Human Trafficking After the Nepal Quake

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Sex traders are on the lookout for potential prey in the ruins of quake-ravaged Nepal, and the country’s border with India has made it easier for human trafficking

PUBLISHED IN THE OPEN MAGAZINE

Like any other girl of her age, she had dreams of making it big. Hard-working and ambitious, she had left home in Surkhet district of Nepal to chase a new life in Kathmandu. Working in a restaurant, she quickly grew popular among the staff, thanks to her job dedication. However, dazzled by the big city and strained by the pulls and pressures of urban life, she was a drug addict by the time she was done with her teens.

Little did the 20-year-old Sindhu know that the earthquake of 25 April would shatter all that was left of her dreams. Wrecked, her restaurant had to shut down. She lost all touch with her family, and roamed around jobless and helpless for several days. That’s when a stranger appeared from nowhere, promising her a better life—in Dubai. As salary, she would get around Rs 1 lakh per month working as a dancer, which was more than ten times her pay of Rs 7,000. All the travel documents she needed would be arranged for her, she was told, once she crossed over to India. It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, and she did not take long to make up her mind. Her parents did not need to know.

From Kathmandu, she was taken on a bus to Bhairahwa, a border town near Sonauli in Uttar Pradesh, India. There were other girls in the same bus, she recalls, but she didn’t know any of them. After breakfast at a dhabain Bhairahwa, it was time now to cross the border. She stepped out and walked ahead just as she was told, even as the person accompanying her kept a safe distance. Past the Nepalese gate and across the 30-metre stretch of no-man’s-land, she was stopped at a checkpoint on the Indian side. A lady constable of the Sashashtra Seema Bal (SSB) had questions to ask of her, queries to which she had no answer.

With no documents to prove her claim of employment in a Delhi restaurant, Sindhu was handed over to Maiti, a Nepal- based NGO which works against human trafficking. “We informed her parents,” says Prabha Khanel, district co-ordinator of Maiti in Bhairahwa, “and they were so happy to hear of their missing daughter.” Sindhu refused to reveal the identity of the trafficker, insisting that she was making the journey by herself. “The trafficker had crossed the border before her,” says Khanel. Her parents broke into tears of joy on seeing theirr missing daughter again. “Maiti is like God,” says her mother, “they got us our daughter back.”

It was a happy family reunion, and the 20-year-old still has choices. “I am back with my parents,” says Sindhu, “But I am not sure what I will do now. I want to work again. Let’s see.”

Not all girls and young women are as lucky. After the earth quakes of late April and early May that shattered large parts of urban Nepal, human traffickers have swooped in to prey on human tragedy. Actual numbers are hard to come by, but a sudden surge in this evil activity is evident in the increased number of interceptions made at various Indo-Nepal border posts. Efforts are being made to stop it, but sadly, they’re not nearly enough.

Human trafficking from Nepal is not a new phenomenon. It was rife even before the earthquake. According to a 2001 study by the International Labour Organization, around 12,000 Nepalese children are taken illegally to India every year. With 2.8 million people left homeless (UN estimates) by the seismic events, however, women and children in the Himalayan country have become all the more vulnerable to the entreaties of those with sinister motives. In some ways, it was a nightmare foreseen. “We feared a surge in trafficking cases after the two earthquakes,” says Tomoo Hozumi, Unicef’s Nepal representative. “Loss of livelihoods and worsening living conditions have allowed traffickers to easily convince parents to give their children up for what they are made to believe will be a better life. Traffickers usually promise education, meals and a better future. But the reality is that many of those children could end up being horrendously exploited and severely abused.”

According to a Unicef report, in the one-and-a-half months since the quakes, at least 245 children have been rescued from being trafficked and unnecessarily or illegally placed in child-care homes. Things are no better even for adult women. The United Nations Population Fund has warned that more than 28,000 women may be at risk of gender violence in the aftermath of the quakes.

“The Indo-Nepal border has many points of vulnerability, as everyone wants to flee Nepal post the earthquakes. This has increased the risk of people falling in the net of human traffickers,” says YK Gautam, state coordinator of Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children, an Indian NGO that works in Bihar. He estimates that around 100,000 families crossed the border in just one month after the quakes.

