Identifying the Steep Increase in Human Smuggling & Trafficking from Pakistan


A 30 metre-long fishing boat which capsized and sank early on June 14 about 50 miles (80 km) from the southern coastal town of Pylos, had on board at least 800 people, including reportedly 400 Pakistanis, when it capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Only 104 people are known to have survived, with virtually no chance of finding more survivors. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told Reuters that nearly 209 Pakistanis were aboard the boat but the real figure may be closer to over 300, as disclosed by Senate Chairman Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani. This figure was arrived at based on information provided by families who came forward to say a relative of theirs had boarded the boat heading from Libya towards Greece and were still missing. Survivors have said they paid USD 4,500 each for the journey. In the wake of this Greece boat tragedy Pakistan’s FIA has registered 54 cases against human smugglers operating in Lahore, Gujranwala and Gujrat. Unfortunately this action comes in the wake of a human tragedy.

Everyday thousands of Pakistanis risk everything to make the unsafe journey to Europe, searching for a better life. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has asked the state to take responsibility “for its part” in the Greece boat tragedy. Although both entail a violation of basic human rights, it is critical not to confuse the phenomenon of human trafficking with human smuggling as there are fundamental differences between the two. A person can be trafficked within a country or abroad whereas human smuggling invariably involves crossing of international borders. Pakistan is the source, transit, destination of both human smuggling and human trafficking.

Human Smuggling from Pakistan:

Pakistan has a sizable human smuggling market and conservative estimates place the number of Pakistanis seeking to migrate west irregularly between 300 to 400 thousand annually, with the most common method of attempting to exit Pakistan being through land routes in Balochistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has quoted the figure of 300,000 people leaving the country by illegal means every year. Human smuggling is an established economic endeavour, particularly in Balochistan, where smuggling has become the largest generator of revenue in some villages, and where corrupt officials reportedly participate in human smuggling operations.

Pakistani men and women voluntarily migrate overseas, particularly to the Gulf states and Europe, for low-skilled employment, where traffickers exploit some of them in labour trafficking through false job offers. Migration has increased in recent years due to the increase in population, deteriorating economy, increased poverty, inflation and unemployment, forcing the youth (60% of Pakistanis are below 30 years of age) to seek opportunities abroad, making them vulnerable to human trafficking in the process.

Balochistan, with its vast open spaces and contiguous borders with Iran and Afghanistan, has for decades hosted a huge human smuggling racket. Major transit routes go through Naukundi Turbat Taftan, Duk desert. Iran and Turkey are transit countries while Oman is a destination country for the illegal migrants from pakistan. Popular routes include travel on the highway between Karachi and Taftan, Balochistan before crossing the Pakistani-Iranian border into Zahedan, crossing the Pakistani-Afghani border via Kech, or stopping in border towns such as Mashkel, Rajay and Taftan. Human smugglers also use the sea route between Pakistan and Iran via the port of Gwadar.

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan resulted in an exodus of people from that country, desperate to move to other countries, through Pakistan, increasing their vulnerabilities to trafficking in Pakistan. So Pakistan also serves as a transit country for Afghans who then plan to continue their journey to Iran, Turkey, and/or the EU. The increase in demand has led to a price hike for human smuggling along this route. People smugglers now charge Afghans an average of USD 140 – USD 193 to reach Pakistan, up from USD 90. Most of these Pakistani human smugglers operate in the border areas of Balochistan, like Chaman, Chaghi and Badani.

Pakistani Networks Smuggling Humans into the West:

There have also been reports of human smuggling routes from Pakistan to the U.S. In October 2021, the U.S. government announced rewards for information leading to the arrest or financial disruption of a Pakistani-based human smuggling network, which facilitates the travel of undocumented individuals into the US.

Human smuggling routes have also been reported from Pakistan to the EU. In 2019, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) admitted that 30 officials in connivance with the employees of national carrier PIA have been involved in a human smuggling ring that also worked in Europe. The human smuggling investigation had been carried out on a complaint by the British High Commission in 2014, as per which 20 Afghan nationals caught at Heathrow airport in London were smuggled from Benazir Bhutto International Airport Islamabad (BBIAP).  The racket involved manipulating the data as the border crossing into Pakistan, tampering the CCTV footage at the airport, smuggling out through the domestic departure lounge and bypassing the immigration counter. To match the numbers of passengers travelling on the PIA flight to London the FIA officials duplicated the data of genuine passengers so that their total number in FIA data was the same as the number of boarding passes issued by the airline.

In addition to planning and coordinating travel from Pakistan through dangerous routes through South and Central America, the smuggling networks also offers or provides false documents to use for travel.  EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson says “They are not sending them to Europe, they are sending them to death. This is what they’re doing and it’s absolutely necessary to prevent it”.

In November 2021, Spanish authorities also uncovered a smuggling ring that brought Pakistani migrants into the EU via land routes through the Balkans. During the operation, which involved police from eight countries, Croatian police intercepted a lorry transporting 77 Pakistani migrants in a space measuring just eight square metres (86 square feet), a Spanish police statement said; “Transported in life-threatening conditions in cars, vans or trucks, they often spend days confined with little or no supplies,” the European Union law enforcement agency said. Europol said each person was charged between 5,000 and 8,000 euros (USD 5,800 – USD 9,200) for the trip.

