Terrorism and drug-trafficking along the porous Pak-Afghan border regularly catch headlines, but the issue of human trafficking is seldom addressed. The Supreme Court on Thursday, sought reports from police and human rights organisations about the alleged smuggling of Pakistani women to Afghanistan. A three-member SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, has taken up a suo moto case of a woman, who was allegedly kidnapped and sold to an Afghan national by a gang operating in Rawalpindi.

The problem may have only just reached the apex court, but has been around for a long time. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that criminal networks operating in Pakistan generated about $927 million through human trafficking and migrant smuggling in 2013. There is a structured system for exploiting women and children in sex trafficking. NGOs report that boys are subjected to sex trafficking around hotels, truck stops, bus stations, and shrines. Reports indicate that police accept bribes to ignore prostitution in general, and women and girls are sold into forced marriages. In some cases, their new “husbands” prostitute them in Iran or Afghanistan. Non-state militant groups kidnap children, buy them from destitute parents, or coerce parents with threats or fraudulent promises into giving their children away. Pakistan’s large number of internally displaced persons, due to natural disasters and domestic military operations, are vulnerable to trafficking.

The players include international trafficking gangs, local gangs, local militants, and in many cases a negligent and corrupt police with an uninterested bureaucracy. The government in 2016 dismantled a fraudulent migrant worker recruitment centre that allegedly sent Pakistani workers to labour camps in Saudi Arabia. However, the government did not take sufficient steps to inform emigrants about trafficking even though a significant number of migrant workers become trafficking victims. In January 2016, the Prime Minister announced 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were granted an extension of residency until June 30, 2016; however, new cards with this expiration date were not issued, consequently increasing the vulnerability of Afghan refugees to police harassment and curtailing access to education and employment, which increased vulnerability to human trafficking. In 2016, when the government reduced the demand for commercial sex acts by arresting clients and proprietors of brothels; the police also arrested potential sex trafficking victims.

The state seems oblivious and uninterested. Additional Advocate General of Punjab Razak A Mirza, told the Supreme Court that no organised gang existed in the country. The stance was immediately changed when questioned, and the Additional Advocate General claimed that some local and foreign elements were behind such trafficking to defame the country. Blaming external forces does not solve the problem facing Pakistani women and children, and a security crackdown is warranted if the state wants to protect its people.