Human trafficking has been one of the most acute dilemmas facing contemporary society, which has evolved to take on different forms through time. As per a research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation, the number of victims of modern slavery today is approximated to be 40 million. Globally, the human trafficking has been incentivised by the profit margins brought about by this trade, which stand at a drastic figure of USD 150 billion. Pakistan is a developing country that has been a prey to this trade, owing to the rife poverty, lack of resources for the public and failure of the government to take action against such inhumane practices discussed below. Women and children are among the biggest victims of human trafficking in Pakistan for different avenues.

The institution of human trafficking has largely served to violate the human rights of the victims, and oppress them with no voice to retaliate. The poor and marginalised communities in the rural areas of Pakistan have been the biggest target for these illegal gangs responsible for kidnapping children, raping and sexually assaulting women, selling women for prostitution as sex slaves among other heinous crimes. Sexual slavery and women trafficking have been rampant through time globally, with far-reaching claws that have extended into Pakistan as well.

Women are exploited through forced marriages, sexual abuse and physical violence. Poverty has forced a multitude of women into marrying for money, without their consent, as a means of feeding their poor families while some are sold as repayments of debts in rural areas. Women are traded between different tribal groups as forms of payment and to settle disputes, while girls are sold by their parents into forced marriages, domestic servitude, and prostitution.

Human trafficking in Pakistan takes its worst toll in the shape of children being bought, sold, kidnapped for working in begging rings, domestic servitude and prostitution. Children of all ages are trafficked to be exploited sexually in other countries, while others are forced to work for illegal begging and trafficking rings. Babies are sold to childless couples or couples seeking out a bride for their sons, while girls from Bangladesh, Burma, and other regions of South Asia are trafficked into Pakistan for sale.

A large proportion of child trafficking has been to UAE, where children are sold as camel jockeys and tied to camels during races for pleasure. Children are kidnapped from impoverished areas, and after being subjected to physical abuse, they are forced to beg in the streets for money. Beggary constitutes a significant demand for kidnapped and smuggled children in Pakistan. Other children are kidnapped for the organ harvesting trade, where their organs like kidneys are removed and sold to those needing body parts for high prices.

According to a newspaper report, the cases involving women and children trafficked numbered 20000, with women and girls constituting a major chunk of the trafficked – 80 percent of the trafficked victims with more than 60 percent of those coming from Asia, as per the same report. According to Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, the largest number of traffickers operate in Punjab, ranging from 30 to 35 traffickers. In 2012, 40 officials were under investigation, one was dismissed, and 33 were punished for complicity in human trafficking.

There has been a notable increase in the number of victims across Pakistan, where women and children from the impoverished and underprivileged areas of Pakistan, are sold to different illicit avenues from the ‘bacha bazars’ in neighbouring Afghanistan to prostitution rings and brothels operating in China. The provincial police underlined an increase in 303 victims of human trafficking since 2017, with an estimated 2697 reports of trafficked victims currently pending. The major plight of human trafficking comes in the form of children being smuggled to neighbouring areas both inside and outside Pakistan.

According to a recently-published report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Punjab is native to approximately 20000 children who are suffering from microcephaly and being sent to servitude as forced beggars. The illicit trade of human trafficking in Pakistan stands as a lucrative business with a yearly valuation of $30billion.

All forms of human trafficking in Pakistan can be largely attributed to poverty and lack of education, which has fuelled its unprecedented growth in the recent years. According to the Global Slavery Index, 38.8 percent of Pakistan’s families live below the poverty line, currently standing at a figure of 3186000, with one in four individuals living in acute poverty. With the annual per capita household income in Pakistan at 650.644 USD, the rate of inflation has an upward slope at a rate of 5 percent. Under these circumstances, survival becomes very difficult for poor families who are forced to send children, from young ages, to work, setting them on the path to exploitation and trafficking.

Due to poverty, these poor families cannot afford to file lawsuits for their kidnapped or misplaced family members, further exacerbated by the fact that local authorities often work in conjunction with trafficking rings. The lack of money has led to an imbalance of power, leaving the poor with no capacity to voice their concerns, while these illegal activities continue to enhance their scale of operations.

The growth in these illegal activities can also be attributed to the high illiteracy rate in Pakistan. Being ranked 16th in the list of countries with the lowest literacy rate, Pakistan has an education system which only accommodates one third of the nation’s child population. Low literacy rate has led to a lack of awareness about issues related to high population growth, and thus developing countries like Pakistan are faced with an ever-increasing burden on their meagre resources. The economic growth in Pakistan has been stalled due to rife poverty as lack of education among the workforce has failed to create new jobs, which leads to workers being exploited at the hands of their employers.

Given the magnitude of human trafficking in Pakistan, there is a dire need to address the dilemma of human trafficking in Pakistan. The government should start by conducting comprehensive surveys to decipher the magnitude of trafficking in all its forms. Without a realisation of its scale, it is not possible to devise an actionable plan. The provincial governments, in conjunction with the national government should set up vocational and educational schemes to empower the poor families by imparting vocational skills to them. Simultaneously, rehabilitation programs should be set up for the victims of human trafficking as well as a national fund should be maintained to provide an alternative source of income for these poor families who are forced to sell their children and women for money.

Societal uplifting schemes should be initiated by the government, which collaborate with NGOs to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking and help in exposing locally operating gangs. To curb human trafficking, there needs to be a check and balance on the law and order maintaining bodies like the police to prevent them from working hand-in-hand with prostitution rings. Special prosecutors should be designated to hear trafficking cases, while government officials should be trained on distinguishing between human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

Further, social protection schemes must be extended to the informal sector, coupled with cash transfer schemes, public employment programs, health protection and micro finance initiatives. Governments must undertake training for law enforcement and labour officials from national to local level, on the identification of human traffickers and the implementation of laws criminalising such activities at large. The Chinese government should collaborate with Pakistan in apprehending the illegal Chinese immigrant gangs trafficking local women through marriages to China.

Lastly, the Pakistani government should work in collaboration with the stakeholders involved in bonded labour eradication including all involved government departments, NGOs, businesses and civil society, international donors and organisations, along with UN specialised agencies like the ILO, to counter the growing curse of child and women trafficking. A dire problem in essence, slavery, continues to threaten the global community at large. To curb this problem, the global community should present a united front to the dilemma by working in tandem with international bodies like the UN, ILO and international governments on a grassroots level and devising a plan for every member of the pact to follow.