Shahid Sandhu’s sense of loss and anxiety from his loveless marriage knows no bounds. But his is more than a bad connection.
From the time he left Pakistan to join his new wife overseas four years ago, she, her brothers and her parents have been controlling his every move.
They force him to work round the clock, seven days a week – as a bonded labourer at a construction site during the day and as an indentured servant at home on evenings and his day off. They beat him and verbally abuse him at any sign of exhaustion or dissent. They take all his money, refuse him food and have even threatened to kill him.
Sandhu knows what they are doing is wrong and illegal, but the endless abuse has broken him down. He battles severe depression and nightmares, too exhausted, afraid and ashamed to speak out.
Sandhu’s situation sounds as if it’s from a bygone era, but it is happening today, in one of the world’s most advanced cities: Hong Kong. And his plight is not unique.
Lawyers and NGO outreach workers in the city’s South Asian community say Sandhu is just one of dozens of known cases in which men have been tricked into arranged marriages before being trafficked to Hong Kong and forced into indentured labour by their bride’s family.
Typically, the men are preyed upon by future in-laws who select them for their vulnerability and promise them first-world lives that will enable them to support loved ones back home.
Once in Hong Kong, a combination of isolation, fear of retribution towards their families and a profound, culturally ingrained sense of shame prevents them from speaking out.
For every man who does come forward, untold numbers hold back, preferring to live out their miserable, hellish lives in the shadows rather than risk disgrace.
Campaigners have a term for these men: slave grooms.
The nightmare Sandhu found himself living is a far cry from the charmed lifestyle the 34-year-old had imagined when he was approached by a matchmaker about marrying a Hong Kong-born Pakistani woman. Hearing about her wealthy family helped seal the deal for Sandhu and his impoverished parents, who are farmers in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Sandhu, who has a university degree in commerce, had a respectable job at a bank in Pakistan, but his salary was meagre and the prospect of a prosperous life in Hong Kong meant financial security for his parents. He married his bride in Pakistan, arriving in Hong Kong months later on a dependant visa.
The post-wedding bliss vanished immediately. Sandhu’s in-laws and wife locked away his passport and identity papers for “safe keeping” – something that is against the law – then informed him that he would be working overtime at a construction site six days a week to earn money for his bride and her entire family. Every night, and on his one day off each week, he would do the domestic work. Whenever Sandhu complained, verbal and physical abuse kept him in his place.
“My in-laws were always bullying me. Although I am a university graduate, I was always called illiterate and a jungle man. Once I shouted back at them and they beat me. After that I was resigned to my fate and work,” he said.
Broken though he was, Sandhu did manage to reach out to Richard Aziz Butt, a sought-after immigration consultant in the South Asian community, having got his number from a work colleague. “I need to get out,” Sandhu told Butt. However, Sandhu was not willing to go to the police. Like many other slave grooms, he feared deportation, repercussions from his in-laws and shame.
“I would call him a slave groom,” said Butt. “His marriage was arranged so that he could be brought here to work as a machine to earn money for the bride’s family. All these things are elements of slavery,” Butt said. “The [victims] are monitored 24 hours [by their tormentors]. These people will not talk [to the police] even if they are abused.
“These men are from male-dominated [patriarchal] countries. If they say to someone that they were treated like slaves, people will laugh at them and call them cowards, useless and lazy. Therefore, they dare not say anything to anyone.”
Butt has met more than 100 South Asian men trafficked to Hong Kong through marriages since 1997. Their visas are usually processed directly by the family without a consultant or lawyer, to keep a low profile. “I believe 20 per cent of the husbands are slave grooms,” said Butt. “They are brought to Hong Kong to work for the wife and the family.”
Most of the men are from the Punjab region of Pakistan and India but some come from other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Nepal.
