By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan plans to issue biometric passports from next year to halt the thousands of people who are being trafficked overseas, largely to European and Gulf nations, officials said.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan approved the move last week after a meeting with officials from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on tackling human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the South Asian nation.
"We will start issuing biometric passports from 2017," Sarfraz Hussain, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation late on Wednesday.
Pakistan in 2004 adopted computerized passports that can be read by scanning machines, he said, but the passports do not contain a microchip, which contains the holder's biodata.
This is useful as it will help authorities detect forged travel documents used by traffickers who lure poor people from rural areas with the promise of a good job overseas, Hussain added.
A combination of poverty, natural disasters and insecurity caused by a long-running Islamist insurgency has forced thousands of Pakistanis to flee in search of a better life in Europe and the Middle East.
There are no accurate figures on how many people are being trafficked or smuggled outside the country, but the United Nations says government data on deportations of Pakistanis due to illegal migration have risen in recent years.
There were 66,427 Pakistanis deported from countries such as Spain, Greece, Turkey, Oman and Iran in 2013, up from 46,032 in 2010, according a 2014 report by the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime.
Many trafficking victims are detected at border posts in Iran and Turkey as they attempt to travel on to Europe, where they often have to risk their lives on board dangerously inadequate vessels run by people smugglers, said the report.
Others are deported from Oman - often en route to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they take up low-skilled employment as maids, construction workers or drivers, and are often subjected to labor abuses.
A FIA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said more than 1,000 trafficking networks were operating across the country, the majority in the central Punjab province.
These organized criminal gangs primarily use Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, which shares a border with Iran, as a trafficking route to Europe and the Middle East.
From Iran, the trafficking victims are either taken to Turkey where they continue on to Europe, or sent to Oman and then on to the UAE, he added.
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, sparking a crisis as nations struggled to cope with the influx, and created division in the EU over how to resettle people.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, about 3 percent of these migrants and refugees were Pakistani nationals.
(Reporting by Zeeshan Haider. Editing by Nita Bhalla. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)