ISLAMABAD – Natasha Robin was promised a dream life far from her destitution in Pakistan when she was married off to a Chinese man. But her days in China turned out to be a harrowing nightmare.
Robin, a Christian woman, was 22 when she wed the man, who had come to Pakistan on a visit visa to look for a bride.
She returned home after staying in China for just 12 days of torture. She said her husband treated her like a sex slave and forced her to have sex with other men who visited his home in central China.
“He called boys (over to his house) and I was forced to have sex with them. He would beat or torture me if I refused, saying he had paid money to my parents and he needed to recover it,” Robin told EFE from Faisalabad, a city in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab.
She is among hundreds of Pakistani women married to Chinese men on false pretenses who often end up working as prostitutes – a scam that has rocked a country with a predominantly conservative Muslim population.
Over 40 Chinese nationals and their Pakistani facilitators have been arrested in recent weeks for their alleged involvement in trafficking Pakistani girls to China as “brides.”
Investigators say Chinese men rented houses in different Pakistani cities and paid brokers to arrange marriages with local women.
The so-called brides would then be taken to rural Chinese areas to mistreatment and forced into prostitution.
In most cases, the “grooms” covered the costs of marriage ceremonies with promises of better jobs in China for the women.
The prime target of these traffickers posing as wealthy Christian converts were Christian women belonging to the country’s impoverished religious minority that has been subjected to decades of discrimination.
Saleem Iqbal, a human rights activist who has been tracking such cases, said he believed at least 700 Christian and 300 Muslim women were married to Chinese men since October last year, when he started investigating the scam.
Iqbal told EFE that it started around two years ago. So far, around 100 girls have returned home from China.
Robin’s story began with a broker, whom she only knows by the name Anas, telling her that she would live a dream life with her wealthy suitor, Li Chang Li, in his big house in China. But when she got in there, she realized she had been duped.
“It was not the same house they showed me in pictures. No washrooms even, nor was he a Christian. The 12 days which I spent there were horrible and the life was even worse than how it is in our villages here,” Robin told EFE.
After the quick weddings, the women were kept in rented houses in the big cities of Lahore and Islamabad while their travel documents were being processed. Some of them even managed to escape before leaving for China.
Mahek Pervaiz, another Christian woman, was one of those whose family rescued her from Lahore.
“They kept me forcibly in a house in Lahore for a month and a half. Then I realized everything he (her husband) was telling me was a lie. There were two other houses in our street where around 22 such ‘brides’ were living,” Pervaiz told EFE.
Officials of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency told EFE that gangs of Chinese criminals, along with Pakistani facilitators, are trafficking women into sexual slavery in China under the guise of marriage.
This scam has the potential of eroding Pakistan’s ties with its all-weather ally China, which has made investments worth billions of dollars in the country, including through Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road infrastructure project.
Islamabad has a visa-on-arrival policy for Chinese nationals, as more and more investors and workers from that country come to Pakistan.
Last year, around 91,000 Chinese visited the country under different visa categories and in 2018-2019, 32,000 visas of Chinese nationals were extended, an official at the ministry of foreign affairs told EFE on condition of anonymity.
But the Chinese embassy in Islamabad denied the allegations and said in a statement that the media reports have “fabricated facts and spread rumors.”
The embassy said that according to investigations by China’s ministry of public security, “there is no forced prostitution or sale of human organs for those Pakistani women who stay in China after marriage with Chinese.”
However, it acknowledged that there were some illegally-run matchmaking centers involving Chinese and Pakistani men.
“We notice that recently, some unlawful matchmaking centers made illegal profits from brokering cross-national marriages. Both Chinese and Pakistani youths are victims of these illegal agents,” the embassy said in another statement.
Human Rights Watch said last month that Pakistan’s government should be alarmed by the reports of trafficking of women and girls to China, similar to those coming out of Myanmar, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The “allegations are disturbingly similar to the pattern of trafficking of ‘brides’ to China from at least five other Asian countries,” the nonprofit said.