Babu Bishu, a former pimp turned frontline NGO worker in Chungking Mansions – a building complex in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, known for cheap eateries, dodgy deals and as a gathering place for South Asians – has helped three men from the Punjab region of India who were trafficked into marriages and forced to work in restaurants and a tailor shop. Over the years, he’s met more than 200 vulnerable South Asians in Hong Kong who were deceived into forced labour. He says both men and women “from poor families migrate to Hong Kong through arranged marriages” and then find themselves enslaved – in some of the women’s cases as house prostitutes to be abused both by the groom and father-in-law. “It’s miserable. It’s heartbreaking,” said Bishu.
WATCH: How Hong Kong’s iconic Chungking Mansions became what it is today
The UN’s Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons as using means such as deception and force to have total control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation including slavery.
Nurul Qoiriah, head of the Hong Kong office of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, said: “Traffickers may use various means [of coercion and control] to prevent victims from reporting or seeking help from others, including the use of... threatening reprisal against victims’ loved ones, debt bondage and isolation.”
A week ago, Sandhu was famished at the end of an 18-hour construction shift and decided to get some food. That angered his younger brother-in-law, who gives him just enough money for transport. He beat Sandhu for disobeying him.
Sandhu’s salary from construction goes into his bank account, but that is controlled by his brother-in-law and wife, who take all his money. “They only put some travel money on my Octopus card and every day she checks on her phone how much money I have on my card. And where I spent it,” he said.
His wife and in-laws threatened to kill him if he tried to escape. “Now I am trapped,” he said.
Tony Dickinson, a psychologist in Hong Kong, said it was important to note the men’s predicament was not a sign of weakness. “If these guys are so weak, how come they work in construction?” Dickinson asked. “It’s fear and threats that hold them in place.”
“Public perception would be that this is nasty and terrible and that it’s hard to believe this happening in our society and that we allowed this to happen. But there’s no legal protection for these guys. If his passport is being withheld, it’s illegal.”
The details of Sandhu’s story are depressingly familiar to other slave grooms Butt is working with. Karamjit Singh, 28, was introduced to the family of a Hong Kong-born Indian Punjabi woman. Her family regaled him and his widower father with stories of a prosperous life in Hong Kong. They had come all the way to Moga, India, to look for a suitable groom. The prospect of a “sense of security in an advanced country” made him agree.
Singh, an only child, and his elderly father were struggling financially and he was unable to finish high school. Little did he know his soon-to-be parents-in-law had targeted him for this very reason.
“The brothers-in-law want to control Karmanjit,” said Butt. “These people go to find the groom who does not have a big family to support, usually the only son and from a poor family. Then they isolate him.”
Singh had a “very good wedding” at a Sikh temple in India in 2012. A year later, after the immigration department processed and issued his dependant visa, he arrived in Hong Kong.
His brother-in-law and father-in-law told him that he’d be working in two jobs in construction during the day and as a security guard in the evenings. “They beat him with women’s high heels. It is degrading and aimed to destroy his self-esteem,” Butt said.
When it came to his salary, his father-in-law controlled everything and kept and used his ATM card; Singh would get spending money from his wife.
He regrets his decision to marry his wife, whom he describes as a mild-mannered woman. Singh says she is powerless and cannot stop her brothers and father. “I can’t escape. I want to get rid of my in-laws,” he said.
Singh reached out to Butt several months ago in hope of finding a way out of his marriage. He said he would never go to the police.
Slavery and human trafficking within the context of family and marriage is underreported worldwide, and Hong Kong’s Immigration Department has no official record on exploitation and trafficking of spouses who migrate to the city.
However, figures for forced marriages – a related offence, as the victim loses control of their life – are kept in countries such as Britain and Australia, where forced marriages are a crime. Last year, the British Home Office Forced Marriage Unit found about 20 per cent of its 1,145 cases involved male victims. Its cases have involved men from more than 90 countries since 2005, but more than 40 per cent of the cases come from Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh on 8 per cent and India on 6 per cent.
