On January 16, a dozen global human rights experts, associated with the United Nations Human Rights Council, raised serious concerns on the alarming increase in abductions of girls in Pakistan who are later forced to marry and trafficked far from their homes. They urged the Pakistan authorities to adopt and enforce legislation prohibiting forced and child marriages, kidnapping, coerced religious conversions, and trafficking, and abide by their international human rights commitments to combat slavery and human trafficking, and to uphold the rights of women and children, in particular.
This statement, issued in Geneva, coincided with the news released by the United States Department of Justice on January 24, of the court having sentenced three Pakistani-origin Americans in Richmond, Virginia on the charges of committing forced labour and for compelling the domestic labour of a Pakistani girl who was trafficked to the US under cover of solemnising marriage in Pakistan with a member of the American family. The family had forced the girl to serve the family as a domestic servant under violent circumstances.
The victim was living in inhumane conditions. The convicted family was using verbal and physical abuses and employing coercive means to compel the victim’s labour in their home. She was forced to work every day from early morning till late night, was confined to home premises all the time, and was not allowed to go out or to speak to anyone except this family. Also, the girl was restricted from calling her family in Pakistan and no money was ever given to her. This was going on for twelve long years since her fake wedlock, despite the fact that she became mother to three children during this period.
The incident has been a stark reminder to the gross scope, magnitude and dimensions of human trafficking practices in Pakistan as there are numerous cases, within and outside Pakistan, of forced marriages of Pakistani girls who were later to serve as domestic servants or were exploited for sex purposes. In 2019, the press and electronic media covered many reports of the Chinese men coming to Pakistan to marry girls, and showing fake business documents to establish their credibility, having offered lucrative sums to their poor families, and taking them back to China on the pretext of marriage. But these girls, in some cases minor and, in others, belonging to minority groups too, were employed in China for sex trade. There are horrendous stories of exploitation by criminal gangs of the poor victims.
At least 629 girls and women were sold as brides to the Chinese men within a period of two years (2018-2019), according to the Associated Press (AP). The foreign news agency reported that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had presented in September 2019 a report to the Prime Minister on bride-trafficking business. Titled as “Fake Chinese Marriages Cases”, the report had provided details of cases registered against 52 Chinese nationals and 20 of their Pakistani perpetrators operating mainly in Islamabad, Lahore and Faisalabad. Subsequently, several girls were rescued from China while many remained trapped there. Nonetheless, strong trafficking networks continue to operate exploiting the poor and vulnerable.
Pakistan, one of the source countries for human trafficking, ranks 8th among 167 countries in terms of prevalence of modern slavery and bonded & forced labour exploitation. There were 32,022 cases of bonded, forced and child labour registered in 2020 and 21,253 in 2021, whereas many cases are never reported. The number of bonded labour cases did not rise in 2021 as an impact of Covid-19 pandemic that curtailed traffickers’ activities. An outdated estimate of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is that 1.8 million work as bonded labour in Pakistan, whereas the estimate of another source is of 3.18 million living under the conditions of slavery. These men, women and children work across the country in informal sectors of agriculture, textiles, mining, hotels & restaurants, brick-kilns, and fisheries, and illegal trades of beggary, drug trafficking, and sex trade.
A higher unemployment rate, increasing cost of living, poverty, illiteracy and worsening economic conditions pose a real challenge to internal trafficking. It is estimated that there are 1.5 million children homeless, mostly in Karachi, who are vulnerable to kidnapping, abduction and trafficking. Pakistan remains a hotbed of people traffickers in the wake of corruption and laxity by law-enforcing agencies. In December last year a trafficking racket was busted in Hyderabad when 18 perpetrators were arrested who had trafficked some 14,000 victims. “The 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: Pakistan” issued by the United States Department of State points out that the largest trafficking problem in Pakistan is forced and bonded labour. The Report has placed Pakistan in the category of not fully meeting the minimum standards for combating or elimination of trafficking but making significant efforts for compliance with these standards.
The “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022” released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights the global issue stating that “increased impunity in home countries resulting in more victims trafficked to more destinations”. The Report also warns that “climate change is multiplying trafficking risks”. The UNODC, under the framework of Global Action against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants--Asia and Middle East, has launched on January 30 at Islamabad a programme for Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for investigation of trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants. The programme is aimed at customising a procedural framework for law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking through effective enforcement of the applicable laws and rules in Pakistan; namely the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018, and the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act, 2018. Pakistan, with the help of international cooperation, should be able to curb human trafficking significantly, specially the bonded and forced labour, in the short term.
The writer is a retired Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation