A few months ago, late, in the night, strange noises woke me up. I heard the screaming of girls, and shouting in general coming from the house right behind mine. Too scared to investigate, I went back to sleep when things got back to normal,” shares Mrs S, who lives in DHA Karachi’s Phase 2 Extension. “When I woke up the next morning, I found out about the police raid on this house that was actually a den. The neighbours were aware that the house was a den, but no one had the courage to lodge a report with the police. A girl who was being held against her will in that house was also made to launder clothes, which had to be put on the clothesline on the roof. In our neighbourhood, houses are small and their roofs are just three feet apart. The girl saw a servant on the roof of the house next to the one where she was being held. She requested the servant to inform the police that she had been trafficked to Karachi and was being forced into prostitution by a gang. Luckily for her, this servant called the police and in the ensuing raid the girl was freed. We found out that the perpetrators were released in a couple of days, but they moved elsewhere.”
The scribe spoke to a police officer of the concerned police station about the trafficking issue. According to the police source, such cases are 10 a penny. “In most cases, a girl runs away from home with a boy to get married, but end up being ditched by him. She knows she cannot go back to her house, and ends up being in the clutches of a ‘madam’ or ‘aunty’. This ‘madam’ entices her with beautiful clothes and jewellery. If the girl resists, she is threatened, beaten or even sold to some other ‘madam’. Mostly, the girls are so frightened that they give in and are used as sex workers. The madam charges Rs15000 per night or more for the girl from her customers and gives the girl Rs3000 per night as her cut. With no other option, the girl becomes a willing participant and even traps other females,” reveals the police officer.
“The police cannot intervene unless the victim asks us for help. In 2006, the Women Protection Bill was passed, which restricted the police from entering a house on anyone’s complaint about a den in their neighbourhood or building. First, a report must be filed to the magistrate who refers the case to the SP for investigation. The SP establishes the case and reports back to the magistrate who approves the raid, and accompanies the police raiding party. Due to this law, recovering victims has become very difficult,” he adds. However, the source was not aware of Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and for Pakistani people times have been desperate for a long while. Lack of opportunities to earn livelihood make people take unacceptable risks to fend for their families. Their dreams of providing for their families make them easy prey for human traffickers and smugglers. There is a dire need for public in general to become aware of the ways trafficking in person takes place. Cognizant of the situation, Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) a research-based advocacy organisation working on issues of peace and sustainable development in Pakistan recently conducted a two-day workshop for a group of journalists about the ins and outs of human trafficking and smuggling, and the role of journalists in creating awareness by way of improved investigative reporting.
Speaking on the occasion, Syed Kausar Abbas, Executive Director SSDO, clarified that the police are responsible to stop human trafficking within the country borders and FIA has the mandate to stop and apprehend cross border traffickers. It was then pointed out to him by a senior journalist that the police do not do its duty at all, and even refuse to register FIRs about such cases. To this, Abbas said, “Perseverance is the key and we must keep knocking till the door opens. The environment of the house and poverty are basic reasons that make people vulnerable to traffickers.”
Director Programs Shahid Jatoi spoke about problems with the implementation of laws to curb trafficking. Waqar Haider Awan, lawyer, trainer and consultant to SSDO spoke at length about the ways human trafficking and smuggling takes place. Refugees and minorities are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. He also spoke about how traffickers exploit Rohingya refugees in forced labour in Pakistan. “Pakistan is a source, recipient and transient country for traffickers. People are trafficked to Pakistan from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc. They are moved to the Middle East and Europe as domestic and sex workers. The European countries are economically so burdened that they are now concerned about the influx of people who are smuggled or trafficked there,” told Waqar Haider. “Pakistan became a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), held in Palermo, Italy, on 14 Dec 2000, and ratified it on 13 January 2010. Whereas, the parliament of Pakistan passed The Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act and The Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act in 2018. These two laws safeguard the rights of victims of human trafficking and smuggled irregular migrants. In addition, the legislation gives FIA the mandate to prosecute the criminals involved in the said crimes across the border, and the police within the country,” he mentioned.
These laws impose long imprisonment terms and substantial fines for traffickers, smugglers and their accomplices. One of the most important aspects of The Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act, 2018, is the non-criminalisation of smuggled migrants which shows the commitment of the Government of Pakistan to ensure the protection of human rights of victims trapped by unscrupulous migrant smugglers.
Trafficking in persons (TIP) is a form of slavery. It involves moving humans to another place for the purpose of exploitation. Any person who is transported to another place and forced to work in any capacity against his/her will by a person or a gang for financial gains is a victim of trafficking. This dreadful business uses human beings as products. An example would be victims compelled to work in mines, fisheries, carpet weaving and sex industry.
