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Migration and Modern Slavery: Route to a better life?

By Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Migration has typically been associated with positive life changes, such as better economic opportunities, adventures in bustling cities, and interactions with people from all walks of life. But migration in Pakistan has a darker underbelly that is often overlooked and impacts large numbers of people. Irregular migration (1) pathways such as human smuggling and trafficking in persons are also tied to various forms of modern slavery including bonded labour, child labour, prostitution, and forced marriages. (2)

Both internal and external migrants in Pakistan face the risk of modern slavery, as highlighted by the 2023 Global Slavery Index. (3) In 2021, an estimated 10.6 in every thousand people experienced forced labour or forced marriage in Pakistan, ranking it 18th globally and 4th within Asia and the Pacific in terms of modern slavery prevalence. To address this, proactive measures are imperative to tackle the underlying causes of vulnerability and provide comprehensive support and protection to those at risk of exploitation. 

Prior to 2002, Pakistan lacked specific legislation addressing human smuggling and human trafficking. The Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance 2002 (PACHTO) attempted to tackle this issue, but faced challenges due to the blurred lines between definitions of human trafficking and smuggling. In a significant stride, the Government of Pakistan passed the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (PTPA) and the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act in 2018. (4) These laws distinguish between trafficking and smuggling, and aim to combat both effectively. Following this, Pakistan progressed from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2 status under the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2022. (5)

While these legal reforms are a welcome step, socioeconomic challenges remain, hindering such exploitations from being meaningfully addressed. Socioeconomic challenges such as poor governance, poor standards of living, deeply entrenched inequalities, and persistent conflicts continue to drive people to seek dangerous migration pathways. (6) Climate change has further exacerbated the situation, compounding the vulnerability of individuals to various forms of modern slavery, particularly small farmers who fall into debt traps following climate-induced disasters like floods or droughts.

Urban migration, often considered the only escape from such perils, fails to ensure protection or access to decent work, leaving many prone to exploitation in precarious living conditions. (7) Besides affecting farmers directly, climate-led disasters, coupled with political turmoil within the country, have forced people to migrate through illegal, dangerous routes by seeking an agent’s services. Such agents usually prey on the precarity and desperation of these people by charging extortionate prices for their services, promising safe and comfortable passage when it is often anything but that. Many die during such journeys, and those who cross the borders successfully then live in the new country secretively and in poor  conditions, for fear of repercussions. As a result, they are frequently underpaid and encounter significant economic challenges. Their undocumented status prevents them from advocating for fair wages or reporting exploitative labour practices out of fear of detection and potential detention.

Addressing modern slavery in migration requires a holistic approach to not only implement the country's domestic legal framework vis-a-vis human smuggling and trafficking, but also a concentrated effort to address drivers of irregular migration, such as limited economic opportunities, political instability and the impact of climate change. The state must enact human-centric laws and regulations to curb exploitation in all its forms, and promote equitable development and social welfare at every level.

[1.] Irregular migration encompasses migration pathways that are illegal and unregulated, and hence, fraught with danger and human rights violations.

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