The prospect of a better life drives individuals around the world to seek out new opportunities that would benefit themselves and their families. Sometimes, this involves leaving their country of birth with the hope of obtaining a better quality of life elsewhere. In Pakistan, however, the attempt to improve the living conditions for themselves and their families has been leading vulnerable women from marginalised communities into the hands of Chinese traffickers under the guise of a marriage. Once these women are out of their country, away from the protection of their families, they are forced into prostitution and subjected to terrible violence. The European Union, who’s cooperation with the economic superpower must be grounded in the “rule of law and universality of human rights”, cannot afford to stand by while this phenomenon becomes increasingly frequent. The EU cannot do this while at the same time seeking to achieve the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals, three of which involve the elimination of human trafficking worldwide.

For Chinese nationals involved in the human trafficking business, it is almost too easy. China’s one-child policy and a history of a preference for male children has led to a severe gender imbalance in the country, which created a demand for foreign brides. Chinese organised crime syndicates were able to exploit this demand, which fostered the growth of networks specialising in sham marriages.

Another opportunity presented itself in the form of new Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in Pakistan. These projects, referred to as the China-Pakistan economic corridor, resulted in the growth of the Chinese population in Pakistan, which gave individuals affiliated with these syndicates direct access to Pakistani women in marginalised and impoverished communities throughout the country. The lax oversight in both Pakistan and China, along with the rampant corruption of law enforcement officials, has benefited these human trafficking networks and allowed them to operate almost completely under the radar.

Pakistani women have been lured into false marriages by fake agencies, street advertisements, or simply through in-person contact with an individual affiliated with the trafficking network. Regardless of how the arranged marriage is facilitated, or by whom, promises of large sums of money and a life of comfort are used to coerce the young women and their families to ignore the potential risks involved with marrying a stranger from a foreign land. Once in China, many of these young women desperately try to contact their families back home and beg to be rescued from a situation where they are forced into prostitution by their husbands and beaten into submission if they refuse. Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan claims that the information is nothing more than “fabricated rumours” and has denied the involvement of Chinese nationals.

Despite this denial, the Federal Director of the Pakistan Federal Investigative Agency reported on July 10th that they were aware of at least 100 girls who had been trafficked under the guise of a false marriage, although the actual number is not known and is expected to be much higher. The Chinese Embassy did report a rise in Pakistani brides applying for visas, however. From January to May of this year, 140 Pakistani brides applied for Chinese visas compared to the same amount of applications received for the whole of 2018. These numbers indicate a grave situation that requires urgent attention.

Since the true scale of this phenomenon is not known, the European Union must urge China to improve their victim identification and reporting mechanisms. According to the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report published by the US Department of State, a procedure exists in China in order to screen for trafficking indicators but is not universally implemented. As a result, women continue to be arrested and detained on prostitution charges without being screened and were, in some cases, deported for immigration violations. Some women who had escaped were even returned to their husbands by the law enforcement officials that apprehended them, some of which received bribes from the husbands to “look the other way”. In order to crack down on this impunity and protect victims of human trafficking in the process, the EU can help facilitate the coordination of international and domestic agencies in China, which can collaborate to comprehensively implement procedures to identify trafficking victims.

In Pakistan, the EU can work to eliminate occurrences of bridal trafficking at its source. Donor funds can be utilised for awareness campaigns targeted at impoverished communities that are most susceptible to the ploys of traffickers. These communities must know how to spot red flags and must be equipped with an action plan that outlines the appropriate authorities to report potential trafficking schemes. The EU can also implement criminal justice reforms in Pakistan that are similar to those they are currently spearheading in Afghanistan, which could involve the training of judicial and law enforcement officials on how to address instances of human trafficking. Education and awareness-spreading are two of the most effective tools that can be used to combat this deplorable business. “In reality, victims of human trafficking are often left voiceless and completely unseen by society”. These words spoken by Elise Stefanik, an American currently serving in the U.S Congress, are universally true. The EU must help to ensure that Pakistani women who have fallen victim to the Chinese bridal trafficking industry have a voice, are identified, and are returned home.

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