Human Trafficking in Pakistan. Part 1 – National Context

Before 2008, ‘human trafficking’ was not really an issue in my world. It was something I had heard of, something to do with prostitution and girls who had no choice – I mean I’d seen the Barclaycard style adverts campaigning for the fight against trafficking in persons. But I got a rude awakening from reading a book by Kevin Bales, called Disposable People . Charged with delivering a presentation for my MA on Human Trafficking, I was thrown into some new and shocking literature, exposing stories of people hidden from the surface of our world, treated like disobedient animals. Sitting in the LSE Library, I was only into the first chapter when the tears started flowing down my face over the story of a girl, enslaved in domestic servitude, having endured not just abusive, but torturous conditions. A girl I didn’t know but was one of who knows how many girls no-one would ever know.  As far as problems go, this has been one I’ve been obsessed over since, a pet passion to raise the profile of slavery in this modern day form.

And so it goes, in August 2011, as part of  a field research internship with the Human Rights Commission Pakistan, I delved into human trafficking in Pakistan. The picture painted here covers many typical scenarios and forms of human trafficking that take place across the world. Here is an overview of the Pakistan context:

Domestic work is a big economic sector in Pakistan; however, as part of the informal sector it is highly susceptible to coercion and abuse.  Workers often find themselves cut off from their families and networks and may have illegal immigration status. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has reported a connection between trafficking and domestic servitude where women are bought and sold in to domestic servitude. There is also a link between bonded labour and domestic servitude – see below. Minorities and low-castes are most susceptible to this type of trafficking such as Christians, Bengalis and Musalis.

Bonded labour is prevalent in Pakistan, also known as debt bondage. Debt bondage is the repayment of debt through the provision of services e.g. labour in agriculture, brick kiln work, cotton-seed production, tanning, mining and carpet weaving industries. Again these are industries in the informal sector, which is why this system can lend itself to abuse and the system amounts to no less than slavery. Debt bondage continues to exist despite being outlawed in a number of legislations, and can end up spreading over generations so children inherit the debt and are born in to slavery.

Trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation is common throughout Pakistan. Reports show that there is a trend of Bangladeshi girls and women between the ages of 12 and 35 brought into Karachi, where the buying and selling of trafficked women and girls takes the form of auctions. There is often a family lineage of prostitution particularly among lower caste families and girls may be pimped by their own mothers. In eastern Pakistan and Afghanistan, daughters of prostitutes particularly in the red-light district are outfitted with a natli (nose ring) at birth. When they reach puberty bidders vie to remove the natli, winning bids often exceed $1,000.

The trafficking of young boys from the Punjab desert areas to the Gulf States to ride as camel jockeys has received much recent media attention. Small children have been typically targeted for this sport as they are light and the screams they produce, spurs the camel to run faster. Due to some of the push factors involved in migration (e.g. abject poverty, unemployment), parents become compliant with plans. Children are reported to have suffered various and severe abuses, being made to work seven days a week, to sleep in cramped conditions with other children on the floor, they are sometimes beaten, burned, deprived of food and sexually assaulted. They are prone to kidney infections and STDs. During the race, many children die of fear, they may lose balance and get trampled on by the camels, or get dragged along. The use of such young children in this sport has now been banned in the UAE although it is still thought to occur.

Newspapers periodically run stories about “beggar mafias” that operate in a highly organized manner, and exploit the “labour” of street beggars. Some versions of the “beggar mafia” story have police officials running the organization. There are also anecdotal accounts of kidnapped children being maimed and used as beggars. Limited evidence and research exists around this but recently a gang was exposed for trafficking disabled persons, particularly children, to Iran to be used in begging rings.

Child Soldiers: Reports around conflict areas, particularly in the NWFP and Kashmir area, have noted that non-state militant groups have kidnapped children in order to be used as suicide bombers or in their efforts to spy or fight. Parents are sometimes coerced as well with false promises.

Trafficking for marriage or forced marriage is also a form of human trafficking as the girls involved have no choice and are used or sold on family members or neighbours, for example. The use of tribal customs can also facilitate this. Watta Satta and Swara, for example, are practices that are common in NWFP. Watta Satta is the exchange of brides and Swara is the practice of giving of daughters to resolve family feuds. Girls are also sold to other family members or neighbours.

This is just a brief overview of what forms of human trafficking take place in Pakistan. Part 2 will look at how.

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