Sandy Wong, chairwoman of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers, said Hong Kong does not have a specific law on forced marriages or slave marriages but prohibition is scattered in different laws like the Marriage Ordinance (which relates to the age of consent) and the Crimes Ordinance (which prohibits sexual acts with underage people).
“We need to have an updated and tightened framework to deal with all forms of human trafficking. I would like to have everything in one law but that would take even longer to get it researched, lobbied and passed,” Wong said. “The party procuring the forced marriage” could also be in breach of making a false representation to an immigration officer – a crime that can lead to 14 years’ prison or a fine of HK$150,000. Aiders and abetters are liable to the same penalties.
“I believe [trafficking through migration for marriage] is not only happening to men, it’s also happening to women. It’s difficult for them to speak up because of cultural values as they feel it’s taboo,” said Qoiriah at the International Organisation for Migration. “There’s more social pressure when they return home as they’re perceived to be making trouble if they leave these exploitative marriages. It’s psychologically difficult to speak up to face the situation.”
She said the IOM Indonesia office had helped several Indonesian, ethnic Chinese “slave brides” who migrated to Hong Kong recover from sexual exploitation and forced prostitution.
Dickinson, the psychologist, said slave grooms and brides were “likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptomology like depression and severe anxiety of retribution”. “His in-laws most likely can threaten his family,” said Dickinson. “It’s a life-or-death issue, they may be killed. In some countries, brothers kill their sister if they leave a marriage.”
Nita, an NGO leader, said some families in Hong Kong that trafficked men and women from vulnerable backgrounds in South Asia were learning from each other. “They have no conscience and are acting out of pure greed,” she said.
Sandhu said his in-laws repeatedly reminded him that it was his marriage that enabled him to come to Hong Kong. “To come to Hong Kong, Pakistani people spend millions of rupees to get a visa. They told me I got it for free,” he said, referring to the fraudulent visas offered by agents who charge extortionate fees to people desperate to come to the city.
Last summer, the Immigration Department began to work more closely with Pakistan and Bangladesh on addressing human trafficking after seeing a spike in the number of undocumented migrants from South Asia.
Qoiriah said it was hard to identify victims of trafficking, because they are usually unaware of their rights and unaware of the help available and may even be dependent upon the abuser.
She said it is vital for investigators or translators to have an understanding of both trafficking and cultural barriers. “We need a standardised form to identify victims to guide frontline translators to raise the right questions,” she said, adding that a citywide anti-trafficking task force was developing this tool.
It is hard to overstate how much slave grooms are affected by the prospect of loss of face and embarrassment due to their deeply ingrained cultural and religious notions. Bishu at Chungking Mansions said one victim had told him he’d rather be a slave than go back to India and face shame.
Another victim is planning to run away from his brother-in-law to Canada with his bride.
“They are hiding. All of them are in slavery, suffering… not paid or paid very little,” Bishu said. “These men believe they are unable to get help from the police or from anyone else who can speak their language. They have no place to go and complain and share their stories. Many of them are uneducated.”
Butt agreed. “If you don’t understand their religion, it’s hard to understand their situation. Frontline officers, especially immigration officers, don’t have enough cultural and religious training,” he said.
Butt, who has offered to help train police and immigration officers, helped one man from India report his case to the police. “He told them his wife had taken all his money and he was being beaten. The police said they could not do anything, that they didn’t see marks on his body and asked if he needed a medical check-up.”
The man was too ashamed to take the medical for fear of physical retribution and opted for mediation with his wife and in-laws through the police. The police concluded it was a domestic dispute and his wife’s family used the incident to further blackmail him, Butt said.
Butt and the man persisted and were referred to the Social Welfare Department. While efforts were hampered by the department’s lack of Punjabi staff, and lack of understanding, within two months Butt had helped the man regain his passport and escape to a religious retreat in India.
