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Why are so many of our children going missing?

Updated Aug 15, 2016 03:12pm

From media reports, it seems Punjab in particular is in the grips of an epidemic of child kidnapping. What exactly is going on?

Images on Sunday takes a closer look at the situation.


Runaways or abducted?

by Asif Chaudhry

Lahore’s communities blame the police for not doing enough about the apparent rise in kidnapping cases but authorities contest the locals’ version of why their children are missing.

Umair’s parents had been frantically searching for their son a few weeks ago when his body was discovered in a sack placed in a drain.

It had only been a week since the eight-year-old had gone missing. The youngest in his family, Umair was, according to his father, Shafiq Bhatti, more ambitious than his three other siblings.

Umair was interested in acquiring an education and attended school while Bhatti’s other children helped him in his shoemaking business

As Bhatti recalls the day they finally found Umair, he gets visibily upset. “My son’s body was so badly mutilated that I could not recognise his face or other body parts. My heartbeat increased when I reached the spot and saw a red ribbon around the boy’s wrist that I had obtained from a pir. My heart sank as I recognised him by the ribbon,” Bhatti says before bursting into tears.

Umair was one of 11 children that have recently gone missing from Badami Bagh (the police have told Images on Sunday that three of those missing children have since returned).

One of the most densely populated areas in Lahore, Badami Bagh, until recently, was known as a transport hub — it houses the largest intercity bus stand and the city’s railway station is nearby — but the rise in the number of missing children in the locality has put it under the spotlight for a different reason.

Parents residing in the area apparently live in a state of perpetual fear and outrage; there have been reportedly many protests by Badami Bagh residents outside police stations and there is tangible tension between the local community and the authorities.

A few weeks ago, when Umair’s body was discovered, hundreds of people blocked the road and surrounded Badami Bagh police station; raising slogans against the police for hours, they expressed their outrage at the police’s failure to provide security for children of poor families.

But the police claim that most of the children who have gone ‘missing’ are runaways and have not been abducted. They also point out that most children have been ‘recovered’.

According to statistics provided by the Punjab Police to Dawn, a total of 767 children have been reported missing this year from which 722 have been recovered (see Missing Children 2011 - 2016 for more details).

Based on these figures provided by the authorities, a similar pattern is repeated annually. For instance, in 2015, a total of 1,134 were reported missing and 1,093 were recovered; in 2014, a total of 1,203 went missing and 1,185 were recovered.

The police department has documented an analysis on child kidnapping/missing cases which shows that 44.1 per cent children left home due to their parents’ harsh behaviour, 21.6 per cent were lost and then found, 7.6 per cent fled due to family disputes, 6.1 per cent were abducted by one of the parents, 5.1 per cent were recovered during the kidnapping attempt, 4.6 per cent ran way due to maltreatment at madressahs, 4.1 per cent were abducted by their relatives, 2.3 per cent were abducted for sexual abuse and 2.9 per cent was due to miscellaneous factors.

The figures, provided by the authorities, indicate a similar pattern over the years — the number of children reported missing hasn’t changed in the last few years. Are kidnappings on the rise? Or, as the police claim, the rise in kidnappings is a story cooked up by the media?

Are kidnappings on the rise?

Initially the police claimed that the ‘missing’ children hadn’t been kidnapped but had run away from home. Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Capt (Retired) Amin Wains believes the media hasn’t captured the full context of what’s happening. “Such incidents have appeared over the years and the community has played a decisive role in recovering the missing children … but a section of media … has misjudged the situation and started reporting all missing children as incidents of kidnapping,” says Wains.

According to the CCPO, a routine practice has been adopted for the recovery of children: announcements are made in the mohalla mosques, parks, playgrounds, and other places that children visit frequently. Often close relatives join the search party.

Wains agrees, however, that there does seem to be an increase in kidnapping incidents. “No doubt the child abduction cases are increasing but the ratio constitutes less than five per cent of the total missing children in Lahore.” He also points out that a distinction needs to be drawn between runaways and abduction.

