Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trafficking Child Survivors of the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake

Doctors, Relief Workers, Volunteers and…Kidnappers

October 18th, 2005
Laaleen S. Khan

There is a lot being said at the moment about what’s being done and what’s not being done in the aftermath of the Earthquake tragedy. The road to recuperation is a long and challenging one. The sufferings of those that have survived the horror are endless. Some are the only survivors of their families or even their communities. 2.5 million are homeless. Some do not yet have access to medical facilities. Some don’t even have limbs. And epidemics are still to come.

It seems that nearly everyone has been extremely generous in donating supplies. Many have even volunteered their own selves by visiting stricken areas and hospitals from different parts of Pakistan and from around the world.

However, there are some among us who appear to have no overriding conscience in the face of this colossal tragedy. Here, I am not referring to those parties that have escalated the prices of commodities and tents in hopes of reaping a profit (although an undeniably deplorable activity). Nor am I referring to individuals who have looted supply trucks on their way to affected areas (some of which may have been acts of desperation for all we know).

What I’d like to bring to your attention is the subject of child trafficking.

The practice of trafficking human beings is not new to our part of the world. Remember the illegal smuggling of children to UAE to fill the posts of camel jockeys (not surprising that well-fed Emirati children just weren’t interested)? And let’s not forget forcing male and female children and young women into the oldest profession in the world, the sex trade (where there’s demand, there’s supply, right). What about the scores of beggars in urban metropolises who collect money for their ring leaders/pimps? And people who are forced into selling their kidneys? There is obviously some kind of systematic ‘recruitment’ that takes place in the above ‘professions’ which often involves the kidnapping of the unfortunate individuals involved.

After the devastating earthquake, there is such an incredible amount of relief activity going on that it’s hardly surprising that the security situation is not an ideal one. With a disaster of this magnitude, in a land where child trafficking is not a recent phenomenon, we have to remind ourselves that this inhumane practice could be accelerating with the large numbers of children than have been rendered homeless orphans. UNICEF has issued a child trafficking warning specifically for the Pakistani earthquake crisis and is waiting for the Child Protection Bill to be passed by those in power. There are reports of similar horrors that were suffered by children in post-tsunami Indonesia. Even post-Katrina United States has suffered catastrophic abuses (rapes, murder, beatings at the Astrodome in Houston, not to mention New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana).

There have been reports of several kidnapping attempts at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad. The eyewitness accounts that appeared in print described thwarted kidnapping attempts. Yet, residents in Islamabad have been hearing verbal accounts from volunteers about children that have disappeared. Security was finally beefed up and some measures enforced to distinguish between actual relatives vs. kidnappers disguised as patients’ kin or wearing a fake relief worker’s badge. However, since it’s a public hospital, everyone is free to enter. Who is to know who’s a bonafide volunteer and who’s a sinister stranger bearing candy?

With all the horrific kidnapping possibilities present in the largest government hospital of our capital city, one shudders to imagine how many victims the kidnapping rings have succeeded in capturing so far at the desolate villages stricken by the earthquake. How many traumatized children have been picked up by these stealthy criminals only to be sold into prostitution? One can only venture to guess since there are no statistics to go by.

A doctor at the Federal Government Services Hospital (who wishes to have her name withheld) reports that many of the relatives of young children receiving treatment at the hospital have managed to trace them to their hospitals so there is a lower level of danger of there being “fake attendants” than there was immediately after the earthquake. “But what about kidnapping at the disaster sites, in villages, at field hospitals and camps,” I asked. There was a long pause. Chillingly, she could only assume the worst.

“In government hospitals, anything goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if hospital officials sold orphans’ personal information to traffickers so they can pass for their relatives,” complained a disillusioned resident of Islamabad. “I really doubt they are monitoring visitors. Hospitals in Pakistan are corrupt institutions.”

The Government has wisely prohibited the adoption of orphans for the time being to prevent their illegal trafficking. On the flip side, this also prevents genuine organizations such as SOS from taking care of orphans at two new SOS village camps they had planned to open in the Islamabad area for this purpose. Can the Ministry of Women’s Development do an equally good job? Some NGO workers feel that the ministry has a lack of experience and infrastructure for such a large-scale operation.

One routinely hears verbal reports from volunteers about the horrors that are going on amidst the goodwill gestures. Only some of these are reported in the media, since eyewitness accounts are not always easy to obtain. Not everybody wants to be held responsible for airing views that could cost them their jobs. TV reporters are forbidden from reporting angles that could tarnish the TV channel’s “non-controversial image” (as in appearing to defy anyone in power), although they suffer few qualms in their insensitivity towards victims and corpses in their quest for sensationalizing their stories. “I was disgusted when I saw a prominent news personality making condescending and hurtful suggestions to a traumatized child asking him why he had survived whilst he had lost a sibling. Another time, he picked up the limp arm of another corpse, only to disrespectfully drop it again, to add drama to his report” described one horrified relief volunteer.

Erum Naqvi, who volunteers at PIMS, puts it succinctly: a crisis of this nature brings out “the best in people and the worst as well.”

Who might be interested in trafficking earthquake victims and for what purpose?

Prostitution rings—girl and boy child-prostitutes and women sex workers.

Begging rings—amputated patients are sought-after for begging.

Organ providers—stealing and selling organs from children and adults.

Camel-jockey smugglers—children are still being smuggled with fake birth dates since camel jockeying is officially illegal for children under the age of 15 in UAE.

Factories—there is always a need for cheap sweatshop workers.

Households—cheap domestic help.

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