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Too little recognition of human trafficking in Pakistan

I vividly remember that on November 15 last year, when my family was preparing to celebrate the birthday of my elder son, our electronic media started airing shocking news. A paramilitary force in Baluchistan, the Levies, had found the bullet-riddled bodies of 15 young men in Turbat near the Pakistan-Iran border.

According to authorities in Baluchistan’s Kech district, all of the victims were from the Gujrat district of Punjab province and had wanted to cross the border into Iran. Three days later, five more bodies were found dumped in the same district.

All the victims were generally the age of my son, and they were shot from point-blank range. I was highly saddened.

The banned Baluch Liberation Front, headed by Allah Nazar Baloch, claimed responsibility for the killings of the young men from Punjab to further the cause of dismembering Baluchistan from Pakistan. Meanwhile the spokesman for the Baluchistan government, Anwarul Haq Kakar, also quickly confirmed the separatists’ narrative and said human traffickers mostly traveled at night to escape detection by border security forces and were quite often picked up by separatists and killed.

To government officials, it was business as usual, but I was immensely frustrated and wanted to know more about this tragedy. Indian-sponsored insurgents were a reality, but what motivated Pakistani youth to risk their lives by attempting the illegal border crossing?

Though rarely discussed in mainstream media, human trafficking is a huge problem all over the world, including Pakistan. Many children in Pakistan are bought, sold, rented, and placed in forced begging rings, domestic service and brick-making factories. Militant groups also force children to spy or die as suicide bombers.

According to statistics of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about 450,000 Pakistanis migrate each year, 300,000 of them illegally.

The commission further says that around 20,000 to 26,000 illegal Pakistani immigrants are deported back by Iranian authorities each year, and several of them are shot dead by Iranian security forces while crossing the border.

The Pakistani security forces receive 20 to 25 dead bodies each year from Iran and Turkey, which mostly remain unclaimed.

These unclaimed bodies lying on the borders tell a horrific story of unemployment and mis-governance in Pakistan. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that necessitates public awareness regarding human traffickers and the repercussions of illegal entry into foreign countries through such networks.

The desire to go abroad for a better life has become intense among young Pakistanis because of poverty and a lack of opportunities. We often come across horror stories of victims who have been exploited by merciless and cruel smugglers. Greed for money rules this illegal trade. International criminals are also involved in this lucrative business, which needs to be checked at appropriate forums.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif condemned the awful incident of the young men’s killing and constituted a committee headed by provincial minister Rana Mashhood Ahmed Khan to identify the reasons for the incident and present recommendations. To date, such recommendations have not been made public.

The “busy” legislators of Pakistan need to focus on real issues and finalize the draft of an anti-trafficking bill tabled in 2013 and a national action plan drafted in 2014 to address gaps in existing legislation against human trafficking.

Human trafficking is an organized crime and a big business in many parts of the world. However, in Pakistan, what is different is the continuously increasing volume of the traffic and lack of interest in stemming the tide.

This article was first published at Asia Times.

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