Media often reports on underaged girls running away from home in different areas across Pakistan and ending up in Punjab. Many of these minors get married, as the minimum age for marriage in Punjab is 16 years, while in the rest of the country, it is 18 years.
This issue was brought up during the Dua-Zaheer case in which a minor girl from Karachi, Sindh travelled to Okara, Punjab – a 15-hour journey over 1,115.0 km by car – to marry. However, as important as the age was in this case, this issue was lost as the media, especially social media, dissected the case creating a lot of confusion and mess.
The media managed to divert attention to irrelevant issues like focusing on the minor girl’s character. The storm of misinformation and malinformation caused things to spiral out of the context causing many important questions unanswered: how a young girl from Karachi managed to travel to another province by public transport? Why didn’t Zaheer come to pick her up if they were in a relationship? Why do minor girls always ‘fall in love’ with boys in Punjab and go there, and never from Punjab to other provinces?
One reason that minor girls ‘travel’ to Punjab to get married could be the minimum age to marry which somehow supports human traffickers to get the job done with minimum effort.
With technology, traffickers have new methods of luring minors through digital media and online gaming. Digital media has provided easy access to minors, and makes it easier to trap children and make them fall in love and ‘run away’.
The authorities need to change the minimum age in Punjab which could at least close down one easy option used by traffickers. However, it is not as easy as that: trafficking in persons is a global problem that even developed and powerful countries like the US have been unable to eradicate. But that is not an excuse for Pakistani authorities not to do anything.
Domestic Trafficking in Persons (TIP)
There are several reasons that help trafficking in persons (TIP) to continue all over the world. The demand is satisfied by the stream of supply that comes from countries like Pakistan, where a large section of the population is poor. The widespread corruption supports criminal groups involved in TIP – both domestic and international.
Poverty and corruption play important roles to keep the TIP stream going. It becomes easier for criminal groups to lure victims with promises of a better life; high-paying jobs, or just guaranteeing a daily meal.
There is no doubt that financial vulnerability works for traffickers, who don’t have to put in too much effort to convince families to hand over their loved ones for financial gain.
Society is responsible for allowing TIP to continue unabated, but the main responsibility lies on Pakistan’s political leaders. If they were doing their job for the betterment of the people, maybe the financial situation would have been stronger and more people would have benefited. Unfortunately, Pakistani leaders have one job to run the country and serve the public instead of looking for shortcuts and quick fixes. And in the process increasing corruption and poverty only benefits criminal elements to prosper at the cost of the vulnerable and marginalised population.
Even today as the country dangles by a thread from the precipice of (increasing circular) debt, default, and food insecurity, financial and political instability to name a few problems, no one knows where the country is heading. And it’s clear that our ‘leaders’ don’t really care.
Things have never been stable as the Pakistani political rollercoaster continues with few paying attention to the real and serious problems that are slowly whittling at the foundations of the country.
Serious problems like TIP may never have been on any government’s priority list but it is a serious problem that is getting worse. No one is worried that Pakistan has been losing its skilled and unskilled labour force, over the last 40 years, to take on well-paid jobs in other countries. During the same time, the brain drain also began, which could not be properly replenished due to the breakdown of public academic institutions.
As economic and social conditions worsen in the country, it is very easy for traffickers to usher victims out of the country on one pretext or another: approximately 300,000 a year according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The boat is slowly sinking, and no one is trying to fix things.
TIP Victims in Plain Sight
TIP victims are all around us but they are invisible. These people are victims of domestic trafficking and are exploited openly, as no one cares what happens to them. Social indifference to the plight of TIP victims makes it even more lucrative, as the criminal groups can continue to work without any fear.
When a minor girl who is not a Muslim is converted and marries a Muslim man, these cases are sometimes celebrated instead of condemned. A child is not mature enough to make a serious decision such as consenting – to not only marry, but also to convert. Legally speaking, a minor cannot enter contracts, drive a vehicle or vote – the reason is that a child is not considered to have the intellectual maturity required to make these decisions.
Despite this, minor girls are converted to Islam and married off which is part of domestic TIP in the country. These minor girls are also taken to Punjab where they get married as Muslim girls to Muslim men. No one, including the media, asks where these girls go after conversion and marriage. Are they still living in Pakistan or abroad, no one knows.