Fear for their own lives and the safety of their loved ones are generally enough to compel the victims to provide their services. If they refuse, threats of violence and death are used by the traffickers. Victims suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse and often live and work in horrific conditions.
What happens to the victims of trafficking?
Everyone who can be lured from the safety of their homes is at risk, but women and children are more vulnerable. They are physically weak and cannot fight for themselves, which makes them an easy prey. In addition, women are impressionable and are easily taken in by false promises made by recruiters, and seemingly attractive job offers that are advertised in newspapers for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East countries. Children are kidnapped and even sold by their parents to beggars and sex traffickers.
First of all, their passports are taken from them. They are subjected to psychological and physical torture to break their spirits. Then they are made to work as sex slaves mostly but also end up being bonded labour. They are also used as drug mules. Threats to their lives and to the lives of their loved ones are used to control them.
Due to poverty and lack of good jobs, migrating to Middle East, America and Europe for better prospects is the dream of most Pakistani men and women. Many of them are lured by traffickers by fake job offers. Unfortunately, people apply for the lucrative looking jobs without checking with the overseas employment ministry and end up becoming the victims of traffickers. Not only that, people pay recruiters to take them to Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Europe knowing fully that theirs would be irregular emigration. Girls go on visit visas and ‘slip’ away, ending up working as bonded labourers in sex industry or as domestic workers, with no rights. They live in fear of discovery and are totally dependent on people harbouring them.
Trafficking for removal of organs: Organ trafficking was rampant in Pakistan, especially in the Punjab. More than 65 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in rural areas, where people work as bonded labourers for their landlords. The people here were once easy pickings for organ traffickers who catered to rich clients from Middle East and other countries. Bonded labourers needed money to pay their debts, and were easily persuaded to sell one of their kidneys. Finally, in 2007, the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Ordinance, followed by the Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Act 2010 curbed organ trafficking to a large extent. It is embarrassing to note that before the promulgation of these two acts, Pakistan was considered as a destination for transplant tourism.
Transgender person trafficking: Transgender persons are also trafficked with impunity, as their disappearance doesn’t bother anyone. Transgender persons live in groups and clans, and their ‘gurus’ hold sway over them. Recently, it has come to light that these gurus are responsible for trafficking their community members.
According to the 2021 report by US Department of State, the government of Pakistan is still struggling to implement ‘rules for the 2018 Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (PTPA), adopting a new five-year national action plan to combat trafficking in persons and migrant smuggling crimes, and referring more potential trafficking victims for care than the previous reporting period’.
According to this report, there have been more convictions for trafficking compared to the previous reporting period, but the convictions of sex traffickers remain elusive. But the report emphasises that “nothing significant has been done to curb labour trafficking, and in Sindh, local officials have not been able to take action against the influential landlords and businessmen that use bonded labour in brick kilns and on farms. Since the government has not taken actions against officials under whose tenure bonded labour is thriving, Pakistan continues to be on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year”.
Shelter for women victims
One cannot help but wonder what happens to the women who are recovered by the police. Private shelter homes take in the trafficked women who are referred by the court or police, but they also help women who somehow manage to get away from their traffickers and approach them directly. According to a spokeswoman of one such shelter home, women used in sex trafficking usually don’t run away because they know that unless they have someone to shelter them, they will have no life or security. They will not be accepted by their families, and the stigma of being involved in prostitution will never leave them. Sometimes, the shelter homes do manage to trace the parents of the recovered girls and return them to their families through the courts, but these occurrences are few and far between.
Mangla Sharma, Member of Provincial Assembly, Sindh, in her budget speech highlighted the trafficking issue. “Pakistan is now in the grey list with regards to human trafficking. We take measures when things come to a head. If we speak in terms of human trafficking, police have a very important role where internal trafficking is concerned, but it is said this is FIA’s job. Internal human trafficking is purely the responsibility of police and external trafficking is FIA’s job. Police Department doesn’t have any mechanism (to combat trafficking), they don’t have training or awareness. If bonded labour or female victims are recovered, they are sent to shelters but there is no provision for male victims. Witness Protection cells should be made for the victims till the case is decided.”
Our foreign missions should help out migrant workers, whether regular or irregular. If the victims manage to escape, our consulates and embassies should facilitate their return to Pakistan and provide them security. Hopefully, stakeholders will ‘do more’ to do away with this modern form of slavery that is destroying uncountable families in Pakistan.