Missing The Warning Signs
In November, 2017, a set of wedding pictures featuring a Pakistani bride and a Chinese groom went viral on social media platforms. In one of the photos, the groom is slipping a ring on to the finger of his wife. In another, the bride, veil demurely pulled down over her face, is carrying a large bouquet of red gladiolas as she and the groom walk out of a door. Rose petals are being showered upon the newlyweds. Her hands are covered with henna designs. He is wearing a garland over a black tuxedo. It is impossible not to see, that though the groom may be a foreigner, this is very much a traditional Pakistani wedding.
‘A CPEC wedding,’ twitter gleefully anointed the ceremony, symbolizing the close ties that Pakistan and China have always had. A comment underneath the post prayed for the couple to have a long married life. And while that particular couple may well still be married, for the myriad other girls who chose to wed Chinese nationals, the dream of a happy marriage were dashed almost immediately.
In the past few weeks, law enforcing agencies in Pakistan have arrested over two dozen Chinese and Pakistan nationals in a bid to stem a shocking fake marriage scam by a human trafficking ring they believe is active since early 2018. Pakistani brides, most of them Christians, taken to China by their husbands were forced into prostitution or organ trading. Since 2015, when the two neighboring countries announced the commencement of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, over 30,000 Chinese nationals have made their way to Pakistan. Most of them work on the behemoth project. Others, though, were paying for weddings to buy, what were in essence, slaves.
Pakistan is vulnerable to modern slavery, perhaps extremely so. Global Slavery Index 2018 ranks Pakistan 8th in the countries with highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world, and ranks it second in countries most vulnerable to forced labor exploitation, forced marriages and other forms of slavery in Asia-Pacific. The index also downgraded Pakistan’s government response rating from C+ in 2016 to C; the change is particularly troubling as it was preceded by a rise of a million cases.
The issue of human exploitation becomes a jarring problem as the current government vows to open doors to foreign investment and tourism. With an increase in influx of foreign nationals arriving in Pakistan, the threat facing vulnerable sections of society, especially poor women, is extremely high.
Pakistan is not the first country to fall victim to the dark side of China’s ‘mail-order brides’ culture.
China’s extreme gender imbalance has created a large population of unwed men, putting it at a centre of a culture of transnational marriages in East Asia, where matchmaking centers are sprouting up with promises of finding a bride, usually from Southeast Asia, for these men. This is convenient, because these girls are usually poor and the prospect of a better living standard in richer Asian countries, like China and South Korea, is exciting, and because women across affluent Asian nations are opting to stay unmarried.
Almost 7,000 Cambodian women were trafficked into China for forced marriages in 2016. A 2018 study found some 5,000 Myanmar women were trafficked into China, and 2,800 were forced into childbirth. Trafficking rings were found operating in Vietnam and Taiwan leading to a ban on commercial marriages.
Pakistan, however, ranks worst in slavery amongst nations where the trafficking cases emerged. In a region so prone to the evils of labor and sexual exploitation, authorities ignored a surprising jump in inter-culture marriages across country, and the seemed to be unaware of the shady practices undertaking at matchmaking centers until the recent crackdown.
Pakistan has taken steps to resolve its smuggling and trafficking problems. In 2017, Pakistan joined UN’s Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants Act. More cases of trafficking were investigated and penalized, mostly in Punjab. The action, though, is little in face of a giant problem. In a report, FIA revealed its own director was involved in human smuggling.
The U.S. State Department updated Pakistan to tier 2 in Trafficking of Persons Report, because the government was able to prosecute more sex trafficking and bonded labor cases in 2017 under the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (PACHTO) act than previous years. However, the report called the action inadequate, and urged for more stringent laws and policies, and more accountability of government officials complicit in trafficking cases.
The government risks a massive humanitarian crisis if the warning signs given by indexes and reports are ignored. As ties grow deeper with China under CPEC and the government seeks to make Pakistan easy to tour, the government must protect sections of society most vulnerable to exploitation in the hands of foreign actors.
The author works in broadcast media and tweets @sarahzafar23.