The collapse of Nepal’s administration, with its attention diverted to saving the lives of those trapped under debris, gave traffickers the chance they were looking for. They started by meeting people at relief camps in the guise of offering aid, and then went on a recruitment drive. “The first incident that came to our notice was 10-15 days after the earthquake,” says Bindu Kunwar, supervisor at the Women and Child office in Nepalgunj district of Nepal. “At Mahendra Nagar naaka, 25 children were intercepted in a bus. On enquiring, it was found they were being taken to India. That raised the alarm.”

In May, 28 children were rescued from a garment factory in Ludhiana, India. “We have rescued 26 children from the clutches of human traffickers in just a month after the quake and sent them to rehabilitation centres,” says Sanjeev Kumar, a senior labour official in Bihar’s East Champaran district. The Maiti office in Nepalgunj has rescued 155 people so far, including 75 girls and 58 women. “The increase in trafficking can be understood from this pattern,” says Khanel. “At the Bhairahwa- Sonauli border, only nine cases of human trafficking were intercepted by us in April this year. It went up to 22 in May and further to 34 in June.” In July, 16 girls were rescued in Mumbai and sent to Bhairahwa by Rescue Foundation, Mumbai. “We kept them here for a few days until their family members arrived to take them back,” says Khanel. More recently, on 25 July, 21 Nepalese girls were rescued from Mahipalpur near Delhi’s airport. The girls were to be flown to Dubai.

India and Nepal share a 1,751 km long border and the amity between the two countries has meant that the security arrangements are light. Geographically, the terrain is largely plain, except for some hilly parts towards the Northeast. While there are 22 check-posts for trade, human transit is allowed at only six border points. But there is no fence to separate territories, and the border is so porous in parts of UP and Bihar that locals see no need for any documents to cross from one side to the other. On top of that, cultural affinity has meant that many families on either side are interrelated through marriage. There are also villages through which the border runs. All of this makes it harder to patrol the border to curb trafficking. “One can check the movement of people at check-posts, but it is practically impossible to monitor it in areas that comprise forests and inhabitants,” says Rajesh Mani, director, Manav Seva Sansthan, Gorakhpur, an NGO working to raise awareness of human trafficking as a scourge. “Patrolling is not possible in these areas, and even if it is there, how can you differentiate among people?”

The US State Department classifies India and Nepal as ‘Tier 2’ countries for trafficking, which implies the governments of these two do not fully comply with the standards put in place for its elimination; however, a visit to these parts makes it clear that heroic efforts are being made by people who care.

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Of many border points, the Rupaidiha-Nepalgunj one is perhaps the most vulnerable, given the poor infrastructure and abject living conditions on both sides. The 30 km concrete road from Rupaidiha to Nepalgunj takes more than an hour. The border formalities done, we cross over, drive another 3 km, and take a narrow lane to arrive at a shelter in Nepalgunj run by Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) under the Women and Child Department of the Nepal government. This is a temporary camp for rescued children. “We counsel the children,” says Indra KC, a counsellor at CWIN. “Sometimes they are so scared that they don’t open up.”

Guided into a play room, we see three children busy at a carom board. One of them, 13-year-old Rishi Raj, is asked to join us. “He came day before yesterday,” says Indra KC. The boy looks at us for a moment, before Indra KC interrupts with “He can speak in Hindi.”

Namaste,” says Rishi with folded hands, and starts narrating his story. A resident of Kathmandu, his father had married another woman and his mother another man. They both moved away, leaving him to fend for himself. It was his maternal grandfather who took him in. With his school forced to close by the earthquake, Rishi would wander around the city. One day, he says, he met a truck driver who promised to show him some nice places if he came along with him. “He told me that I would travel the world with him and then he would drop me at my grandparents’ home,” says Rishi. Without informing anyone, he decided to accompany the man in his truck, who took him to Nepalgunj and then crossed the border while he was asleep in the vehicle. The boy, the check-post was told, was his son.

