Pakistan is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to human smuggling. Anyone can be a victim of migrant smuggling, but children, especially girls, and women are most vulnerable to be targeted by the culprits.
Vulnerable Pakistani migrants are most often smuggled to the Gulf states, Iran, Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, North America, Southeast Asia, Far East, Greece and other European countries. In some cases, migrants from other countries are transited through Pakistan to Iran and then onwards to Turkey so that they may attempt reaching some European country, such as Greece, Spain, Italy, etc.
Those who can afford it, travel by air, many to Dubai, in the hope of transiting to other destinations in the Middle East, North America or Australia. Pakistan is also a destination country for smuggled migrants from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, India and Iran.
Illegal cross-border movement of migrants through land routes is not monitored professionally in Pakistan. Therefore, the true scale of transnational migrant smuggling is not known, although Pakistani migrant smuggling victims continue to be identified and arrested in various parts of the world.
A latest example of this are the two incidents of boat wrecks in February off the Italian and Libyan coasts in which there were dozens of Pakistanis along with nationals of Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Iran; all illegal migrants who were being smuggled to Europe for seeking better life opportunities.
These illegal migrants even had children and infants accompanying them. Several Pakistanis are believed to have died in the two incidents, including national athlete Shahida Raza from Quetta and a child from Peshawar.
In the boat wreck incident in Italy, the local police confirmed that a Turkish and two Pakistani nationals had sailed the boat from Turkey to Italy despite the terrible weather, and one of the Pakistani nationals was a minor. These three migrant smugglers were the survivors of the tragedy and were arrested by Italian police. They had allegedly paid about $8,540 each for their deadly sea journey.
Under international law, migrant smuggling is recognised as transnational organised crime. To prevent and control migrant smuggling globally, the United Nations adopted the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (UNSOM), supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC). It is also referred to as the ‘smuggling protocol’. Pakistan ratified the UNTOC in 2010, but has neither signed nor ratified the UNSOM protocol. In keeping with Pakistan’s international obligations, it is bound to legislate to address the issue of migrant smuggling.
Until 2018, the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance, 2002, was the only legal instrument to curb human smuggling in Pakistan. The law did not make a distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling, and ended up criminalising the victims.
To overcome this problem and to fulfill Pakistan’s international obligations, in 2018 the country enacted an exclusive law, the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act (PSOM), 2018, and subsequently its rules were notified in 2020. This was a watershed moment in national history because the legislation safeguarded the rights of the smuggled migrants.
It took Pakistan 16 years to legislate and replace an ineffective ordinance on human smuggling. This also reflects the persistent lack of policy focus on this critical area of organised crime. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is the main law enforcement agency responsible for the implementation of the relevant legislation and for addressing the issue of migrant smuggling.
According to FIA’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, in 2021 the agency registered 69 cases under PSOM, 47 cases were under investigation, and 26 were in the courts. The number of accused identified was 144, and, of them, 57 were prosecuted. The convicts were fined a sum of Rs1.234 million. The number of smuggled migrant victims identified in these cases was 76. FIA provided legal support to 22 victims, but no psychological, financial or other support was provided to any victim.
It is high time Pakistan took stricter measures to curb migrant smuggling.
WAJAHAT ALI MALIK