“There are many horizons that must be visited … and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed…” Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North.
IT was 1991 and I was travelling by road in a small group to Iran, Turkey and Greece. In Maku, a city in a mountain gorge in west Azerbaijan province, 22 kilometres away from the Turkish border, we met two Bangladeshis who were travelling to Turkey onward to Greece “on mules”, they told us.
I was flabbergasted. “We travel by night, lest we are caught,” they shared with us, their fellow South Asians. Once they would reach Greece, they planned to slip away to greener pastures — Germany or France. Later, in a small pension in Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus, we were served by a young man from Punjab who told us his tale of woe: his agent, also a Pakistani, had robbed him of his passport and dollars.
The number of young men dreaming of new shores has increased.
The number of young men dreaming of other horizons, and writing tales of deceit and deception in the scrolls of their life, has increased since then. The recent news of the arrest of migrant smugglers who deceived men from Gujranwala with a promise to send them to Europe is indicative of the persisting trend in migrant smuggling and human trafficking.
The 1990s was the last decade for easy border crossing by land. Then came 9/11 and strict monitoring of the borders ensued. Pakistan promulgated the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance in 2002 followed by anti-human trafficking units and circles established under the jurisdiction of the FIA. But improved land interdiction has not deterred the recklessness of the dreamers or the chicanery of the swindlers. It has merely resulted in an increase in the use of sea routes.
In 2016, Pakistan was put under the Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year by the US. The Trafficking in Persons Report brought out annually under the US domestic law (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) that deals with trafficking globally notes that Pakistan does not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards though it is making efforts. The number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is significantly high and the country has failed to provide evidence of increased efforts to curb trafficking crimes which include bonded labour. The report says “official complicity in trafficking remained a significant concern” in Pakistan.
Though Pakistan has ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, it is not a signatory to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, nor has it signed the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.
Pakistan is one of the 10 countries whose nationals attempt irregular migration using fraudulent documentation. Our FIA records on its website that between July and August 2015, the number of people deported to Pakistan was 18,958 and persons deported from Iran, Turkey, Greece, Oman and Spain was 2,230. This gives some indication of the increasing number of people vulnerable to exploitation. In its latest edition of Red Book 2016, the FIA has profiled 92 most wanted human traffickers most of whom belong to the districts of Punjab — Lahore, Sialkot, Mandi Bahauddin, Gujranwala and Gujrat.
I have yet to come across a study investigating the reasons for human trafficking in Punjab — Pakistan’s most prosperous province. No doubt, Punjab has its share of poverty-ridden population but that’s mostly in the south. The districts quoted above contain flourishing industrial cities and are ranked as least deprived with low multidimensional poverty indices. The push factors generally associated with human trafficking are poverty, marginalisation, low level of education and the high-risk taking ability of the victims.
The extensive research done on human trafficking on the other side of the border, the Indian Punjab, notorious as the hub of human trafficking despite its prosperity, may shed a bit of light on our Punjab. K.C. Saha calls it “…Punjabi fascination for alien shores…” though push factors remain economic compulsions.
“Punjab may be hailed as a prosperous state but here very few jobs are available, especially for rural semi-educated youth. Add to this, corruption and nepotism in the job market and the situation becomes grimmer.” This analysis fits the situation in our province.
Unless the ‘3P’ paradigm — prevention, protection and prevention — to combat human trafficking is pursued vigorously by the government, the situation is likely to stagnate or worsen. Recommended preventive steps are inclusive labour laws and strong enforcement, robust labour recruitment programmes and awareness-raising among the population at risk. The 2013 draft Act to Prevent and Combat Trafficking in Persons prepared to address the gaps of the 2002 law should to be finalised.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2017