ISLAMABAD -- A report published earlier this month is again highlighting the horrors of bride trafficking in Pakistan associated with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, on March 3 published a report titled "Bride trafficking along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor".
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of infrastructure projects of the BRI worth $62 billion, has long spurred protests and unrest in the country over rising Chinese influence.
Also associated with the project is bride trafficking -- which involves Chinese gangs luring Pakistani women mainly from marginalised backgrounds and Christian families into forced marriages with Chinese men, often with promises of monetary benefits and a higher standard of living in China.
Victims have reported abuse, difficult living conditions, forced pregnancy or forced prostitution once they reached China.
While several dozen traffickers were arrested in 2019, "investigators were pressured by Pakistani authorities to let the cases slide, and journalists were asked to curtail their reporting on the issue," the recent report said.
The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested 52 suspected Chinese traffickers in 2019, but more than half of them were acquitted in a Pakistani court and the remainder paid bail and flew out of Pakistan.
Chinese 'bride trafficking' gangs
Attention to bride trafficking surged after ARY News in April 2019 ran an investigative report that included images of Chinese men with Pakistani women -- including two teenage girls -- at an illegal matchmaking centre in Lahore.
The families of these women and girls received payments of 400,000 PKR ($2,760) and were promised 40,000 PKR ($276) a month in future payments, in addition to a Chinese visa for a male family member, according to the Brookings report, citing ARY News.
Human Rights Watch in April 2019 issued a statement noting that these cases were "disturbingly similar" to cases of bride trafficking in other Asian countries, including Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea and Cambodia.
HRW urged Pakistan to heed "alarm bells" over the practice.
Later in December 2019, the Associated Press also reported that the FIA had compiled a list of at least 629 girls and women from across Pakistan who were sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China.
Since then, however, Beijing has successfully pressured Pakistani authorities into releasing those accused of the practice.
The Brookings report emphasised two "offsetting imperatives" in the issue of Pakistani bride trafficking to China.
"First, the deeply disturbing nature of the crime for Pakistani society, given Pakistan's cultural emphasis on protecting women's 'honor' ... explained the attention to the issue," said the report.
“The second imperative -- which ultimately won out, and led to attention to the issue being stamped out -- was the need to protect Pakistan's exceedingly close relationship, economic and otherwise, with China, given the lopsided power dynamic between the two countries," it said.
Authorities arrested a large number of Chinese nationals and their Pakistani collaborators for their involvement in bride trafficking, an FIA officer in Lahore who was involved in a crackdown on the gangs told Pakistan Forward on the condition of anonymity.
"But later, we were forced by higher authorities to make weaker cases to get Chinese nationals released and to stop any further crackdown on them," he said.
A Lahore-based journalist also told Pakistan Forward that the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad has pressured media outlets through the Pakistani government not to publish stories of the involvement of Chinese gangs in bride trafficking.
"I have interviewed several victims of bride trafficking, but my TV channel did not carry out the news because of pressure from government officials fearful of hurting Islamabad's lucrative relationship with Beijing," he said.
'A harder line with China'
Pakistan's government owes it to its citizens to be more assertive with China on human rights abuses that affect them, the Brookings report added.
"The power dynamics in the relationship between the two countries are clear: Pakistan is the weaker partner that considers itself to have limited leverage with respect to China, which is investing tens of billions in Pakistan at a time when the latter's economic options have dwindled," the report said.
"It did not benefit Pakistan to shine a spotlight on the negative impacts of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on its own citizens."
"That most of the victims belonged to the poor and marginalised Christian community of Pakistan sadly made it easier for Pakistan to divert attention away from the issue without an ensuing public outcry," it added.
"A lack of transparency is counterproductive, and hinders the cause of ending (or at least reducing) this criminal activity; being able to discuss it openly, and to investigate and prosecute cases, is something on which the Pakistani government should take a harder line with China," the report said.