— A new U.N. study says human trafficking from and through Pakistan has increased during the past year. It adds that the majority of Pakistani and Afghan nationals trying to illegally migrate by sea to countries like Australia are religious or ethnic minorities, such as Hazara Shi'ites escaping persecution at home.
U.N. officials reveal that trafficking networks in the country are also helping Pakistanis engage in fighting in countries like Syria and Egypt.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
says in its research published Thursday that human smuggling networks in Pakistan are “more organized and sophisticated,” encouraging not only locals but people from middle eastern nations to use the country as a transit destination for illegal migration.
The study says trafficking of male Pakistanis to Europe for forced labor is an emerging concern and an increasing number of these illegal migrants are detected using legitimate, but fraudulently obtained travel documents.
UNODC country chief, Cesar Guedes, says most of the migrants are from either economically depressed or violence-hit parts of Pakistan where they do not see any hope.
"We see that trend in Baluchistan, especially some religious and ethnic minorities that do not feel that they can stay further into the country. So, they either migrate within the country or those who are more adventurous try to go beyond the borders,” he said.
Pakistan’s restive southwestern Baluchistan province has witnessed an increase in sectarian violence against the minority Hazara community, who are Shi'ite Muslims.
The latest attack against the population took place on Tuesday when a suicide bomber struck a bus of Shiite pilgrims returning from neighboring Iran in which at least 28 people were killed.
The violence has forced the Hazaras to leave Pakistan and most of them attempt to illegally migrate to Australia by undertaking an extremely dangerous sea journey.
The U.N. study says that the high level of acceptance of refugee claims by Australia demonstrates that Pakistani and Afghan irregular maritime arrivals to the country have legitimate and compelling flight reasons.
Guedes says the migrants travel to South East Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia using valid passports, before boarding small and inadequate boats to embark on the illegal sea journey to Australia.
“Many of those illegal ships, vessels just succumb to the very rough Indian Ocean waters between Indonesia and the Australian territories. So it is a very dramatic and sad story that has a human face," he said. "Those terrains and those waters are probably one of the biggest sea cemeteries of the world regarding this type of trafficked or smuggled people.”
He says the UNODC researchers also have come across information the human smuggling networks in Pakistan are engaged in exporting young Pakistani nationals to participate in conflicts abroad.
“There is definitely that element of people trying to recruit these young energetic people for the wrong reasons and eventually these young lads paying with their lives in other parts of the world in conflicts that do not belong to them,” he said.
He urged Pakistan to strengthen its laws and interdiction efforts to discourage human trafficking from the country.
The head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, Saud Mirza, says a crackdown has recently been launched to uproot these networks and a large number of people have also been detained. But he stopped short of admitting officers in his department have links to the human smuggling groups.
“We in FIA have also aggressively targeted our own venal immigration officers. Not only we have departmentally proceeded against them, but in many cases we have registered criminal cases against them,” he said.
The FIA chief also says border controls are being tightened, particularly with Iran, which is a major route for human smugglers.
The UNODC study estimates the illegal economy associated with this form of crime in Pakistan is more than $109 million a year.