“In order to understand the phenomenon of missing children, we have to classify them in groups according to their age. Most children who are being reported by media as ‘kidnapped’ were between 10 to 17 years old. They are runaway children, not kidnapped,” he argues.

According to Wains, children run away from home for a number of reasons: because they are being pushed into labour by their families or to escape harsh treatment by them.

Giving an example, he said that out of 342 children who had gone missing in 2015, 149 were between 11 to 15 years of age; later 142 of them returned home but seven were still missing.

“Same is the case with those belonging to the age group from six to 10 years,” he said, adding that out of the 115 children of this age group who had gone missing in 2015, 106 had returned safely.

In the first six months of 2016, according to the police, a total of 208 children went missing but 189 of those missing have been either recovered by the police and/or were reunited with their families.

A refuge for runaways

Saba Sadiq, the Child Protection Bureau (CPB) chairperson, agrees with CCPO Wains, pointing out that most children recovered or rescued by the bureau were runaways. “Most of them leave their homes due to strictness of parents and many others from pressure in schools,” she said, adding that such incidents are frequent in urban areas of Punjab.

According to her, presently 1,600 children of various age groups are under their protection. “Over 200 alone are in the Lahore centre, recovered by the Child Protection Bureau from darbars, parks and playgrounds,” she said.

Sadiq said that the Faisalabad centre also houses a large number of runaway children; most of whom had preferred to live on the streets due to the stress at home. “We have laid down a procedure to reunite lost children with their parents. A dedicated bureau team traces their parents and hands over the kids to them through local courts after going through a verification process.”

She added that the recent frequent incidents of child abduction have led to greater involvement of CPB.

“The bureau has enhanced its capacity, efficacy and coordination with the police in order to find the maximum number of missing kids. As major stakeholders, mohalla committees and local masjid administration should be activated to effectively deal with this menace. Law enforcement and monitoring of play grounds, game centres, parks, darbars, and hotels can also help prevent such incidents.”

The two sides of vigilante justice

CCPO Wains points out that the ‘hysteria’ around kidnapping has put people in unnecessary danger. He cites a recent case that occurred in Mughalpura where a mob tortured a man because they suspected him of trying to kidnap a boy. The police intervened and shifted the man to a hospital. An investigation by the police later revealed that the man had visited the area to see his girlfriend.

Wains says that many such cases of vigilante justice have cropped up recently. A 50-year-old balloon seller, Zahid Iqbal was mercilessly beaten up by the citizens in Harbancepura when a local suspected him to be a ‘child kidnapper’. An elderly woman also faced the wrath of a city mob on the same issue.

“Seven such other incidents have occurred in the last five days and the situation is getting bad to worse with every passing day due to misreporting,” Wains says.

Who killed Umair?

After the kidnappings in Badami Bagh, there had been a spike in the number of kidnappings reported throughout the city. When panic gripped Lahore, the Supreme Court took suo moto notice and Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, formed a task force.

As the tension between the communities and the police authorities escalated, Sharif announced this past Tuesday that ‘recovered’ children will be asked to take a polygraph test. Given that children are known to be unreliable witnesses, the jury is out on whether this idea is anything more than a PR exercise.

Bhatti blames his son’s death on the negligence of the PML-N leaders and the Punjab government. “Where are the Sharifs and in what capacity are they ruling? For what purpose did they get elected and why are they so indifferent to our plight?” says Bhatti.

The belt stretching from Badami Bagh to Shadbagh is a PML-N stronghold and Bhatti is clearly upset that no official has visited him. “Is the disappearance of 11 innocent children a tiny issue? Why didn’t any of the elected representatives visit the parents who are in mourning?” Bhatti persistently asks.

The lost children of Lahore

Police investigated Umair’s death and concluded he was sexually assaulted. So far, they have no suspect in custody. Umair’s case isn’t the only one that has remained unsolved. Eleven-year-old Fahad, who has been missing since December 27, 2015, has also been declared a runaway by the police. They’ve told Fahad’s family that he’s likely to return home on his own; the family doesn’t believe this is the case.

