Trafficking investigations into hundreds of Pakistani women and girls being sold as brides to Chinese men have reportedly ground to a halt because of government reluctance to harm ties with Beijing.
Pakistan’s government has pressured investigators and witnesses to halt cases which could have damaged relations with China, as its ally pours huge amounts of investment into the country.
Investigators have compiled a list of 629 girls and women who were sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
The biggest case against traffickers has fallen apart, with a court in Faisalabad acquitting 31 Chinese nationals charged in connection with trafficking. Women who had initially been interviewed by police refused to testify after being threatened or bribed into silence, according to a court official and a police investigator familiar with the case.
Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist who has helped parents rescue several young girls from China, told AP that the government had also put “immense pressure” on investigators.
“Some [Federal Investigation Agency officials] were even transferred,” Mr Iqbal said.
“No one is doing anything to help these girls,” one officials said. “The whole racket is continuing, and it is growing. Why? Because they know they can get away with it. The authorities won’t follow through, everyone is being pressured to not investigate. Trafficking is increasing now.”
Allegations of bride trafficking rings made headlines in Pakistan earlier this year when investigators seized Chinese and Pakistani men accused of facilitating fake marriages.
But media have since dropped the story after reportedly coming under pressure not to strain ties.
Many of the women involved come from Pakistan’s impoverished and marginalised Christian community who are targeted by marriage brokers offering much-needed money. Christian ministers have also been accused of helping the brokers find suitable brides.
Once the brides are in China, there are accusations they can find themselves isolated and mistreated and desperate to return to Pakistan. There have also been allegations some of the women have been forced into prostitution.
A statement from China’s Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the list.
“The two governments of China and Pakistan support the formation of happy families between their people on a voluntary basis in keeping with laws and regulations, while at the same time having zero tolerance for and resolutely fighting against any person engaging in illegal cross-border marriage behaviour.”
China’s one-child policy has created a lucrative domestic demand for foreign brides, according to rights groups.
Parents’ preference for boys during the 34 years the policy was enforced led to the abortion of millions of girls. There are now roughly 34 million more men than women, leaving many poor young men with dire marriage prospects. Similar trafficking networks have arisen in many of China’s neighbours to satisfy the demand for young women.