Of a trade in flesh: Victims of human trafficking in Pakistan

Author: Adan Abid

Image via Express Tribune
Image via Express Tribune

Within a globaville that prides itself on the ease and efficiency with which international trade is conducted along a global chain of production and supply, there exists a less prosperous side to commerce. In the dark corners of economy human trafficking still thrives as a rampant transborder phenomenon. Even in this day and age, with its lofty claims to protect fundamental human rights, this hideous form of organised crime has managed to challenge our very credibility as a civilization. Beyond the illegal trade in arms and drugs, here at the lowest ebb of humanity individual bodies are sold and bought at statistics that alarm and disgust at once. According to U.N Secretary Ban Ki-moon, addressing the 13th U.N Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, no country is immune and millions of lives are at stake as humans are heartlessly traded, exploited and ruined (2015).
A bargain that seeks to price human souls, as if mere flesh, levies a heavy burden upon our national sense of right and wrong as Pakistan obtains a shameful place as one of the leading South Asian countries in this morbid business. Somehow, we seem to be topping all the wrong charts – a recent trend that shows no sign of reversal as human development has yet to be seen to be at the heart of federal and provincial policy-making. For the year 2014, the international reputation of our homeland had to bear the blow of being ranked at the 6th position out of 167 countries surveyed for the Global Slavery Index by the Australian campaign Walk Free.
Pakistan – a source, point of transit and destination for men, women and children, offers fertile ground for smuggling syndicates to generate money through forced labour and sexual exploitation. FIA report for 2014 Trafficking in Persons is quick and keen to highlight the significant efforts undertaken by the existing bureaucracy to counter the unabated rise of human smuggling, yet the emphasis has been predominantly on the criminal aspect of the equation. That emphasis while rightly placed in its own right doesn’t quite capture the picture in its entirety. The psycho-social and physical impact of crime on those who are unfortunate enough to live through it is the missing piece. The time is ripe for Pakistani legal doctrine to be inspired along the lines of restorative justice – one that centrally places victims within the judicial and investigative processes. A comprehensive pro-active campaign standing up for the right of victims to compensation, restitution, information, privacy, protection and legal participation is missing from the national policy discourse.
Every year scores of Chinese, Russian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Iranian women cross Pakistani borders to provide the life-blood that enterprises upon prostitution and forced marriages. For a society particularly conscious of the Islamic character of its social values, the behavior of its members belies not only the Muslim but all conceivable standards of morality and ethics. Victim narratives recount the vicious cycle of sexual abuse, physical harassment and psychological torture upon which their daily lives pirouette until the lucky ones escape or are rescued. The use of drugs to numb the trauma of constant humiliation and inadequate personhood is another common experience of young girls who feel the pressure of forces beyond their individual control that continue to orchestrate the scope and prospects of their adult lives.
There is much more that falls under the umbrella term of ‘human trafficking’ : bonded labour in the brick kiln industries of Punjab on the one hand and the systemic use of Pakistani children as camel jockeys in the Gulf states on the other make for a macabre spectrum. Hordes of young children are trafficked into Pakistan to feed the underground, and often under-appreciated, network of begging mafia that subtly plays on the apologetic conscience of the financially privileged at every traffic signal in urban areas.
Professor Ali Khan currently Chair at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, has extensively forayed into projects related to child and bonded labour in collaboration with International Labour Organisation and World Bank. Mr. Khan observes, ”Children can be found in construction, tanneries, agriculture, domestic work, auto-repair, services as well as export industries such as surgical goods and sports manufacturing. I doubt there is an industry that is free of child labour”.
While it may be next to impossible to provide a morally convincing justification to why a large chuck of our national economy is maintained at the expense of a gross violation of human dignity, a better exercise in time would be to identify elements of the agent-structure complex that facilitate human trafficking in the first place.
It makes intuitive sense to attach practical and emotional weight to the idea that men and women (young and old) resort to extreme means of earning livelihood as a nearly auto-response to the poverty they face in their places of origin. The age-old axiom stipulates that from poverty flow all sorts of evils in society. Nowhere does this seem truer than in the dynamics of pull and push that force millions of Pakistanis onto a two-way boulevard of human traffic. Abject living conditions, unemployment, inefficient policing, corrupt administration and an incapacitated system of law and order are to name only a few of the structural elements responsible for the ever-increasing statistics. It takes only cursory observation to conclude that long-term solutions to the fundamental flaws of our inept system of governance may take decades, even centuries, to fully come around. In the mean time, energy and resources must be expended in healing the wounds of victims that have become mere numbers on a chart, saving whom we can. Their stories must be heard and their shoes must be walked for empathy to replace apathy. Each passing day of civic inaction means that the risk of victims not making it back to a life of relative normalcy becomes more pronounced.
In a conversation with the leading figure behind Pakistan Society of Victimology (PSV), Mr. Athar Waheed, he warns against being desensitized to the plight of victims of crime.”We talk about numbers, but behind every number is a human life’’. Mr. Waheed’s words may be stating the obvious, yet his ongoing research, based on over 230 victim profiles from around the country, point towards the ignorant or worse yet the deliberately indifferent attitude of the relevant state institutions that is in need of a thorough overhaul.
Despite the enactment of legal acts, traffic-specific investigative units and national plans to combat human trafficking, victims find themselves trapped in a place where their real chance of access to health services, physical protection and legal assistance is all too scarce, if any. Frightened for their very lives by an intimidating and surprisingly ‘well-connected’ lot of brothel-owners and slave-drivers, no database currently operated in the country is truly acquainted with the truth about the nature or magnitude of human trafficking. This is so because as yet no comprehensive mechanism to identify victims operates through the breadth and length of Pakistan. Social scientists are quick to point that even recorded cases are but the tip of the ice berg; below the surface more lives are tossed around like cattle everyday. A singular challenge to the efficacy of so-called policy declarations is one based on the grounds of lack of accurate knowledge. That pursuit to bridge the discrepancy between statistics and reality might be full of little surprises on the way. Are security officials failing to live up to their solemn oaths to deliver honest and dutiful service? Are national borders not the impregnable walls of safety we desperately believed them to be? Is the leadership merely concerned with buying itself more time without having to go that extra mile needed for a major clean-up? Or is it simply that human lives matter less and lesser with every time the sun rises in a country where violence has become the norm? Perhaps, answers to questions like these might reveal to us our inability as a nation to control three basic human impulses: sex, money and power.

About the Author: The author is a former undergraduate student of Law and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. Currently he is working towards establishing the Pakistan Society of Victimology – a pioneer nationwide forum for advancing research, services and social awareness related to victims of crime and acts of terrorism in Pakistan.