THE recent Barkhan incident involving murder and kidnapping of women and children has been a stark reminder to the gross scope, magnitude and dimension of forced labour practices in Pakistan. There are numerous cases of similar nature even though they generally remain unreported.

There are horrendous stories of exploitation of the poor victims by influential landlords and criminal gangs. Strong political linkages and the ‘right’ connections allow the resourceful to continue to engage in such activities, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh, exploiting the poor and the vulnerable.

Pakistan, one of the source countries for human trafficking, ranks 8th among 167 countries in terms of prevalence of modern slavery and exploitation of bonded and forced labour. There were 32,022 cases of bonded, forced and child labour registered in 2020, and 21,253 in 2021, whereas many cases are never reported.

A dated estimate of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was that 1.8 million people work as bonded labour in Pakistan, whereas the estimate of another source is of 3.18 million living under the conditions of slavery.

These men, women and children work across the country in informal sectors of agriculture, textiles, mining, hotels and restaurants, brick-kilns, and fisheries, as well as in the illegal domains of beggary, drug trafficking and flesh trade.

A soaring rate of unemployment, increasing cost of living, poverty, illiteracy and the fast worsening economic conditions together pose a real challenge to any effort that is meant to curb internal trafficking.

It is estimated that there are 1.5 million children homeless, mostly in Karachi, who are vulnerable to kidnapping, abduction and trafficking. Pakistan remains a hotbed of human traffickers in the wake of corruption and laxity on the part of law-enforcement agencies.

In December last year, a trafficking racket was busted in Hyderabad when 18 perpetrators were arrested who had trafficked some 14,000 victims. ‘The 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: Pakistan’, issued by the United States (US) Department of State, pointed out that the largest trafficking problem in Pakistan was forced and bonded labour. The report placed Pakistan in the category of countries not fully meeting the minimum standards for combating or elimination of trafficking.

The ‘Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022’, released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), highlighted the global issue, stating that “increased impunity in home countries” was resulting in “more victims trafficked to more destinations”. The report also warned that climate change was “multiplying trafficking risks”.

Pakistan, with the help of international agencies, like the International Labour Organisation (ILO), should strive to curb human trafficking. And the starting point of any such drive should be the elimination of bonded and forced labour.

Hussain Siddiqui
Islamabad

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2023

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