KARACHI: Everyone in this world wants to live a good life. The meaning of a good life can mean different things to different people – it is subjective and can be influenced by personal values, beliefs, and experiences. But all are in search of a better life than the one they are living – a good life with happiness, fulfilment, and purpose. The pursuit of such ends, however, can be more perilous for some than we imagine.

In a country like Pakistan where the economic situation is not stable and the basic necessities of life are not accessible, especially for the poor, people often try to move out of Pakistan. Those who are wealthy enough or can secure a good job abroad can move by legal means. But many families, particularly in rural areas, are desperate for income. In their attempts to move abroad to secure a better life for their own selves and their children, they can fall into the trap of human traffickers who promise them work or marriage opportunities in other countries.

Source, transit & destination

Human trafficking is a grave issue that plagues many countries around the world, including Pakistan. This illicit trade involves the forced movement of people across borders for various purposes, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, and organ harvesting. Pakistan is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, with many being sold into domestic slavery, sexual exploitation, or forced marriages. Those who are trafficked for labour may end up working in brick kilns, agriculture, or other industries, often enduring long hours, low pay, and abusive conditions.

While it is difficult to determine the exact number of people affected by human trafficking in Pakistan, estimates suggest that thousands of men, women, and children are trafficked every year. Pakistan is placed on the Tier 2 list of the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US Department of State, which means the countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Pakistan is both a source and destination country for human trafficking. The majority of victims are women and children, who are often forced into sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, bonded labor, or forced begging.

A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 women and children are trafficked in Pakistan every year. The report also stated that the problem is most acute in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of cases reported to the authorities. In 2020, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) reported 4,231 cases of human trafficking, up from 2,428 in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of human trafficking in Pakistan, with many vulnerable individuals becoming even more at risk due to economic hardships and social isolation.

The Pakistani government has taken some steps to address the issue of human trafficking, including passing legislation and establishing a National Task Force on Human Trafficking. Still, more needs to be done to combat this problem, including increasing public awareness and taking more decisive action against traffickers. It is also essential to provide support and rehabilitation services to victims of trafficking to help them rebuild their lives.

There are many reasons why people become involved in human trafficking, both as traffickers and as victims. Some of them include; poverty, lack of education, social and cultural factors, political instability, and psychological factors.

The tragedy of Shahida Raza

Poverty is one of the primary factors that contribute to human trafficking. Poverty creates a desperate situation where people are willing to take risks to improve their economic conditions. Traffickers take advantage of this vulnerability by offering false promises of a better life and job opportunities.

People living in poverty often lack access to education and job opportunities, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. They may be more likely to accept job offers from recruiters who promise good wages and benefits, but in reality, these recruiters are actually traffickers. Once they accept the job, they may find themselves in a situation where they are forced to work in inhumane conditions for little or no pay.

In many cases, the victims of human trafficking are from poor, rural areas where they have limited opportunities to make a living.

Taking an example, recently, we saw an incident that caused the death of more than 59 migrants including 12 children when a vessel carrying more than 200 people broke apart while trying to land near Crotone. The migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Iran were on board. They were traveling from Turkey and were enroute to enter Italy and Austria.

This included more than two dozen Pakistani migrants and among them was a national women’s hockey and football player Shahida Raza who in search of a better future for herself and her disabled son, enlisted human smugglers to travel from Pakistan all the way to Italy through illegal means. Her journey and life ended off the coast of Italy.

Her friend Summaya Kainat who also played hockey with her told The Express Tribune that Raza’s husband divorced her following his inability to live with a disabled child. Kainat claims that Raza moved out of her house in the suburbs of Quetta four months ago. She entered Iran through Pakistan’s southwest border with the intention of eventually making her way to Italy or Austria and requesting asylum there. After leaving Iran, she travelled to Turkey.

According to Kainat, she chose asylum because she thought it would be simpler to obtain refugee status after entering these nations illegitimately than it would be to obtain a regular visa.

“Raza was the only breadwinner of the family. She said she would take her son Hasan away with her as soon as she obtained a job,” she said. Hasan, who is 3 years old, has a handicap that prevents him from speaking or moving unassisted, according to Kainat. She was unable to identify the impairment.

In 2007, Raza began playing hockey in the national league, and the army and the water and electricity authority funded her for many years. When the sponsorship ended, Raza was left jobless in a nation experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades, according to Kainat. She played SAFF Championship for Pakistan and was the national champion with Balochistan United in football.

“Whenever I spoke to her on WhatsApp while she was visiting Turkey or Iran, she was crying and enquiring about Hasan,” shared Kainat.

It is essential to address poverty and provide economic opportunities to vulnerable communities to prevent human trafficking. This includes providing education and training programs, creating job opportunities, and implementing social safety net programs. By addressing the root causes of poverty, we can help reduce the vulnerability of people to human trafficking.

Lack of education

When people do not have access to education, they are more likely to be vulnerable to traffickers who prey on their lack of knowledge and understanding of their rights and the laws that protect them from exploitation. They may not know how to recognize the signs of trafficking or how to protect themselves from traffickers.

A lack of education can also limit job opportunities, leaving people with few options for earning a living. Traffickers may exploit this vulnerability by offering false job opportunities in other countries or cities, where they will be forced into labor or sexual exploitation.

Education equips people with critical thinking skills, which can help them identify and avoid situations that are potentially dangerous or exploitative. Without these skills, people may be more likely to fall prey to traffickers who use manipulative tactics to control and exploit their victims.

Providing education and awareness-raising programs can help prevent human trafficking by equipping people with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves from exploitation. Education also opens up opportunities for people, which can reduce their vulnerability to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Social and cultural factors

These factors can create an environment where certain groups of people are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In many cultures, women and girls are viewed as inferior to men and are often subjected to discrimination and violence. This discrimination makes them more vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labor, or forced marriage.

