KARACHI — Sana came to Karachi two years ago with a dream of a better future for herself and her family back home in Bangladesh.
She was promised a good job, allowing her to feed her aging parents and five sisters and brothers. But her dream turned into a nightmare after she was raped and then used as bonded laborer in different places here.
“I don’t want to remember those days. It seemed as if I was living in hell,” Sana, 29, told IslamOnline.net at Ansar Burni Welfare Trust, an NGO providing legal assistance to illegal immigrants.
In June 2005, she was smuggled from Khulna city in Bangladesh along with 19 other women, belonging to different parts of the country.
“They (human smugglers) used to rape me frequently. Then they put me in a house, where I used to work 16 to 18 hours a day without any salary,” Sana recalled with tear-soaked eyes.
She added that her salary was already paid to the agents who brought her to Karachi.
Sana believes the other women who came with her were either smuggled to the Gulf or put on bonded labor in Karachi, which has become a major transit point in human trafficking, particularly of women.
According to Ansar Burni Welfare Trust, over 5000 Bengali and Burmese women are working as maids or prostitutes in Karachi, most of them are illegal immigrants.
The number of such women in the Gulf is estimated at nearly 10,000, according to the NGO.
The prospects of better economic opportunities abroad throws many Bengalis and Burmese, particularly women, into the nest of human traffickers.
“Most of the women fall into traffickers’ clutches because of poor socio-economic conditions,” Ansar Burni, the founder and chairman of Ansar Burni Welfare Trust, told IOL.
“A large number of the young girls smuggled internally – in close collusion with the local police – are forced into domestic labor or prostitution.”
Some pimps and smugglers sitting in Karachi deal exclusively in Burmese and Bangladeshi women, according to Burni.
“They bring women into Pakistan after passing them off as their wives and the victims are then smuggled abroad.
“In some cases, parents, guardians or husbands sell women to human traffickers, while others are deceived into illegal cross-border migration,” added the activist.
“I was wooed by my neighbors, whose two women had been working in Dubai as maids, and sending a good money every month back home,” Sana remembers.
“They introduced me to an agent who demanded 10,000 Takka (160 US dollars) as travel expenses.”
Having no money to pay in advance, Sana promised to pay off after getting a job.
The women group was first smuggled to India and then brought to Pakistan via Rajhistan, the southeastern state that borders Pakistan’s Sindh province.
“I was promised to have a good job here. But the second day after our arrival three people raped me,” a visibly moved Sana recalled.
“I kept on begging for mercy, but they didn’t stop. Later, it became an order of the day. I was kept in a small house, where I would either be raped or work as slave.”
After six months, Sana was put in a house un the Defense Housing Authority, a posh Karachi neighborhood, on a one-year contract.
The salary was cashed by the agents who brought her to the household.
“I worked there for a year. Though, the family members were not too rude, I was so scared and could not tell them even a word about me,” she said.
“I was threatened by them (agents) if I disclosed anything, I will be sent to the jail straightaway by Pakistani authorities,” Sana added.
“After a year, I was sent to another house in the same locality. My new employer was a retired army colonel, who had served in Bangladesh in 1960s. He knew much about Bangladesh and his behavior was much better. One day, I told him everything.”
Her employer contacted Ansar Burni Welfare Trust, which took her in and contacted the Bangladeshi consulate in Karachi.
According to officials of Pakistan’s Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) human cargo is being smuggled into the Gulf and further west across the Iranian border.
Once there, they are often forced into prostitution or virtual slavery to pay off their smuggling debts.
Other victims of human trafficking are lured into marriage under false pretences or sold by their families to agents and then smuggled abroad.
Ansar Burni, the founder and chairman of Ansar Burni Welfare Trust, says traffickers use the land route via Mandh Billoh in Iran and send human cargo as far as Europe.
“Indians as well as Pakistani women are being smuggled out of Karachi,” he said, adding that one of the methods used by the traffickers is to pass the women off as their wives.
Mr. Burni believes that such large-scale and organized human trafficking is not possible without the collaboration of security agencies, particularly the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
However, FIA officials deny this charge.
“Some of our low-ranked officials may be involved in this heinous crime, but whenever and wherever they have been pointed out we have taken strict action against them as per law,” FIA Deputy Director Abdul Malik told IOL.
“Human smuggling is such a big racket and no country has so far contained that completely. We are also trying our level best but cannot do miracles with the given strength and facilities,” he added.
Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao recently told the National Assembly that during the last three years 27 high and low-ranking FIA officials have been dismissed or sent on forced retirement on charges of human trafficking.
Zia Ahmed Awan, president of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), thinks that women smuggling is taking place on a large scale and only a few incidents reach public attention.
Citing a recent case that came up before the Supreme Court, he pointed out that law-enforcing agencies arrested 40 women who had been smuggled into Pakistan from India, and were to be later trafficked to Gulf countries through Lahore.
“There is a dire need for laws to curtail the trafficking of women and children, which is real human trafficking,” Awan told IOL.
He said the FIA arrests usually focus on economic migrants and serve as a mere eye-wash.
“Pakistan is a hub for the smuggling of Afghan, Bangladeshi and Burmese women. The practice could not flourish without the involvement of law enforcement agencies,” he insists.
“When we visit to interview victims, we are followed by personnel of the area police and asked to state the purpose of our visit.”
Awan pointed out that the threat of police harassment prevents many women from giving information.
He believes that some families are involved in the practice.
“Some families are aware of their girls’ fate. The residents of about 35 houses in the Burmese Colony and Landhi’s Shareef Colony are involved in either selling their own girls into prostitution abroad or keeping other girls for the purpose,” he claimed.
Sana, the young Bangladeshi, is waiting for some legal documentation to fly back home.
“I am counting the days desperately. I want to be at my home as soon as possible,” he said.
“I want to tell my women not to risk their lives. There is nothing in Pakistan or the Gulf for them. They either have to work as bonded laborers or as prostitutes.”