KARACHI: When Natasha Khokar was married off to a Chinese man last year, she was promised a life of wealth in a posh home. Instead, she was locked up in a shanty with not even a quilt or a toilet.
“It was like a bad dream,” said Khokar, 27, describing her short marriage, which a local broker fixed in September after promising her Christian family a groom of the same faith and 200,000 rupees ($1,413). They got neither.
“It’s all behind me now,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home province of Punjab, where she returned in December after her uncle paid her airfare home.
Khokar is one of hundreds of Christian women in Pakistan who have been trafficked to China to meet a growing demand for foreign brides – the legacy of Beijing’s one-child policy, which has seen families abort female foetuses for decades.
Khokar was only able to escape because she called a journalist in Pakistan who threatened to broadcast her story. Khokar’s broker then agreed to let her go, although she said he threatened to kill her if she did not “keep my mouth shut”.
Since last year, a network of illicit marriage brokers has been targeting mainly members of Pakistan’s impoverished Christian minority, promising hundreds of thousands of rupees in exchange for their daughters, campaigners say.
But once in China, the reality is often starkly different, said Saleem Iqbal a Christian activist based in Punjab’s capital city, Lahore, who has counselled dozens like Khokar and sheltered runaway brides.
Many end up isolated in remote parts of China, dependent on translation apps and abused and pressured into having babies, which Iqbal and Khokar said they suspected would be trafficked.
“All that my husband wanted was to get me pregnant. He said then he would send me back,” Khokar said.
Some women narrate horrific accounts of being tortured, beaten and forced into prostitution, Iqbal said.
“The more you probe, the more terrible tales, lies and deceit you will hear,” he said, adding that he became aware of the trafficking operation in October and reported it to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
On Monday, the FIA announced that it had arrested 12 suspected members of a prostitution ring trafficking young Pakistani women to China.
The government did not intervene until it had “foolproof evidence”, said Ejaz Alam Augustine, Pakistan’s minister of human rights and minorities affairs.
“Once we had spoken to the victims who pointed us to the gang involved in this, we asked the FIA to intervene,” he said.
Since Monday, the FIA has cracked down on scores of similar operations, arresting numerous Chinese nationals, brokers and pastors in four cities across Punjab, said Jamil Ahmed Khan Mayo, head of the investigation.
“We are interrogating more people and soon there will be more arrests,” he said.
The arrests came a week after Human Rights Watch said Pakistan should be alarmed by recent reports of trafficking of women and girls into sexual slavery in China.
It said the allegations were disturbingly similar to the pattern of trafficking of “brides” to China from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and North Korea.
Chinese men typically pay brokers between $10,000 and $20,000 for a foreign wife, a 2016 United Nations report said.
Pakistan’s minister Augustine said that despite several letters to the Chinese embassy alerting them to bride trafficking, their authorities had done “absolutely nothing”.
The Chinese embassy in Pakistan did not respond to the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s repeated requests for comment.
But not all Pakistani women who marry Chinese men under false pretences are unhappy.
One 27-year-old woman who declined to be named said she loves the Chinese man she married in September, even though he lied that he was a Christian.
“He really takes good care of me,” said the woman, who is expected to have a baby in August.
Khokar – now divorced and back to her old marketing job, earning 30,000 rupees a month – is simply glad to be home.
“Nothing like living and feeling safe in your own, clean home,” said Khokar, adding that she plans to bring her marriage broker and pastor to justice.