The Bihac refugee camp in Bosnia was cited by authorities as the main logistic hub for the network. Often these land routes involved life threatening conditions in tightly crammed vehicles with little or no essentials. According to Europol, persons smuggled on these routes from Pakistan were charged up to USD 23,000 to reach their final destinations in Europe. The network involved in this smuggling ring is alleged to be associated with drug trafficking operations as well.

Human Trafficking Victims:

In 2022, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released a study titled ‘Modern slavery: Trafficking in women and girls in Pakistan,’ which identifies Pakistan as a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. Although it is difficult to determine the magnitude of the crime—given lack of reliable data—HRCP is particularly concerned by the network of trafficking that exists internally, spanning sex trafficking, forced child labour, bonded labour, forced begging and forced marriage.

Concentrated in agriculture and brick making sectors of Sindh and Punjab provinces, bonded labour is the most significant human trafficking issue in Pakistan. Growing unemployment rate in Pakistan has meant that more and more labour is available for trafficking. with more than 70% of bonded labourers in the country being children, trafficking victims in the country include domestic and foreign men, women, and children. Children are also used for forced labour in begging, domestic work, small shops, and sex trafficking and to transport drugs in border areas and Karachi. Traffickers also exploit women and girls and, to a lesser extent, boys from Afghanistan, Iran, and other Asian countries, in sex trafficking in Pakistan. Refugees and stateless persons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, as well as religious and ethnic minorities like Christians and Hazaras, are also vulnerable to trafficking in Pakistan.

In 2018 Pakistan promulgated the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2018. However, there has been almost no improvement on the domestic front as police have failed to act against organised criminal networks exploiting women and children for prostitution or sale in the illicit markets. Trafficking in Persons Act of 2018 was enforced mainly for the external human traffickers and very rarely against the human traffickers involved in trafficking within the country like bonded labour, prostitution etc., because the local police were more concerned with other types of crimes. Lack of availability of data of cases registered by the local police under TIPA, attests to that. Moreover, the prosecutions were limited to criminals rather than networks active in the human trafficking market in the country.

Traffickers have also exploited Pakistani girls into sex trafficking in Kenya and forced begging in the UAE. They target impoverished communities in Pakistan to send females to China for arranged marriages, where they are forced into commercial sex. Non-state militant groups also kidnap, buy, or coerce children as young as 12 for operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Traffickers have also sold Pakistani boys into bacha bazi (a form of sexual exploitation) in Afghanistan with the promise of enrollment in Afghan religious schools.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 describes Pakistan as ‘a source, transit, and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation. Pakistan’s government has established an Anti-Human Smuggling law, but its investigative effort continues to be limited to individual perpetrators rather than identification of criminal networks active in the country.

Human smuggling from Pakistan has witnessed a steep increase post-pandemic, due to the economic meltdown, high inflation and increasing unemployment rates among youth and poor families.

To date there has not been any systematic attempt to conduct a study on human trafficking and smuggling from Pakistan. One way to assess the trend in illegal migration from Pakistan can be made from the data on deportation of Pakistani nationals from abroad and the illegal migrants caught within Pakistan before crossing the border, which FIA calls “interceptions”. Nevertheless neither the number of deportations or interceptions will reflect the actual stock of illegal Pakistani migrants abroad or illegal migration flows from Pakistan to other countries.

The main routes followed by human smugglers and human traffickers out of Pakistan are mostly through western  Balochistan crossing from the Taftan, Mashkel or Rajay border points, onwards into Zahedan, Iran and then goes onward to Turkey and Europe. The route moves from Pakistan to Iran to Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or from Pakistan to  Iran then Turkey towards Greece and Europe. To enter West Europe another router used by the Pakistani smugglers is via West Africa and then entering Spain.  Karachi has become a major transit point for women being trafficked to the Gulf and further west via Mandh Billoh border in Iran.

Aside from the overland routes are the air and sea routes. The air route operates from Karachi to Dubai and onwards to Libya, where Libyan traffickers take the group in seafaring boats and leave them on smaller boats (often a rubber dinghy), in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea known to be the deadliest migration route in the world. The more direct sea route begins from either Pasni, Jiwani, Pishukan or Surbandan in Gwadar port area through the Gulf of Oman to arrive in Iran.

Complicity of the Powerful:

A newspaper report of June 2007 quoted the then Interior Minister Mr. Aftab Sherpao as stating on the floor of the National Assembly that during the last three years 27 high and low ranking officials of the FIA were dismissed or sent on forced retirement on charges of being involved in human trafficking. Over time media reports have indicated that there are clear links between the local and overseas traffickers and politicians, law enforcement officials and travel agents.

The Coalition against Trafficking of Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) states that the girls are sold as “wives” to men who may resell them. Some Arabs stationed in Pakistan for short periods take “temporary wives”. Police commission is 16-20 percent of the amount involved for each sold woman or child. Past TIP Reports have also highlighted the involvement of some officials in Pakistan government agencies in human trafficking and urges the government to vigorously follow up and punish such instances.

In the wake of the human tragedy in the Mediterranean sea, with just 104 survivors including just a dozen Pakistanis, questions must be asked about Islamabad’s ability or intention to crack down on human smugglers. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has said that, “the dearth of economic opportunities available in the country compels more and more people to take their chances on such routes without being aware of the risk” adding that, “serious lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies continues to allow traffickers to operate with impunity.”

Pakistan does not have comprehensive policies to effectively manage the phenomenon of human trafficking and human smuggling. Both of these forms are prevalent in Pakistan at significant levels not only for migrants going out of the country but also for migrants from other countries coming into Pakistan.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with New Delhi based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.


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