Globally, the gruesome issue of Human Trafficking has assumed new dimensions with the onset of Covid-19 pandemic that has caused major unemployment and high inflation. The extreme poverty in various countries has thus made many millions of men, women, and children vulnerable to trafficking.
The severity of problem of illegal migrants is reflected in the fact that during twelve-month period ending September 2021, a high record number of 1,734,686 persons were detained in the USA attempting to enter the country from Mexico border, which is translated to an alarming rate of over 4,750 persons per day. This is almost double the number of illegal migrants arrested in the USA during the same period last year. Also, more than 4,000 illegal migrants in Belarus, mostly originating from Iraq and Africa, and would-be migrants to the European Union countries, remained stranded at the Belarus-Poland border for weeks this October.
During July this year, INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, had arrested 286 criminal groups worldwide behind the human trafficking and migrant smuggling, causing breakup of 22 criminal gangs involved in the organised crime. It also rescued some 430 human trafficking victims and 4,000 irregular migrants originating from different countries including Pakistan. This operation resulted in arrest of six members of an organised crime group in North Macedonia (in the Southeast Europe) where its leader has been working with associates in the Middle East to smuggle migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to Greece. Earlier, in December last INTERPOL operation, which was also participated by Pakistan side, had led to more than 200 arrests of members of networks involved in human trafficking and migrants smuggling, and identification of 3,500 irregular migrants in various countries.
There are numerous horrific and heart-rending accounts of illegal migrants travelling through rivers, roads, mountains, and deserts in torturous conditions facing heavy risks even to their lives. In October 2019, as many as 39 persons attempting to enter the UK illegally were found dead in a refrigerated truck near London. This incident followed the disclosure later month of 31 Pakistani illegal migrants hidden in a lorry during police-checks on highway in France near the Italian border. Pakistani lorry driver transporting these migrants, which included three teenagers too, was also arrested.
For long Pakistan has been a country of source, transit and destination for trafficked persons and smuggling of migrants. Every year thousands of Pakistanis make attempt to illegally enter Europe, mainly Greece, via Iran and Turkey and most of them are arrested during transit and sent back to home country. According to reports, Pakistan Embassy in Athens had despatched in October 2019 the bodies of 20 Pakistanis who had attempted to enter Greece illegally. It is ironical that, according to the news report, the President of Pakistan Community of Greece Unity, who is active in the Greek politics, is wanted by INTERPOL for a case involving human smuggling registered in 2005.
Currently, Pakistan is placed at Tier 2 Watch List for its poor handling of human trafficking for the second consecutive year having degraded, in a recent report on trafficking in persons by the US State Department. The report states: “The Government of Pakistan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”. The statement is substantiated by the facts and figures for human trafficking in Pakistan, which shows laxity, rather in some cases official complicity, on the part of law-enforcing agencies responsible to identify and investigate human trafficking.
Though there is no official data available related to human trafficking, it is estimated that some 300,000 persons are trafficked every year from Pakistan. Sadly, the laws to curb human trafficking i.e. Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018 and Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act 2018 neither present an adequate mechanism nor implemented effectively. There were 32,022 trafficking victims identified in the country in 2020 compared to 19,954 in 2019, whereas actual numbers could be much higher. Seemingly, the lack of regular migration opportunities due to Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in higher number of illegal Pakistani migrants.
Despite the government’s checks on illegal migration, which remains half-hearted, the so-called recruiting agents continue their nefarious practices, exploiting the job seekers. The situation has rather grown to larger proportions in recent years; agents having adopted modern fraudulent methods and techniques. The enormity of issue is illustrated in the fact that thousands of Pakistanis are at present imprisoned in various countries on charges of violation of immigration laws, illegal border crossing and tempering of travel documents. There were 11,803 trafficking victims identified last year in Punjab only. On October 30, 2021, the Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) arrested 13 human traffickers from Faisalabad, Sargodha, and other cities of Punjab.
It is estimated that there are 7.6 million overseas Pakistanis living abroad, including migrants who proceed for the purpose of employment. But interestingly, total number of Pakistani migrants having left Pakistan officially for jobs has drastically reduced from record 946,571 persons in 2015 to 625,876 in 2019 to 225,213 in 2020 to 178,126 in 2021 (these figures cover 12-month period ending October each year). On the other hand, “workers’ remittances” have seen record surge on year-on-year basis to the current level of monthly average $2.65 billion in 2021 compared to $1.92 billion in 2020 and $1.82 billion in 2019. This phenomenon may be attributed to many irregular and illegal Pakistani migrants in various countries, besides a variety of other factors.
The FIA has launched in July a National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (2021-2025), with the support of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the government of Canada. In yet another move, Pakistan government has finalised on November 19 an agreement with the government of the UK to deal with the issue of illegal migrants efficiently. This agreement when transformed into the law will require the two governments to repatriate illegal migrants and share data of criminals for effective law enforcement. It is expected that these initiatives would help reduce the crime against the poor in coming years.
The writer is retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation