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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Pakistanis lament foreign exodus
A Pakistani soldier looks towards Indian positions
The region is on a knife-edge over Kashmir

Britain's decision to close consular offices and evacuate all "non-essential" staff from Pakistan is bad news for those dependent on expatriates for their livelihood.

For years, Pakistan has served as a base for international agencies working in Afghanistan.


I might as well go back to London, or maybe to Kabul, which I hear is the safest place in the region these days

Pakistani businessman
Since January, many organisations have transferred their operations to Kabul.

And many Pakistanis - office clerks, cooks, drivers, cleaners and gardeners - are losing their jobs.

"Before, you would simply recommend your employees to new arrivals when you left," said one British aid consultant. "Now there is no one to recommend them to."

Shopkeepers, many of them catering for foreigners with specially-imported goods, such as English marmalades and American ice cream, are also complaining of a major drop in business.

Tour operators say that they have received numerous cancellations from resident foreigners and tourists from Europe for mountain holidays.

A soldier guards the British Embassy in Islamabad
Embassy security has been tightened
"It's tragic. Things were really beginning to look up last year," said one Pakistani businessman, who had returned home from Britain two years ago to set up a catering service to foreign companies, embassies and aid agencies.

"Now with Pakistan and India having a go at each other and this growing threat of terrorism by Islamic groups, I am not sure there is much future for Pakistan these days.

"I might as well go back to London, or maybe to Kabul, which I hear is the safest place in the region these days."

New targets

The nervousness is not so much the current tension between India and Pakistan, but rather increased threats by suspected Islamic militants against so-called "soft-targets," notably aid workers, journalists, UN staff and other expatriates.


I don't think we'll be returning as a family. It's not a life like this

Swiss mother
The United Nations has now requested that all dependents of Pakistan-based families of UN personnel working in Afghanistan leave Islamabad by the end of June, with Dubai named the new "family" station for the region.

"We're concerned by the Kashmir situation, but this sort of thing has been blowing up and subsiding for decades.

"It's the unpredictability of the Islamic terrorists that we're really worried about," noted one French diplomat.

As one UN security representative noted, the US embassy has tightened its security to such an extent that militants are thought to be targeting other members of the international community.

School closures

Following the suicide attack in Karachi in early May - in which a bomber killed 14 people, 11 of them French - European and other embassies have stepped up their security measures but are not issuing specific evacuation orders.

Police carry the injured away from the scene of the blast
Attacks on foreigners are increasing
The German embassy says it has no plans to pull out personnel. The same goes for the Swiss and Belgians.

The British school has now closed, and the French school has announced that it will shut down by mid-June, one week early.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the schools will reopen in September.

Evacuated British citizens have been told not to count on returning.

This is bad news for the international child-care nurseries run mainly by Pakistanis, who have been desperate to re-assure parents with additional security.

"If it goes on like this, we'll probably have to close," said one nursery school director. "We suffered badly last autumn when everyone left. I doubt that we'll be able to survive another departure."

Guards

Internationally-frequented locations in Islamabad such as the Marriott Hotel, the UN club, the French club, and even shopping centres in the quiet tree-lined suburban areas of Islamabad are all considered potential targets by Western security officers.

Given such growing security fears, several of the European embassies admit that many of their nationals in the aid, diplomatic, and business sectors will probably not come back after the summer holidays.

Even though extra guards have been placed outside gates to check vehicles and scrutinise visitors, such precautions are not proving sufficient for many families.

"I just don't want my children to go out. I don't think we'll be returning as a family. It's not a life like this," said one Swiss mother.

See also:

18 May 02 | South Asia
23 May 02 | Media reports
23 May 02 | Business
22 May 02 | South Asia
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