It was May 8. Residents of Divine Garden Housing Society near Metro Cash & Carry along Lahore’s Airport Road were observing an extraordinary activity. In what seemed to be a sting operation, they could see personnel of law enforcement agencies closing up on a couple of houses. Once they got closer, they made orchestrated moves and took positions as if they were waiting for some final order.
Shortly afterwards they cordoned off the area and forced entry into these houses to arrest the inmates, including some Chinese nationals. A similar operation was carried out in Defence Housing Authority (DHA) the same day and it yielded similar results.
From information shared later on, these Chinese men were part of human trafficking gangs operating in the city targeting Christian women from poor families. Reportedly, they would approach such families through middlemen and pastors and seek girls who could become brides to husbands of Chinese origin and Christian faith. The couple were ultimately expected to go to China to settle down there.
Earlier this month, 20 women who had moved to China after marriage were repatriated with the help of the Pakistani embassy in China. They had complained to the embassy about the abuse and torture they had faced. According to a press release issued by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the raids in Lahore were carried out on the basis of the information provided by a girl who had returned from China. She told the authorities that her husband used to force her to have sex with strangers and tortured her if she refused to comply.
It was also revealed that several trans-national matchmaking businesses were flourishing in different cities where people were minting money and jeopardizing the lives of Pakistani women. They would get huge commissions if they succeeded in convincing a family to marry their daughter to a Chinese man without knowing anything about him.
Since then this issue has assumed great significance and made both the Pakistani and Chinese governments take action against such gangs. There are allegations against the Chinese gangs for forcing these girls intro prostitution or extracting and selling their organs. Several girls have returned from China and many of the newly married ones have refused to go after hearing about the ordeals of other women.
Saleem Iqbal, a rights activist and correspondent of A Church-based channel Isaac TV, points out that it is not easy to traffic girls without the involvement of concerned departments, and without bribing officials. Although there is no registration of Christian marriages in Pakistan, marriages between Chinese men and Pakistani Christian women manage to get registered with the Union Council (UC) and Nadra. “There are cases where girls as young as 13 have gone to China after marriage. How could they get their marriages registered? Did they mention wrong age and who helped them out in completing this process.”
Iqbal is following these cases and has provided support to several runaway brides. He tells TNS that the families of these girls were offered money in return for marriage and promised to be taken to China one by one. In every other case, there would be a personal guarantee or involvement of a pastor that would enhance the confidence of an otherwise reluctant family.
The practice of such marriages through matchmaking services has been going on for quite a long time but nothing substantial was done to check them. The law enforcement authorities and the government sprang into action only when reports of maltreatment of Pakistani women in China emerged on mass media.
According to a statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, matchmaking centres brokering cross-national marriages are illegal as per Chinese law. But even then they managed to function for a long time. The embassy has also disowned such criminals saying they do such things in their personal capacity and their acts are not reflective of the Chinese people in general. It has been alleged that the Pakistani media is exaggerating the facts and creating hype.
Iqbal thinks the embassy should not shrug and disown these people so easily and keep a track of their activities in Pakistan. He points out that earlier there have been Chinese gangs who have smuggled donkey hides out of the country, done credit card frauds, hacked data of Auto Teller Machines (ATMs), run dubious massage centers and so on. If these things are not checked in time it will become difficult for Chinese people to cohabit with locals, he fears. “Stereotypes, if developed can’t be unlearned so easily.”
Kashif Nawab, Director, Social Action Transformation of Humanity (SATH) Pakistan – an NGO based in Lahore – hints at another major reason why Christian families are an easy catch. He says for the last many years people from the Christian community have been trying their best to settle abroad. This is because they feel vulnerable here especially after incidents like mob attacks in Gojra, Joseph Colony and Raiwind where a Christian couple was burned alive. In pursuance of this goal, he says, thousands of Christians of Pakistani origin have applied for refugee status in Thailand and Sri Lanka. “They are stranded there without livelihood and cannot even return because this would weaken their case.” Therefore, when the Chinese promised them fortunes they could not resist. Also, most Christian families in Pakistan live in a lot of poverty and have little chances of upward mobility.
TNS talked to a girl who wanted to be referred to as Sophia. A Christian girl married to a Chinese man in Lahore, she talks about the ordeal she had to face. She shares that she was married off under pressure but later on she offered resistance by refusing to travel to China. In fact, it was her friend who had settled in China who called her and informed her about what she was going through. Sophia who had been confined in a house with other brides in Lahore informed her parents who rescued her.
Harrowing tales of maltreatment have also emerged from Francis Abad in Gujranwala from where at least 10 girls have gone to China after marriage. Many of them have lost contact with families who were promised their male members would also be taken to China for work.
Last week, a girl named Samia, who belongs to Francis Abad, returned to Pakistan in bad shape. Her Chinese husband accompanied her but returned from the airport after handing her over to her family. Samia had become very weak and was in severe depression. Doctors tried their best to save her life but could not. She tried to tell her story but her health did not allow her to even speak in an audible voice
An official in the interior ministry tells TNS on condition of anonymity that they are probing allegations of forced prostitution and illegal organ trade against the accused and hope they will find the truth. It is difficult to establish facts as the scene of crime is a foreign land, but he says they hope the Chinese government will chase the criminals in their country.
He says though they have not come across a victim with an organ removed, there are signs that this might be a reason for these marriages. “There are many girls who are plain and not in good physical shape. One can extrapolate from this that the gangs are interested more in selling their organs than forcing them into the flesh trade or marrying them.” However, this view sounds rather one-sided and archaic. Another reason could be China’s one child policy and a tradition in the country of paying hefty bride price, because of which Pakistani girls may seem like an attractive prospect.
The Chinese embassy is quite cautious in commenting on this topic and is refraining from answering query-based questions. TNS sent some questions to them but there was no response to these despite a long wait. However, a brief interview given by a Chinese embassy official, Lijian Zhao, to a news website is of significance and can be quoted here. In this interview, he suggests the government of Pakistan must review its visa policy and demand documents from a Chinese person who wants to come here for business.
He shares that last year there were 142 cases of Pakistani girls’ marriages of which only a few had problems but this time there is a sudden surge. This, he says, has alerted them. In a WhatsApp message sent to this scribe, he simply states: “There is no evidence for prostitution or sale of organs for those girls in China.”
The latest is that the Chinese Embassy has refused visas to 90 newly-wed wives of Chinese men and, according to sources, Pakistan is thinking about increasing checks regarding its existing visa-on-arrival policy for Chinese nationals.