At a dialogue on ‘Child Trafficking in Persons and Bonded Labour’ a few days back, participated by top officials of the national police, the FIA and National Commission on the Rights of the Child, along with the minister for poverty alleviation and social safety and the counsellor of cultural affairs at the US State Department, better methods and mechanisms to stop child trafficking and bonded labour were emphasized. Over three million people are currently living under modern-day slavery in Pakistan and, according to the US State Department’s ‘2023 Trafficking in Persons Report: Pakistan’, the Pakistan government reported a staggering 35,309 trafficking victims in 2022. This is an increase of over 14000 reported victims from the previous year. It is hard to discern whether the increase was due to a greater incidence of trafficking in persons or improved reporting mechanisms, given that many cases of trafficking likely go unreported. The solutions offered range from increased funding and awareness at the district level, strengthening punishment for perpetrators and establishing separate child protection courts while also emphasizing the rehabilitation of child victims and increasing awareness of these crimes through the media and school curricula.
However, strengthening the enforcement and protections against child trafficking or bonded labour will only deal with the symptoms of a larger problem. It is crucial to recognize that the issues of child trafficking and modern-day slavery are closely tied to widespread poverty, lack of employment and education and lack of access to legal resources and law enforcement among the poor. The US State Department’s report notes that some victims of trafficking end up being re-trafficked due to the lack of employment or vocational training services. It must also be noted that out-of-school children, of which there are an estimated 22.8 million in Pakistan as per Unicef, are more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation in the form of forced labour. Child labourers are also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and the US State Department report mentions an incident in which boys from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were lured to work in coal mines only to be subjected to sex trafficking. It has also been seen that at times parents too are complicit and that, in general, authorities often return potential victims to their parents even if they might have been complicit in the crime, raising the risk of re-trafficking.
This brings into view the poverty-to-child-trafficking pipeline, showing how poor and out-of-school children are more vulnerable to being trafficked and exploited. It also points to the need for greater oversight of industries where bonded or forced labour is more prevalent, and taking on the powerful vested interests that sustain these industries including in brick kilns and mining. It is essential to punish those involved in employing bonded labour and those who hold the labourers in bondage as well as they are responsible for spreading this practice. Unless these root causes are confronted, we will only get more victims no matter how much we increase funding or how many special courts we establish.