“My friend asked me to go work with her in China… I agreed to go with her as long as the work there would be good.” This was the simple way that one unsuspecting Kachin girl from Burma (Myanmar) ended up as a victim of human trafficking and forced marriage in China. Soon after her arrival in China, the friends she came with left her with a Chinese man to live as his wife.

Forced to stay at his house, she was afraid and unsure of where to go for help. Before long, she gave birth to twins. Finally, she determined one day to wake up before her captor and flee to seek help from the authorities in a nearby city. She spent two months in a Chinese jail before being transferred to Burmese authorities who took her back to Burma, where a humanitarian organization provided her with shelter and support.

This brave survivor shared her story last week at a State Department event titled, “Trafficking of Women and Girls in China via Forced and Fraudulent Marriage.” She is just one of many Kachin girls—and girls and women from other countries neighboring China—tricked into crossing the border into China with offers of work or tales of a legitimate marriage, which turns out to be sexual exploitation.

The Kachin ethnic group, like many ethnic minorities in Burma, receive little support from the Burmese government. Insurgencies in the Kachin state are among several across Burma which are collectively referred to as the Burmese civil war, a conflict that has been ongoing for decades and the source of multiple humanitarian crises. Some estimate that more than 90 percent of the Kachin people are Christian—mostly Baptist and Roman Catholic. The ongoing conflict and lack of support from the government makes Kachin girls and women vulnerable to manipulation by traffickers and brokers. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published a heart-wrenching, exhaustive report on the trafficking of Kachin “brides” from Burma to China.

Other countries that surround China also deal with widespread bride trafficking issues, including Pakistan, Vietnam, and North Korea. China’s former “one-child policy,” imposed from 1979 to 2015, along with a cultural preference for sons, has created a skewed male-female ratio and a significant shortage of women. This imbalance fuels human trafficking and prostitution within China.

Bride trafficking in Pakistan earned international attention last year when Pakistani authorities compiled a list of 629 Pakistani women and girls sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China. The investigation was soon shut down over Pakistani officials’ fear that the inquiry would ire China and threaten Chinese investments into the cash-strapped country.

During the Pakistani investigations, Christian women were found to be particular targets because the pervasive social marginalization of Christian communities makes them easy targets for foreign traffickers. Many Christians in Pakistan are uneducated and impoverished, exacerbating the problem. Christian women from poor households lack the agency in society to protect or advocate for themselves.

Corrupt pastors in Pakistan—abusing their trusted role in the community—have been found to work with Chinese brokers to identify prospective female targets for trafficking and orchestrate fake marriages.

At the State Department event, Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist who has helped rescue several girls from China, described how brokers, sometimes cooperating with a pastor who receives a cut of the profit, convince their victims to go to China: “The promises that were made were not just that the man is a Christian man who is from China and is just looking for a wife and will provide a good life in China, but also that the [woman’s] family will be taken care of when the woman is taken to China. And since they come from a poor household, they did not want to turn down these offers…”

The cases discussed at the State Department’s event are troubling. As Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie noted, human trafficking may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about China’s many human rights violations, but this significant trend deserves global attention and action.  

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted the connection between religious freedom issues in Burma, Pakistan, and elsewhere and the issue of human trafficking: “Often religious minorities, not exclusively because they’re religious minorities, but because they’re vulnerable” are targeted, “and it’s incumbent upon us, as the international community, to aggressively push back against both ends of this problem,” which are religious freedom violations and human trafficking.

In many devastating cases, human trafficking and religious freedom violations assist each other. Each of these is a serious human rights issue, and together they create even more tragic scenarios. Activists that work on human trafficking issues and religious freedom issues have a lot to gain by working together, especially when it comes to China.