KARACHI -- Pakistan is cracking down on the "bride trafficking" of young girls by Chinese gangs preying on impoverished women and their families with false promises of a more prosperous life across the border.
Attention to bride trafficking surged after ARY News last month ran an investigative report in which it aired images of several Chinese men with female Pakistanis -- including two teenage girls -- at an illegal matchmaking centre in Lahore.
The families of these women and girls received payments of Rs. 400,000 ($2,760) and were promised Rs. 40,000 ($276) a month in future payments, in addition to a Chinese visa for a male family member, reported ARY News.
A number of illegal matchmaking centres, run by Chinese gangs, are active in Punjab and are mainly focused on the Christian community, according to media reports.
They have posted banners in Punjab Province that say "deserving, poor and good families are urgently required for China" and that "Chinese families will bear all expenses."
"Most of the Pakistani Christians are illiterate and financially very fragile, and therefore they become easily trapped," said Pastor Ayub John, a Faisalabad-based priest. "Once in China, the girls -- most often married against their will --- find themselves isolated in remote rural regions, vulnerable to abuse and unable to communicate."
Churches across the country have launched an awareness campaign to warn the Christian community about the illegal matchmaking operated by Chinese gangs.
A crackdown is needed to "save the lives of poor girls who are easily lured with promises of a comfortable life but actually become trapped and trafficked to China," John said.
Crackdown under way
The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been clamping down on the gangs and has arrested more than a dozen Chinese nationals and locals accused of involvement in bride kidnapping.
The FIA's Anti-Human Trafficking Cell said in a statement it raided a wedding ceremony in Faisalabad on May 1 and arrested members of a gang, including the Chinese groom, identified as Chang.
On May 7, the FIA arrested 10 Chinese nationals along with three suspected local accomplices in Lahore. Another three Chinese nationals and four locals were held during separate raids in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in connection with charges of fraud, forgery and human trafficking.
Then on May 10, the FIA sent 11 Chinese nationals to a Lahore court on accusations of trafficking Pakistani women into false marriages.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Pakistan missions in China are closely monitoring the situation and extending all possible assistance to Pakistani citizens who may have any complaints on the issue," Foreign Office spokesman Dr. Muhammad Faisal said in a statement on May 12.
Worries over Chinese gangs
The concern over trafficking of girls by Chinese nationals comes amid other crimes carried out by Chinese gangs.
Pakistani authorities have warned that a Chinese criminal network is skimming automated teller machines (ATMs) in the country after a number of Chinese nationals were arrested in connection with theft from machines in Karachi.
Skimming of ATMs involves using hidden electronic devices attached to the machines to steal personal information from cards.
Karachi police arrested three Chinese nationals on January 13 in the Defence neighbourhood and recovered Rs. 2.3 million ($15,900). Two other accused members of the group evaded capture.
On January 10, Karachi police caught two Chinese men who were accused of trying to install skimmers in a local bank ATM.
The government needs to be vigilant about the activities of Chinese criminals in Pakistan, said Zaheer Uddin, a banker in Karachi.
"The arrests of Chinese criminals involved in the ATM theft sent a shock wave among citizens using debit and credit cards, and now this scam of bride trafficking has surfaced," Uddin said.