SLAVE TO GHOST
But such resolution is unusual. More typical is the case of Kashi, 34, who like Sandhu and Singh was brought to Hong Kong through an arranged marriage, in his village in Pakistan. He too had been promised a good lifestyle in Hong Kong by his bride’s family and he too was forced to work non-stop as a labourer through the week and a servant at home on his day off.
“They treated me as a slave. Like I was not a human for them,” he said.
When he arrived in the city, his passport was taken. Kashi was watched all the time and not allowed to contact outsiders. “I told them I cannot do it all for you. But they said I’d have to do it, otherwise they would slap my face. They laughed,” he said.
After five years, the turning point came when his brother-in-law stabbed him with a knife. “Yes, I bled,” he recalled. “They said it was a little thing. I was afraid of dying at their hands.”
Kashi escaped that night with just the clothes he was wearing. He had no contacts and didn’t speak English.
“There was a time I did not have money and I slept on the street,” he recalled. Later, he was able to move into a crowded room with other South Asian men in Chungking Mansions.
Butt brought Kashi’s case to the immigration department and tried to extend his visa after he left his wife. But officials couldn’t help him because Kashi no longer had a sponsor.
“Immigration should adopt a policy in which victims of this kind should be granted a visa when they have been abused and enslaved. The wife’s family members will never come and say, ‘Oh yes, we have abused him’. So eventually immigration will refuse their visas and ask them to leave within three or seven days. This is very, very painful,” Butt said.
Butt has lost touch with Kashi, who is probably still in Hong Kong as an undocumented migrant. “From slave groom he turned into a ghost person because he exists but he’s just nowhere in the record,” said Butt.
Butt has applied for visa extensions for so many men brought to Hong Kong on dependant visas that he’s lost count. “Immigration has only one response. They go literally by sponsorship. No sponsor, no visa. They never considered the psychological and physical suffering of the applicant.” These men usually become undocumented migrants working illegally in the construction, restaurant and delivery sectors.
Campaigners say if the city had comprehensive anti-trafficking laws, these victims would receive legal protection.
The Hong Kong government did not reply to requests for information regarding slave grooms, but the Security Bureau said: “Although Hong Kong does not have a single piece of legislation dealing with human trafficking or forced labour as such, we do have a comprehensive and solid legislative framework to deal with various conduct encompassed within the definition of ‘human trafficking’ in the Palermo Protocol, which includes forced labour.”
As for victim protection, the Social Welfare Department works closely with NGOs to help victims who request shelter or assistance, and offers crisis intervention, counselling and temporary accommodation to victims suffering violence and abuse. It would not say whether there were South Asian frontline workers or any staff trained to understand the South Asian culture and identify trafficking victims.
A CHANGE OF PERCEPTION
Aside from changes to the law, campaigners have many suggestions of how to help the slave grooms of Hong Kong.
Butt said a hotline with operators who speak South Asian languages could help. More awareness among the authorities would help them to support and identify silent victims, he added. Equal access to legal protection and justice could further protect victims and their families from reprisals.
Wong, of the anti-trafficking committee, suggested arranging mandatory marriage counselling for couples with one partner from another country. “It would help them to learn about Hong Kong and settle them in, [teach them about] access to services, and more importantly about healthy relationships.”
Perhaps above all what is needed is a change in how society views such men. After all, for many of them it is the fear of how they will be perceived by others that prevents them from coming forward.
And, as Butt points out, even when slave grooms do come forward they are often not seen as victims.
“Immigration never recognises them as slaves,” he said. “They insist they are able-bodied people and can decide on their own.”
Shahid Sandhu doesn’t want to face embarrassment back in India if he escapes his marriage. For now, he is resigned to his life of servitude to protect his family honour. However, a growing sense of hopelessness is overwhelming Sandhu as beatings by his brother-in-law become an ever more regular part of his miserable, controlled existence. “It’s a hellish life,” he said. ■
To report cases of human trafficking contact the International Organisation for Migration on 2332 2441 or via WhatsApp on 9481 9030. Names in this article have been changed to protect the victims.