World Day against Trafficking in Persons is observed on July 30 every year to create awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights. According to the United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, almost a third of all human trafficking victims worldwide are children. The report also highlights that women and girls comprise 71pc of human trafficking victims.
The report comes at a time when Pakistan is battling the trafficking of women, especially Christians, to China in the name of marriage. In an article, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) sheds light on how Chinese men, especially those from poor rural areas who do not have the means to pay the high bride price demanded by Chinese women’s families, resort to “importing” women from poor neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam, and Pakistan. However, these women, who in most cases are from even more impoverished rural areas themselves, are often lured by the promise of a better life in China, only to find themselves victims of human trafficking, not only for being forcefully married, but for the purposes of prostitution as well.
According to International Labour Organisation, around 21 million people are victims of forced labour globally, out of which a significant number are victims of human trafficking. While Pakistan, China and India are in the top ten for the countries which have the highest number of trafficking victims, as per the reports of the US Department of States, Bangladesh has been ranked in the tier 2 watchlist. The country does not completely meet the minimum standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 which is required to combat trafficking in persons. But the country has been making considerable efforts to do so by initiating the National Plan of Action and investigations. The UN General Assembly adopted the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, urging governments worldwide to take coordinated and consistent measures to defeat the menace in 2010.
According to EFSAS, organized crime rings on both sides of the border have been taking advantage of the China-Pak friendship, by exploiting the high demand for women in China and the appalling situation of women from marginalized minorities and communities in Pakistan. Illegal marriage centres, set up by both Pakistani and Chinese matchmakers, have been luring women primarily from Pakistan’s Christian community, into marriages with supposedly good, wealthy, Christian Chinese men. Once married, the brides are sent to China with their new husbands, and reports from such brides expose a horrifying pattern of abuse and forced prostitution on behalf of their Chinese husbands. Testimonies show that after marrying in Pakistan and moving to China with their new husbands, brides are treated violently, often times sequestered by their husbands, and exploited.
According to a Voice of America (VoA) report, Muqadas Ashraf was 16 years old when her parents forced her to marry a Chinese man who had come to Pakistan looking for a wife. Less than five months later, Muqadas is back in her home country and pregnant. She is seeking a divorce from a husband she says was abusive. Muqadas is one of hundreds of poor Christian girls trafficked to China. The market for wives has grown quickly in Pakistan since late last year, activists say. Sometimes, Christian clergy members help the traffickers in exchange for money. The clergy will find very poor parents and promise them wealth in return for their daughters. Parents receive several thousand dollars. They are told that their new sons-in-law are wealthy Chinese Christians. But most of the men are neither wealthy nor Christian. That information comes from several brides, their parents, an activist, church leaders and government officials.
Most girls do not agree to the marriages. Instead, they are forced into them. Once the girls arrive in China, they find themselves alone in rural areas. They may face abuse and be left without any way to communicate with family back home or the Chinese around them.
Human Rights Watch called on China and Pakistan to take action to end trafficking. It warned in a statement of “increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of slavery in China.” Recently, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in raids in the Punjab in connection with trafficking. The Chinese embassy said that China was cooperating with Pakistan to act against illegal trafficking centers. Rights activists in Pakistan began to see increased numbers of Pakistani-Chinese marriages in October, 2018. Since then, an estimated 750 to 1,000 Pakistani girls have been married to Chinese men. Pakistan’s small Christian community, centered in the Punjab province, is an easy target. There are about 2.5 million Christians in the country’s majority Muslim population of 200 million. Christians are among Pakistan’s poorest people.
Some of the men seeking wives are from among tens of thousands of Chinese workers living in Pakistan. They work on projects connected to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This effort has strengthened ties between the two countries in recent years. Other men search directly for Pakistani wives from China. They present themselves as Christians, but church leaders involved in the deals do not ask for any proof of it. They pay on average $3,500 to $5,000, including payments to parents, church leaders and a dealer.
Christian clergy leaders receive money from dealers to find brides for Chinese men. Gujranwala has been a special target of dealers. More than 100 local Christian women and girls have recently been married to Chinese nationals. Reportedly, a group of pastors work with a private Chinese marriage dealer.
The instances of the marriages have reduced considerably after the media highlighted the issue, which alerted law enforcement agencies to act. Pakistan will have to ensure its minorities are protected against exploitation.