And then there is the domestic form of TIP in which young children from low-income families are sent to live – but really work – in homes with promises of benefits like education, meals and clothes. If the lives of these minors are monitored it will be clear how badly they are treated, and even tortured on the pretext of a better life.
The dark side of domestic TIP, especially of girls and minors, is largely ignored by society and authorities. And the torture and brutality of this only emerges when someone is murdered and the cases is reported in the media, otherwise it is allowed to flourish in plain sight.
In 2016, Tayyaba’s case made headlines. This minor girl worked as domestic help at a judge’s house in Islamabad. A neighbour had somehow saved Tayyaba from the judge’s wife brutality and shared her photos on social media. And soon the case became viral and Tayyaba was saved and the perpetrators punished.
Another case of domestic TIP came to light when the tortured body of 16-year-old Uzma was found in a drain in Lahore in 2019. She worked as domestic help. And in 2022, two minor brothers – Kamran 11, and Rizwan, 7 – had been living for a year as domestic help when they were left with a family in Lahore. The children were tortured and brutally beaten for eating from the fridge. Kamran died from his injuries, while Rizwan was badly injured.
All these children were left by their parents themselves, or ‘guardians’ who claimed to be representing parents offering these children as domestic help. These victims are lured in by promises of a better life – education, a roof, clothes and food – and the family is paid a lump sum to ensure the child will continue to stay with the family for e.g. a year without going home or interference of the family.
The few reported cases do not even represent the real situation. In fact, they only scratch the surface of the problem of voluntary or involuntary trafficking in persons, especially involving minors. It occurs all around but is invisible mainly because it has been normalised.
Other TIP victims – also in plain sight – are the more than 1.5 million street children in Pakistan, mostly minor boys. Only a few civil society organisations are working for them but there is a need to do more to protect them from predators. The government really needs to step up.
There are several reasons that help trafficking in persons (TIP) to continue all over the world. Poverty and corruption play important roles to keep the TIP stream going
International TIP cases
Every year hundreds of young people, especially women, are sent from Pakistan to feed the thriving brothels and nightclubs in different countries.
Girls as young as sixteen are trapped and sent abroad as sex workers. These young girls are trapped without knowing what they are getting themselves into. They are offered with opportunities for higher education, scholarships, or good jobs.
The process they go through for this is a long and difficult one, which is run by trained traffickers who act as agents and recruiters to lay the trap. A lot of money is made at every level right from making documents, mostly fake. They realise they have been trapped but it is usually when they reach the destination and then it is too late. And the cycle of threats and torture begins, as they are forced to work as prostitutes and sex workers.
Another easy way to trap TIP victims is offers of marriage with rich partners. These fake marriages are an easy way of moving victims across borders with their consent and their families.
This problem was highlighted in late 2018 and early 2019 when the media began reporting marriages between Pakistani girls from impoverished backgrounds to rich Chinese men. Initially, these marriages were celebrated and largely covered but soon this marital bubble burst when it became apparent that this was a human trafficking scam. More than 600 Pakistani women had fallen victim to the scam.
Gulf News reported how these women were lured by illegal matchmakers who made “certificates or affidavits for Chinese men showing them as Christian and bachelors and trap poor girls to marry them”.
The report said a middleman promised the women “Rs40,000 (Dh1050) monthly besides mobile phones and Chinese visas” which seemed like a good deal for the poor families.
TIP Numbers: Global and local
The number of TIP cases globally is quite high. According to the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, Pakistan the “Provincial police reported identifying 21,253 trafficking victims, compared with 32,022 trafficking victims in 2020 and 19,954 in 2019 […] Provincial police referred 18,543 trafficking victims to the government or NGOs for care, including 2,316 men, 14,607 women, and 1,595 boys—a significant increase from 11,803 trafficking victims referred to care in the previous reporting period.”
Unfortunately, countries like Pakistan are a point of “origin, transit or destination, and victims from at least 127 countries have been reported to have been exploited in 137 States”. And since TIP is a lucrative business with criminal groups making $3 billion per year in Europe alone, where over 140,000 victims face sexual exploitation and violence, it will be hard work to break the cycle.
And the worst part of TIP is that one out of every five victims are children who are trafficked from poor regions, followed by women who make up to two-thirds of the global TIP victims.