Fahad’s father, Chaudhry Gul Mohammad, a government employee and resident of Data Nagar, says “If my son left home for any reason, why he is not coming back? It is almost eight months and no one knows the conditions that he is living in. We have no words to share our pain and sorrow.”

Mohammad believes Fahad was kidnapped while playing on the street. He states that his son’s friends told him that a strange man took Fahad away when they were playing. Mohammad and his neighbours have apparently searched for Fahad everywhere — from frequently-visited relatives’ homes to parks and durbars and made announcements from local mosques.

“After failing to find my son, I visited the police station time and again but the officials were apathetic,” he said adding that the police officials kept on repeating their boilerplate response — that 10-17 year olds deliberately run away due to personal and socioeconomic reasons.

The story Rafaqat Ali tells is similar to that of Mohammad’s. His 12-year-old son Sameer went missing on July 8, 2016. Sameer, the eldest of five children, was helping his family financially by working after school at a local motor mechanic shop for Rs50 a day.

“Sameer’s mother has almost lost her senses. She roams around the neighbourhood streets and cries loudly like a traumatised person,” says Rafaqat. He adds that the recovery of the abducted children’s bodies had further terrified him and his family. The police have lodged a kidnapping case against unknown person(s) but, according to Rafaqat, have done nothing else to facilitate his son’s recovery.

“It is a matter of grave concern that children are being kidnapped and the police are showing the least interest to the victim’s families,” he said, adding that he had heard that three more children had been kidnapped from adjoining localities of his area, Sher Shah Road.


The missing sons and daughters of Karachi

by Fahad Naveed

Children from underprivileged backgrounds are frequently kidnapped but law enforcers fail to recognise these disappearances as abductions.

A loudspeaker tied to a minaret of a mosque makes an unpleasant sound as it is turned on. “Listen intently to this announcement,” a voice commands, “a child named Taha*, who is wearing beige shalwar kameez, has gone missing from the zoo. If you find him please contact the mosque.”

Taha’s family had gone out for a picnic earlier that day. While his parents and extended family shared a laugh, he went towards a cage fascinated by the monkeys inside. A woman donning a black chador was watching him intently. As he gleefully ran further from his family and towards an ice cream stall, the woman followed him. Maintaining a safe distance from his parents, she grabbed him with her chador and quietly exited the zoo.

Subsequently, the child’s photo and description were posted around the city. After 200 days, Taha’s parents had almost lost hope when the phone rang — someone had left a tip. “A beggar in Pakhtunabad matches this description,” a man had told the Roshni Helpline, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily for the protection of children.

In a raid, the police, along with Roshni Helpline, found Taha and two other children tied to a charpoy at a house in Pakhtunabad. The young boys’ captors had planned to sell them forward to another ‘group’ in upper Sindh.

Taha was recovered in a fragile mental state. He looked nothing like his former self. With a shaved head, piercings in both ears, and cigarette burns on various body parts, his own mother could not recognise the boy.

This was back in 2006, a year when kidnappings were supposedly at a low. The Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) reports that 28 individuals — of all ages — were kidnapped that year.

Roshni’s president, Muhammad Ali, shares a different story, one where children from underprivileged backgrounds are frequently kidnapped, with law enforcers failing to recognise these disappearances as abductions.

A numbers war

The situation remains largely unchanged 10 years later. As per CPLC data, this year 15 individuals were kidnapped in Karachi up till June 22. Representatives of the Roshni Helpline believe that these stats are based primarily on FIRs, and thus are inaccurate.

Mr Ali points out that there’s a rich-poor divide when it comes to the handling of kidnapping cases by the police. He explains that when a child, specifically one from a low-income household, goes missing, the police tells the parents that the child may be lost and could come back in a few days, or that these might be ‘runaway’ cases. This means that the child has left of its own accord. In these cases, the police file a NC report (non-cognisable offence report) in their roznamcha diary, instead of lodging an FIR.

