Why I broke the law at the Islamabad airport

Published: January 11, 2011
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Airport security can push law abiding citizens over the edge

While working abroad, not many of us can afford to go back to Pakistan for a visit as often as we like. In 2009, when I finally had some time (and $1700 to spare), I landed in Islamabad. Two weeks flew by and I found myself at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport, ready to head back to the US.

As I handed my passport to the official looking security fellow, he looked at my face and said:

ji, aap kay pass protector nahi hai

(you do not have a protector).

With my passport handed back to me, I was dismissed. Having no clue what he was talking about, I asked him why I could not go through. His reply was still that I did not have a protector.

What was a protector? Who was a protector? What was he protecting me from?

The security fellow finally pointed to an alarmingly small piece of paper stuck on the wall behind him that said that all Pakistani citizens working abroad were required to have an official stamp from the Protector of Emigrants, Ministry of Labor, Government of Pakistan.

What the…?!

On top of all this confusion, I was told that a sum of Rs6,000 (read: bribe) was that was needed to let me through. Not surprising. Thankfully my father was still around, and after a few arguments, I was let through and told that I should get this protector the next time around.

Obviously this protector could not have been that important since I was allowed to go through five security checks and board my flight to the United States without it. Later, when I tried looking up the website for the Pakistan Embassy in Houston, disappointingly I could find none.

A year later I was back in Pakistan (with still no information on the embassy’s website); this time fully prepared to protect myself in the 14 days I was going to be there.

For this protection I had to fill seven forms and visit three different banks for pay-orders and cash deposits. While doing it, I also had to get a “voluntarily mandatory” life insurance policy, apply for a new National Identification Card, sign numerous affidavits conceding/stipulating/affirming/denying various declarations and provide an unbelievable amount of photocopies. There is no doubt that the Xerox industry in Pakistan rules all.

The Emigration Ordinance 1979 describes Protector of Emigrants as a public servant appointed by the federal government to authorise departure of a Pakistani going abroad on the purpose of employment, after submission of certain fees of course!

The run-around was not so much of a nuisance as the amount of money I seemed to be dishing out for this so called protection. The registration fee is understandable. I’ll even accept the life insurance. But a welfare fund? What welfare? I asked this question many times without any luck at a semi-reasonable answer.

In total, I had to spend over Rs5,000 in order to get a simple protection stamp on my passport. One look at the stamp and I wished I had justpaid a few measly bucks on the black market and saved myself the headache.

Bureaucracy at its finest? I think so.

Ayeza Zafar

Ayeza Zafar

Currently works with the University of Texas as a Communications Specialist in biomedical research. She holds a Bachelors degree in Communications and New Media from St Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas and a Masters degree in Organizational Communication and Information Architecture from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.