Crimes don’t Stop in Natural Disasters

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Lubna Jerar

The rescue and rehabilitation teams can also be more vigilant or NGOs that work for children and women’s protection can fill in this space.

Gender crimes are underreported in the best of times in Pakistan. So, it comes as no surprise that these crimes and others will be ignored during a natural disaster of the magnitude Pakistan is facing nowadays. Everyone – police, armed forces, hospitals, medical personnel, media, and even some politicians – are on high alert and focused on rescue and rehab even as the disaster unfolds. The main concern of everyone is to donate money and food and distribute these to the rescued people. The media is showing all kinds of heart-wrenching scenes from all over the country. Frantic talking-heads – many politicians, anchors, and speakers – are letting off steam on TV 24/7 about everything and anything except for the issues on hand. Those working on ground zero have too much on their plate as they realize how big the problem is, as compared to what they first anticipated.
Pakistan is in an “all hands on deck” situation. This leaves a handful to focus on other matters like crimes, especially gender crimes. Disasters are the best times for criminals to act. It is easy to blend in the chaos and commit a crime, especially when so many children and women are accessible. You would think who can be so cruel as to rape, kidnap or murder at a time when a flood is ravaging the country. They will be surprised that criminals are lurking out there; waiting for the right time to strike.
With an increase in the footfall of strangers in disaster-hit areas, anyone can pose as a parent, a relative, a caregiver, or a volunteer and get easy access to victims. And the first crime has been reported by the media – a young girl was kidnapped in flood-hit Shahdadpur by two men on the pretext of giving her aid. They allegedly tortured and gang-raped her for two days, after which she somehow managed to return to her family. For now, the details of the case are still coming in, but the good news is that Sindh Minister for Women Development Syeda Shehla Raza took notice of this case and ordered the police to arrest all the suspects, assuring the survivor and her family of legal support. Police sources reveal one suspect is in police custody. Appreciate the timely action taken by the Minister and hope this can set a precedent for authorities across the country.
Sindh police have taken measures and are playing a “frontline” role in the rescue and rehabilitation process. Commenting on human trafficking during floods, SSP Shahla Qureshi said, “DIG Emergency Services Maqsood Memon Sahab has set up a series of camps; and District SSPs across Sindh have deployed teams who are playing a frontline role in rescuing people, distributing food, and providing shelter. So far, no case of trafficking has been reported from any of these areas.” However, crimes during natural disasters are common. After the earthquake in 2005, thousands were killed and left homeless. Many women, girls, and small children were left without a family. The number of unaccompanied and injured children was quite high. Fortunately, the authorities and volunteers had realized early on that traffickers would prey on their vulnerability. Journalist Declan Walsh wrote, “Relief agencies in Pakistan fear children separated from their families in the post-earthquake chaos are at risk from human traffickers and childless couples.”
Citing some cases, Walsh further wrote, “Thousands of injured children have been flown by helicopter from the areas worst hit by the October 8 quake……Many are in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims) hospital in Islamabad. Its director said yesterday that a policewoman was posted outside the ward, and security guards vetted visitors at the hospital entrance, after reported attempts to abduct children.” (The Guardian, 2005)
The authorities should have a plan to tackle issues like serious human trafficking. Brunson McKinley, who was head of the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM) at the time, said during a news conference in November 2005 in Islamabad, “Very often we see traffickers taking advantage of people’s desperate situation, moving into a situation where families can be persuaded or compelled to part with their children. We have noticed in other emergencies, including also the (Asian) tsunami, there’s a kind of new opportunity for traffickers.”
However, it is not as easy to deploy special officers when there is a bigger disaster to tackle. There needs to be another mechanism to keep an eye on such criminal activities. The rescue and rehabilitation teams can also be more vigilant or NGOs that work for children and women’s protection can fill in this space. This will help relieve pressure on the rescue and rehab teams but also ensure the vulnerable are safe from criminal elements. Aware of how easy it is to exploit disaster-hit people, Kausar Abbas’s organization Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO), which has been working on Trafficking in Person and Human Smuggling, has already begun an awareness campaign among the flood affected.
“People become vulnerable during disasters, especially for trafficking. And traffickers also become very active during this time. The case is from Sindh in which the girl was kidnapped, – she was lured by promises of ration – and raped by the two men for two days. She was sexually exploited.” “We are running campaigns in flood-affected areas in which we are warning people not to fall into such traps and not agree to go with anyone who offers food or other provisions. We also informed them there are police helplines (Free helplines: 1715; 0333-111-05-66 and 0336-2140181) where they can report such cases and get help.”Hopefully, more organizations will step in and spread awareness against trafficking in disaster areas.