. We also provided them with basic food and other stuff at their doorstep because movement was not possible,” he said.
“Now, we are in vaccination phase. We are crossing almost 44 million vaccinations in Pakistan.”
The consulate hopes to continue assisting citizens who are difficulty because of the pandemic.
Travel restrictions for Pakistanis
Pakistan was one of six countries that were the subject of a UAE travel ban because of the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant.
This month, the UAE eased restrictions on those with UAE residency visas who met certain criteria.
Travelling from Pakistan for tourism is still not allowed.
The consulate has also had discussions with local authorities about making employment visas available to skilled workers in Pakistan, Mr Khan said.
Last year, many Pakistanis, particularly labourers and single men, said their employment visa applications were rejected.
Mr Khan believes this was because of the low demand for labourers.
“The situation has changed dramatically,” he said.
“Although the infrastructure and the development in the UAE is growing, we all know it's not at that pace. Therefore, there is no demand for more jobs from anywhere in the world.
"So, it's not only the Pakistanis getting affected by that, a lot of communities who send their labour to the UAE, they are not getting jobs. I'm aware of that and we are looking forward to things improving."
Talks have been held with the authorities with the aim of giving skilled workers access to employment in the UAE, he said.
Mr Khan said he was optimistic "the skilled labour from Pakistan will be able to get in" and would be "given a priority".
Pakistan pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai
Mr Khan hopes Pakistan’s participation at Expo 2020 Dubai will help to bolster relations between the two countries.
Construction of the pavilion, which covers 3,251 square metres of the Opportunity District, was completed in March.
“From Pakistan’s point of view, the Pakistani pavilion will showcase all of our traditions and culture here in the UAE,” he said.
“There are more than nine themes that we are working on. The Pakistani government and the private sector are involved.”
Taking the theme "Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure", the country aims to boost tourism, commerce and investment.
The pavilion will take visitors on a journey from the world's earliest recorded civilisations to the challenges of the new millennium, Pakistan has said.