Children do run away from their homes, but as per patterns noticed by Mr Ali, they are usually over the age of 10. On the other hand, younger children with limited decision-making skills are kidnapped for various reasons. “Infants up to the age of two are picked up for false adoption, children between the ages of one and six are picked up by the begging mafia or for the purpose of bonded labour, while some children are picked up for sex crimes. In cases from underprivileged areas, very rarely are children picked up for ransom,” says Mr Ahmed Raza, programme manager Roshni Helpline.

“Only ‘kidnapping for ransom’ cases, where an industrialist’s child has been kidnapped, are considered abductions here. In these instances, often, the FIR book is sent to the kidnapped person’s house and an FIR is lodged swiftly and with no fuss,” says Mr Ali.

Talking numbers in kidnapping cases is not easy. CPLC’s assistant chief, Shabbar Malik, maintains that the organisation’s statistics are not compiled from FIRs alone, but are recorded from various sources. “All the data that CPLC shares is backed with proper evidence. Whether it is based on a call, email or fax, everything is recorded and verifiable.”

CPLC also assists families in getting FIRs lodged. “Often, people are reluctant to go to the police; they come to us because we keep them comfortable. Our priority is the safe release of victims,” says Mr Malik.

Yet, the numbers do not match. If Roshni’s 2015 annual report is to be believed, 2,160 children went missing under mysterious circumstances that year in Karachi. This number, they say, is compiled and verified from reports by the organisation’s volunteers, reports gathered on the NGO’s website and social media pages, newspaper reports and roznamcha diary entries of various police stations.

While a good number of these children may have been runaway cases, enclosed in these figures are cases of kidnappings not recorded in FIR books.

Laws of selection

Nine-year-old Roma was playing outside her house in Machar Colony when she was kidnapped. On July 16, a day after her disappearance, her father frantically went to the police station. The police filed a missing persons report at the time and sent him home.

Roma’s body was found 15 days later, dumped near Islam Chowk. “The medico-legal officer of Civil Hospital has confirmed the girl was strangled,” Docks Station House Officer Amin Marri had reportedly said following the incident. The medico-legal officer also confirmed that the child had been raped before being killed.

Only after the horrific incident, a FIR was lodged against the culprits. Enraged, Roma’s family took to the streets to protest what they believe was a case of police negligence.

Additional IG Sindh Sohail Jokhio does not see why citizens should have any problems getting an FIR lodged. “The IG has given clear instructions that even if a bike is stolen or someone’s purse is stolen, an FIR must be lodged,” he says.

Mr Jokhio does concede that, “sometimes the police may say that check around your area, keep a lookout at hospitals for 24 hours, and if the child still does not turn up an FIR is lodged”.

He shares that for the convenience of citizens, there is also the option of lodging an FIR online. A dedicated unit looks at these complaints.

“The problem here is not that there is no law,” says human rights lawyer Faisal Siddiqi.

The law is clear. As per Pakistan Penal Code’s section 364-A “Kidnapping or abducting a person under the age of 14,” can be punishable by “death or with imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and shall not be less than seven years.”

Mr Siddiqi clarifies that a child going missing is not an offence; the police are not legally bound to lodge an FIR. “The police have a legal justification: they can say the parents have been unable to show that an offence has taken place. If parents say that they suspect that their child has been kidnapped, then it is an offence — even if the family cannot say who may have kidnapped the child,” he further explains.

The advocate believes that the problem is also not the implementation of law either, “as liberals believe”. The real problem, “the crux of the matter, is access to the legal system. You can access it through connections or a lawyer, [but] people from lower-income brackets have neither,” he adds.

High stakes

Child abductions continues to be a large problem in Karachi — Mr Ali shares that for the last three to four years, the localities of Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Landhi, Korangi, Bin Qasim and Baldia have been high-risk areas, with a large number of reported missing children.

He does caution however that there is more than one way to read the data. “The city has about 114 police stations, if particular police stations are reporting a higher number of abductions; it may be because now a culture has been cultivated in these stations, where people’s reports are actually recorded.” Even if a tad over optimistic, this does sound like a sliver of hope in a persistently murky scenario.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2016