Human Smuggling vs Trafficking in Persons
It is important to understand that human trafficking or trafficking in persons (TIP) and human smuggling – both serious issues – are different. “Human trafficking involves the recruitment, movement or harbouring of people for the purpose of exploitation – such as sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, or organ removal. Victims can be children or adults, boys, girls, men or women, and are trafficked by the use of improper means such as the threat or use of force, fraudulent schemes, deception, or abuse of power. It can occur […] both domestically and internationally.” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC)
While human smuggling “is a crime that takes place only across borders. It consists in assisting migrants to enter or stay in a country illegally, for financial or material gain. Smugglers make a profitable business out of migrants’ need and/or desire to enter a country and the lack of legal documents to do so.”
And it doesn’t help that Pakistan is “a destination and trans-shipment point for illegal drugs with vulnerabilities linked to its porous borders […] and its proximity to the ‘golden triangle’ (Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos) and the ‘golden crescent’ (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran) regions.” (Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering’s mutual evaluation report (MER) of Pakistan (2019))
The MER Report 2019 further stated, “Pakistan is noted as a source, transit, and destination jurisdiction for forced labour and sexual exploitation. Risks associated with people smuggling and asylum seekers include shared cross-border issues with Afghanistan.”
“Pakistan has been on the US State Department’s watch list for human trafficking for a number of years, though it was upgraded from the lowest category (Tier 3) to Tier 2 in 2018. Pakistan authorities recognise these risks and note the involvement of both domestic and transnational organised crime groups in the human trafficking/people smuggling trade in Pakistan”.
Laws to stop TIP and Human Smuggling
Pakistan has laws to tackle TIP and human smuggling, such as “The Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018” and “The Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Acts, 2018,” but these have not proved to be helpful.
The reason for this is that like many other laws passed in the country, these can only be effective when they are implemented. This is only possible when the people and stakeholders are aware of them. But who will do this. The authorities may not be able to tackle this alone and need help.
Role of Civil Society
Governments need help to tackle the problem of TIP, and this is where civil society organisations can play an important supporting role. There are examples where civil society organisations have tried to make an effort and been successful to move the process ahead.
Fortunately, some civil society organisations like the Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) have been working relentlessly to not only highlight the issue but constantly working to spread awareness against TIP through discussions with stakeholders, awareness campaigns and training workshops.
In March 2023, the SSDO organised a two-day International Conference on ‘Combating Trafficking in Persons in Pakistan’ with the US Embassy and Pakistan US Alumni Network (PUAN) which brought stakeholders from all over Pakistan – including parliamentarians, law enforcement, judiciary and prosecution, civil society, academia, and media from Pakistan and the U.S.
Commenting on the role of civil society organisation to help stop TIP, Kausar Abbas, Executive Director of SSDO, said,
“Coordination between the government and civil society is extremely important to stop TIP. The law also emphasises on the important role of civil society as it states that they will become part of the process to assist the government.”
“The civil society organisations will help in developing the referral mechanism; victim protection, capacity building, and awareness is the civil society’s responsibility. There is a need to strengthen the role of civil society organisations, as well as to engage all the relevant stakeholders on this issue because unless they are not sensitised and are not provided capacity building, this issue cannot be addressed,” Abbas added.
Kausar Abbas and his team at SSDO have been organizing workshops, roundtable discussions and meetings with all stakeholders across Pakistan over the last year and a half and these efforts began making a difference. And in 2022, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report (2022) revealed that Pakistan had been upgraded from the Tier 2* “watchlist” to Tier 2*.
(Tier 2 “watchlist” includes governments that do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. Tier 2 includes governments that do not fully comply with the TVPA) minimum standards but are trying to bring themselves into compliance with the standards.)
Speakers at the two-day conference spoke about the importance of strengthening the existing institutions through reforms and capacity-building training workshops, adding that it was a tough job. They added that many developed countries including the US have been unable to completely eradicate this problem and there was a lot more to be done.
“Capacity-building is very important – to train certified officers as certified Investigative officers, create dedicated units for investigation cases at every district level so that only these dedicated officers investigate these cases,” Kausar Abbas said, “and to improve prosecution and for this to specially train prosecutions for this. And it is also important to create special courts where specially trained judges can address all the issues on TIP and improve the conviction rate.”
Abbas said the civil society’s role as a referral mechanism is very important to strengthen the victim protection and rehabilitation process. And that the government should encourage the participation of civil society to work on these issues. “Over the past year and a half, SSDO has been working on this and has successfully assisted all stakeholders in policy-making and also capacity-building. I think other civil society organisations should be strengthened as well.”