Combatting migrant smuggling and trafficking in Pakistan

How a UQ researcher helped design new laws to protect migrants and refugees in Pakistan

road facing Balochistan Mountain, Pakistan

Pakistan, one of the most populous nations in the world, has faced many severe challenges in recent years.

The so-called ‘war on terror’ along with severe flooding and other natural disasters have displaced millions of people, and many Pakistani nationals are leaving the country to escape poverty and unemployment, violent extremism and human rights abuses. 

University of Queensland Professor Andreas Schloenhardt is modest about his role in developing Pakistan’s new laws against the smuggling of migrants and trafficking of persons.

That is despite spending several years working with Pakistani authorities and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Islamabad to research these problems and draft new laws against them.

These laws were desperately needed, with Pakistan being a major source, transit point and destination for irregular migrants.

“Millions of refugees have fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan and many have lived there for 20 years or more,” says Professor Schloenhardt, from UQ's TC Beirne School of Law.

“Most refugees, however, have no legal status, and their uncertain future means that many move on to other countries.  Some are forced to go back to Afghanistan.”

At the end of 2017, approximately 1.4 million refugees, most of them Afghan nationals, were still living in Pakistan, making the country one of the main host nations of refugees in the world.

Pakistan is also a destination for refugees and labour migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan), both of which share a long history with Pakistan.

Pakistan in recent years has been both a source and destination of irregular migrants.

Pakistan in recent years has been both a source and destination of irregular migrants.

Pakistan in recent years has been both a source and destination of irregular migrants.

Professor Andreas Schloenhardt from UQ.

Professor Andreas Schloenhardt from UQ.

Professor Andreas Schloenhardt from UQ.

Professor Schloenhardt says that without legal avenues to seek asylum, and in the absence of safe and effective channels for labour migration, many migrants – both inbound and outbound – turn to smugglers, which can have dangerous consequences. 

“All too frequently, smugglers prey on the vulnerability of irregular migrants, or exploit them for the purpose of forced labour, servitude or sexual exploitation,” he explains. 

“In such cases, smuggling of migrants morphs into trafficking in persons, where migrants are threatened or deceived.”

Until recently, laws to protect migrant workers, prevent labour exploitation of children, and punish smugglers and traffickers instead of their victims were mostly non-existent.

But thanks to the tireless work of Professor Schloenhardt and his team of research students, new anti-trafficking laws were enacted in June 2018 to enhance international cooperation, safeguard the rights of victims of trafficking, and enable Pakistani law enforcement agencies to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes.

His work tied in with the UQ Working Groups on Migrant Smuggling Working Group, coordinated by Professor Schloenhardt and Dr Melissa Curley of the School of Social Sciences.

The working group involved a range of UQ law and political science/international relations students between 2008 and 2018.

Professor Schloenhardt says the new Pakistani laws aim to protect people desperately trying to change their lives for the better.

“Many victims of smugglers and traffickers endure unimaginable hardships in their bid for a better life,” he says.

“The anti-smuggling law seeks to criminalise those who profit from facilitating illegal entry, and provide harsher punishment to those who place the lives and safety of smuggled migrants at risk.”

Professor Schloenhardt is a leading expert on smuggling of migrants, a topic he has researched since the mid 1990s.

He says he was drawn to the topic because of the synergy between criminal, refugee and immigration law.

“Migrant smugglers are mostly portrayed as heinous criminals yet, for many people, smugglers offer the only way to flee from persecution, war, and human rights abuses,” he explains.

After completing his PhD on the topic at The University of Adelaide in 2002, Professor Schloenhardt joined UQ in 2005, where he has continued his research in a great range of countries.

He has served on official delegations of the Australian Government to United Nations meetings, and worked with UNODC for more than 15 years on assignments relating to organised crime, trafficking and smuggling, wildlife crime, and corruption in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.

His work in Pakistan began in 2010 with a project assessing local law enforcement capacity in relation to trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.

Commissioned by UNODC’s Country Office in Islamabad, and in close cooperation with Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, Professor Schloenhardt authored five major reports examining law and law enforcement and delivered training to senior officials on smuggling and trafficking in Pakistan.

He was subsequently asked to draft two new laws to combat these crimes, protect the rights of smuggled migrants and victims of trafficking, and foster national and international cooperation.

image of a third-world village with straw huts and derelict buildings

Professor Schloenhardt says one of the key drivers of the legislation was to help prevent migrants falling victim to exploitative schemes. 

