The government of Pakistan has unveiled a U.S.-backed initiative to halt the trafficking of human beings in or through Pakistan. The south Asian nation is considered an essential hub in the international trade in women and children, trafficked around the world for sex work and cheap labor.
Pakistan's minister of the interior, Aftab Sherpao, says the new plan attacks what he calls a "crime against humanity."
"Pakistan has been facing the brunt of human trafficking for many years," said Aftab Sherpao. "Through clandestine networks, these human traffickers entice innocent victims through deception and exploitation. And through this process, not only perpetrate a heinous crime against humanity, but also bring a bad image to the country."
Officials say that every year, traffickers bring thousands of women and children from Bangladesh and Burma into Pakistan for the country's underground sex trade. Meanwhile, thousands of Pakistanis are taken through Iran and Afghanistan to the Middle East, for use as cheap labor or sex workers.
Mr. Sherpao says the new campaign combines efforts to identify and prosecute suspected trafficking syndicates with public campaigns to protect potential victims.
With funding and technical support from the United States, new anti-trafficking teams are being deployed around the country.
Border controls are also being reinforced with new systems designed to catch traffickers who use false documents to move victims out of the country.
The government's plan comes amid increasing concerns that organized gangs may be targeting survivors of October's deadly earthquake in Kashmir.
Officials have already set up various checkpoints in the quake area, and are warning families living in relief camps to be on guard against possible traffickers.
Officials here blame much of the human trafficking on organized crime syndicates operating across South and Central Asia.
Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker says evidence suggests these trafficking networks also share ties with local drug cartels and, possibly, international terrorist groups.
"We cannot see through all the shadows that surround the issue of human trafficking, but clearly it is an international criminal endeavor," said Ryan Crocker. "And I think that as we start to really crack down on the issue of trafficking, we are going to find there are connections to these other problems as well. That is why it is so important to push this through."
Ambassador Crocker told reporters the fight against human trafficking is a top priority for the United States. He promised Washington would continue to support Pakistan's efforts to protect women and children.