In some societies, certain ethnic or racial groups may be marginalized and discriminated against. These groups may have limited access to education and employment opportunities, which makes them more vulnerable to trafficking. Raza being a member of the Shi’ite Muslim Hazara minority, a sect often targeted by Islamist militants was also a victim of this.

Some traditional practices, such as arranged marriages or dowry systems, can make women and girls vulnerable to trafficking. In some cases, parents may sell their daughters into marriage or prostitution to pay off debts or improve their economic situation.

Addressing social and cultural factors requires a multi-faceted approach that involves education, awareness-raising, and legal reforms. It is important to promote gender equality, combat discrimination, and raise awareness about the risks of trafficking. Legal reforms can also help to strengthen the protection of vulnerable groups and ensure that traffickers are held accountable for their crimes.

Political instability

Political instability can lead to displacement, either within a country or across borders. Displaced people may be vulnerable to trafficking, as they may be forced to flee their homes without proper documentation or social support networks. They may be more willing to accept offers of employment or other benefits from traffickers who promise to help them.

In Pakistan where the political situation is unstable for months and the inflation has been increasing every month, the people are finding ways to flee the country at any cost and this is where the traffickers take advantage.

Following political instability, the rule of law has also become weak, and law enforcement agencies are either corrupt or ineffective. This has made it easier for traffickers to operate without fear of being caught or punished. However, the Pakistani government said they were planning a new crackdown on people smugglers in the province of Punjab after the boat tragedy. In the operation against them, they were able to arrest three people from Gujrat who were involved in the trafficking of the group that included Raza.

Political instability also leads to increased poverty. As we discussed earlier, poverty is a significant contributing factor to human trafficking. When people are desperate to improve their economic situation, they may be more willing to take risks and accept offers from traffickers.

The experts say that political instability can also lead to conflict, which can create conditions that are conducive to trafficking. In conflict zones, trafficking can occur in the form of forced labor, sexual exploitation, or child soldiers. Armed groups may use trafficking as a means of financing their activities or maintaining control over the population.

Although there are number of social services working in Pakistan against the human trafficking but still political instability creates a difficult environment for them to operate in. This makes it difficult for vulnerable groups, such as women and children, to access the support they need to protect themselves from trafficking.

It is crucial to provide support to vulnerable populations, such as displaced persons, and to ensure that social services are available to those who need them. There is also a need to raise awareness about the risks of trafficking and to ensure that law enforcement agencies are properly trained and resourced to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors can contribute to human trafficking in Pakistan in several ways. Many victims of trafficking have experienced trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, which can lead to psychological distress. Traffickers may exploit this vulnerability by promising victims a way out of their difficult situation, only to trap them in exploitation and abuse.

Similar was the case of Raza who after facing divorce was unable to take care of her child and got involved in human trafficking to give a better life to her child.

In some cases mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, can make people more vulnerable to trafficking. This is particularly true for individuals who lack access to mental health services or support networks.

People with low self-esteem may be also vulnerable to trafficking, as they may feel that they have few options in life and may be more willing to take risks in pursuit of a better future. Traffickers exploit this by offering victims false promises of love, support, or a better life.

Traffickers often use psychological tactics to manipulate and control their victims, such as threats, isolation, and intimidation. They may also use drugs to control victims or force them into addiction.

To tackle this situation the victims should be provided access to mental health services and support networks, promoting self-esteem and resilience, and providing education and awareness-raising initiatives to vulnerable populations. It is also important to investigate and prosecute traffickers, to ensure that they are held accountable for their crimes, and to provide victims with access to legal and social services to help them rebuild their lives.

Steps to take

One of the most popular routes used by human traffickers to transport migrants into Europe includes Turkey. These individuals may travel by road, trek for miles, or endure being imprisoned in ship containers for days. According to the U.N. refugee agency, nearly half of those arriving in Italy by sea last year did so via Turkey, accounting for approximately 15% of all arrivals.

Stopping human trafficking requires a comprehensive approach. Some of the steps that can be taken in a country like Pakistan involves the following steps:

Strengthening Laws: Pakistan should strengthen its laws and regulations against human trafficking. The government should also implement the existing laws and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Awareness and Education: Awareness and education campaigns can help people understand the dangers of human trafficking and how to avoid becoming a victim. These campaigns should target vulnerable groups, such as women and children, who are at a higher risk of being trafficked.

Border Control: Pakistan should strengthen its border control to prevent the cross-border trafficking of individuals. This can be done by increasing the number of border patrols and improving the coordination between the border guards and law enforcement agencies.

International Cooperation: International cooperation can be an effective way to stop human trafficking. Pakistan should work closely with neighboring countries and international organizations to prevent the cross-border trafficking of individuals and to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.

Rehabilitation and Support: Victims of human trafficking require specialized rehabilitation and support services. Pakistan should provide these services to victims to help them recover and reintegrate into society.

Addressing root causes: It’s important to address the root causes of human trafficking, such as poverty, lack of education, and social inequality. By addressing these underlying issues, we can prevent people from becoming vulnerable to human trafficking in the first place.

Putting a halt or to decrease the topping of human trafficking in Pakistan will require a concerted effort from the government, civil society organizations, and international community. By working together, we can prevent this heinous crime and protect the human rights of individuals.

It is important for individuals to be aware of the signs of human trafficking and to report any suspicions to authorities or organizations that can provide assistance. This includes being aware of individuals who are working in exploitative conditions or who appear to be under the control of others.

Source: The Express Tribune, MARCH 12, 2023