“Salaries in Pakistan can be meagre, and widespread unemployment means that many young men and women look for opportunities abroad,” he explains.

“They frequently sell all their sparse belongings or receive financial support from their families to pay for smugglers. If they cannot afford these fees, migrants sometimes accept loans by the smugglers or dubious money lenders.

“This frequently leads them into situations of debt bondage, when they are charged astronomical interest rates and are tied to their employers without any freedom to leave.”

Professor Schloenhardt says women and children are particularly vulnerable, frequently experiencing sexual exploitation or forced into prostitution or domestic servitude where it is difficult for them to be seek help, especially if they are in countries where they do not speak the local language and have no lawful status.

Trafficking in persons for organ removal is another trap for some Pakistanis seeking to escape poverty.

“Left with few other alternatives and hoping to end their cycle of debt, some men agree to selling their kidneys, which sometimes involves trafficking to another country,” he says

“The surgeries are often performed unprofessionally and in dangerous conditions, leaving them scarred for life and too feeble to work.”

An Afghan refugee Girl Standing infront of her mud built house in freezing weather near Pakistan Afghanistan border in a Afghan Refugee camp

Professor Schloenhardt and his team began working on the draft ‘Act to Prevent and Combat Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children’ and ‘Act to Combat Smuggling of Migrants’ in 2012. 

Three years later, they presented the full text along with explanatory notes to a group of Senators and Members of Parliament.

The laws were finally enacted last year.

Professor Schloehardt says he is proud of the contribution he and his team have made.

“When I started my academic career, I certainly never dreamt of being driven around Pakistan in an armoured vehicle worrying about bomb blasts and terrorist attacks, ,” he says.

“I do not wish to overstate the impact of our work, but this experience tied into work I have done for a very long time, and it is rewarding to see my research having such an impact.”

Throughout the many years of the project, Pakistan’s political leadership changed several times, transitioning from the presidency of General Pervez Musharaff, to Nawaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister twice before, to the election of ex-cricketer Imran Khan in 2018.

Professor Schloenhardt says that despite the political turbulence and the frail security situation in the country, there was a growing realisation that more had to be done to combat smuggling and trafficking and protect the rights of smuggled migrants and trafficked persons.

“Pakistan is a young and proud nation and has a history of foreign countries meddling in its internal affairs, yet there was a genuine willingness to cooperate with international organisations and myself, as their consultant,” he says.

“Today, there is a much greater level of international engagement and open dialogue on many aspects of regular and irregular migration to and from Pakistan, which would have been inconceivable 10 years ago.”

Professor Schloenhardt is quick to emphasise that the legislation he drafted was “just a piece of the puzzle and a step in the right direction”.

However, the new laws are expected to raise Pakistan’s image in the world, especially in the eyes of countries such as the United States that have criticised Pakistan for many years for doing too little to combat trafficking in persons and protect victims.

“Since the enactment of the laws last year, Pakistan has started to appear in a better light,” Professor Schloenhardt says.

“What matters now is that the laws are properly enforced and that those charged with investigating these crimes and protecting victims are adequately resourced and trained.”

High angle view of city at dusk
Pakistani passport


2003: Professor Schloenhardt begins working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

2005: Joins The University of Queensland Faculty of Business, Economics and Law.

2006: A Human Rights Commission report finds approximately 300,000 people are leaving Pakistan illegally each year.

2008: Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf resigns to avoid impeachment.

2010: Professor Schloenhardt begins working in Pakistan with a project assessing local law enforcement capacity in relation to trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.

2012: Work begins on the draft ‘Act to Prevent and Combat Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children’ and the draft ‘Act to Combat Smuggling of Migrants’.

2013: Approximately four million irregular migrants living in Pakistan, most refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan.

June 2013: Nawaz Sharif is voted in for a third non-consecutive term as prime minister of Pakistan. His period of office lasts until July 2017.

May–June 2018: New Pakistani laws regarding trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants are passed and subsequently enacted.

July 2018: Pakistani general election held, resulting in a new prime minister in the form of former international cricketer Imran Khan.

Contact details

Professor Andreas Schloenhardt:

Phone: +61 7 336 56191


This article was last updated on 18 June 2019.

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Professor Andreas Schloenhardt