Lahore- A disturbing new trend in people smuggling is emerging in Pakistan: more and more children are being sent by their parents on hazardous journeys in a bid to reach wealthier countries, with several instances of such trafficking reported recently in local newspapers.
Of the more than 2,200 persons deported to Pakistan in 2007, mainly from Oman or Iran (from where many hoped to reach European destinations), 15 were children under 18, according to figures maintained by Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
Two of the children sent back were Muhammad Zulfikar, 12, of Bhimber District in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and Waqar Hasan, 14, from the town of Mandi Bahauddin, near Gujrat, a town 120km north of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab. Zulfikar had been apprehended on the Turkish border and Waqar on the Iranian frontier. Both boys had hoped to make it to Greece.
"I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the many people from my area who have gone abroad and made a fortune," Zulfiqar said after being handed over to the FIA, the government agency responsible for tackling human trafficking.
According to Arif Bokhari, the FIA's assistant director, the "trend of trafficking teenage boys" is rising in Pakistan's populous Punjab. He blamed parents who "paid out large sums of money to agents" for subjecting children to such hazards.
Under an agreement between the FIA and the Lahore-based Child Welfare Protection Bureau (CWPB) of the Punjab government, both Zulfikar and Waqar are now at the bureau's well-run premises, attending school and living with some 200 other children at the hostel.
Other victims of child trafficking, including former child camel jockeys rescued from Gulf States over the past few years, are also housed at the facility. "We educate and rehabilitate these children," Zubair Ahmed Shad, programme director at the CWPB, told IRIN. He also explained that the "children saved from traffickers and living with us are doing well", and pointed out there had been a sharp decline in trafficking to Gulf states since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) banned the use of child jockeys in March 2005.
But other children are not as fortunate as Zulfikar and Waqar, who, despite their ordeal, are alive and well.
In 2006, a family from the town of Gujranwala, about 80km north of Lahore, reported their son missing - apparently while on his way to Greece - only to learn later that he had died during the ordeal.
The agent whom the parents had paid to organise the hazardous journey was arrested, but the victim's family declined to testify against him after he promised to take two other sons overseas free of charge.
"It is the economic desperation of people that leads them to do such things," said Akhtar Hussain Baloch of the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, which has campaigned against child trafficking for many years.
Recognising such realities, the authorities have in recent years worked to mitigate this, putting forward the Prevention of Human Smuggling Control Ordinance, which was enforced by the Pakistan government in 2002. Under the law, tougher punishments are envisaged for anyone found involved in trafficking people, including prison terms and fines for parents.
Additionally, as part of its measures to curb smuggling, in 2006 Pakistan's FIA published a "red book" listing 165 agents in various places from Pakistan to Greece, and has sought Interpol assistance to tackle them.
While boys in impoverished parts of rural Pakistan, particularly towns in the southern Punjab, are more likely to be trafficked overseas, girls are trafficked more often within the country, and sometimes sold into what amounts to little more than sexual slavery, says the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
HRCP has reported that in most cases, they are given away for amounts of money ranging from US$1,300 to $5,000 by impoverished parents, sometimes in "marriage"; and sometimes to agents who promise lucrative jobs as domestic servants in large cities. Many of these girls, according to child rights groups, end up as sex workers. Some are no older than 10 at the time of the "sale".