Pakistan religious discrimination is enabling human trafficking

Travis Weber is FRC's Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs. Arielle Del Turco is with FRC’s Center for Religious Liberty. This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on February 3, 2020.

At 24 years old, Samia Yousaf was forced into marriage. She was promised an escape from poverty in Pakistan, but her new Chinese husband abused her, denied her food, and eventually separated her from her own baby.

Horrific human trafficking stories such as these are common among young Christian women from Pakistan. And because religious minorities, especially Christians such as Samia, are disproportionately affected by such traffickers, their plight is also a religious freedom issue.

National Human Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Month has come and gone, but we must not cease to call attention to the plight of the 24.9 million people around the world who are affected by this scourge. Human trafficking is an affront to human dignity, and countries that suffer from it are obligated to do everything in their power to prevent it and end policies that directly contribute to the commercial sex industry. Forced marriage is one form of human trafficking, a broad umbrella term for any exploitation of individuals using force, fraud, or coercion.

The forced marriage pipeline from Pakistan to China was recently highlighted by a newly uncovered list of 629 Pakistani women and girls sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China. Pakistani investigators painstakingly gathered this information, which points to an alarming trend in the lucrative crime of human trafficking — the targeting of Christians in Pakistan. For Pakistan, ending this barbaric trade means protecting religious freedom and ceasing the marginalization of Christian communities, which makes them easy targets for foreign traffickers.

Christian communities are among the poorest in Pakistan and have high illiteracy rates. They are often relegated to menial jobs as laborers and farmhands. In Lahore, the country's second-largest city, Christians take most of the jobs as sanitation workers and street sweepers, which further stigmatizes them. Christian communities are often geographically segregated from their Muslim neighbors into rural villages or urban ghettos.

Chinese traffickers are targeting these marginalized religious minorities. Traffickers approach impoverished families and offer to pay parents to marry their daughters off to Chinese husbands who will take them to a new life in China. The burden of poverty and social marginalization felt by some Christians drives them to accept this offer out of desperation. Brokers who arrange these marriages have even paid pastors to encourage their congregants to marry their daughters off to Chinese men.

What happens to these brides in China is tragic. Some are abused and isolated. Others are forced into prostitution. In one case, a Pakistani woman escaped back to Pakistan after only two months of marriage in China. She returned malnourished, weak, and unrecognizable. A few weeks later, she was dead.

China’s disastrous social policies have exacerbated the situation. Its one-child policy, combined with its cultural preference for sons over daughters, led to the killing of many female babies and created a severe shortage of women to marry. Now, Chinese traffickers are preying upon foreign populations to secure brides.

The Chinese government is an expert at concealing internal problems, and the scourge of human trafficking on its border is no exception. Pakistani investigations into hundreds of cases came to a halt in November due to fears of damaging Pakistan’s beneficial economic relationship with China. The Chinese government should stop denying that the problem exists and instead work together with Pakistan to end the flow of human trafficking across their shared border.

The U.S. State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom cited claims that the Pakistani government is “inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and official discrimination against Christians.” The government of Pakistan has shown an unwillingness to protect and assist its religious minorities — especially vulnerable women such as Samia. It’s time for that to change.

Pakistan’s failure to protect religious freedom has allowed its Christian minority to become vulnerable to foreign traffickers. That is cause for alarm. The government should be making a better effort to combat the stigmatized status of Christians and ensure they are treated equally in Pakistani society. The scourge of human trafficking is complex to address, but part of Pakistan’s solution should be to improve social and cultural respect for the religious freedom of its minority groups.

By working together, advocates fighting human trafficking and religious persecution can better achieve solutions to both issues.