It was only in Bahraich, 60 km from the border, that volunteers of Dehat, an Indian NGO, took notice of the boy. “He was looking lost and we started enquiring about him,” says Jitendra Chaturvedi, founder and chief executive of Dehat. “Initially, the driver tried to dodge us with his framed story, but he later tried to get away, leaving the boy.” The police were called in and they took the driver away. Rishi was handed over to the Women and Child Department of Nepalgunj. “When we asked him, he didn’t have any idea that he is in India,” says Chaturvedi.

At the shelter home, Rishi is trying to adapt. “While the other two children share a good camaraderie,” observes Indra KC, “Rishi mostly keeps to himself.” To safeguard children, Nepal’s government suspended international adoptions from the country right after the quake, and in early June, it also banned children from travelling between districts without parents or approved guardians. The registration of new orphanages has been suspended too, and existing one cannot induct new children without permission. The relocation of children from their home districts now requires prior authorisation from the Central Child Welfare Board.

But the trafficking of minors and young adults goes on. Chaturvedi says that just a few days earlier, a few girls were rescued by Sathi, another NGO based in Nepal. “We keep a strict vigil on border movements through our volunteers,” he says.

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Separating cases of trafficking from those of migration is not always easy. “We cannot stop migration, as it is their right,” says Khanel, “We just ensure that they have the required clearance from government authorities.”

While engaged in conversation with us, her mobile phone rings. It’s a call from Rabin Babu Regmi, a Nepali police inspector at the Bhairahwa-Sonauli border check-post. Two women, it seems, have been intercepted while trying to cross the border. Khanel gets ready to reach the border, around 4 km from her office. We take our own conveyance, and reach in five minutes too. Maiti volunteers show us into a small room, where the two women are. Khanel greets them with a smile, saying, “Aao behen (sisters, please come).” The women, one in her late teens and the other in her twenties, offer no response. They just accompany Khanel in her vehicle, and are taken to the first floor of the Maiti office, which has a hostel for their stay. They are offered food and water, and for the next hour, Khanel is busy talking to them in a closed room. “They are not saying much and we don’t want to trouble them right now,” she says, finally. “Our attempt would be to make them feel normal and at home, and in between we will counsel them.” They may stay at the Bhairahwa shelter for three months at most. If no one of their family comes for them in this period, or if they are unwilling to go back, they would be sent to Maiti’s office in Kathmandu.

Not all young women are taken back by their families. “Those who cross the border and are caught later on are often seen as a stigma on the family,” says Khanel, “Society starts to think that she might have been engaged in ‘illicit activities’, especially sex.” Maiti, however, offers them vocational training. “Our Kathmandu office runs programmes for empowering them with skills for their livelihood,” says Khanel. “Some of them need police or legal support, which is available there.”

There have been cases of families accepting women back after they started earning money. Such is the financial desperation. Even traffickers have started using vocational training as a lure. Many provide their victims dummy courses in ‘computers’ or ‘hotel management’, even printing fake diplomas and job offer letters to fool not only them but also the check-post personnel. But most of them end up at brothels or in jobs where they are sexually exploited.

Some are packed off to Gulf countries. “Most of them claim that they are married to a boy in India, or in some cases the trafficker does marry a girl to take her easily with him,” says Regmi of the Nepal Prahari. “We try to check the truth in their claims through the documents submitted by them.” Mehmood of Maharajganj, UP, tells us the story of his uncle’s family staying in Nepal. His uncle went missing after the earthquake, and her aunt along with her 14-year-old daughter headed back to Maharajganj. On the way, she started getting calls from places like Dubai and Kuwait. “These were marriage proposals for her daughter,” he says. “I was surprised how quickly they start luring families in distress.”

According to Rishikant of Shakti Vahini, an NGO in Delhi that works with the UP Police, offering them trafficking tip-offs, traffickers have recently started using Varanasi as a midway point. Since brothels get raided by the police, he says, they avoid taking the women there directly. “They promise jobs in the garment sector and even create fake companies.”

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“Human trafficking has emerged as the fastest growing criminal industry and is the second largest after drug trafficking,” says Dinbandhu Vats of the Delhi-based think-tank Pairvi. “Traffickers make nearly $32 billion annually without any investment.” India is both a popular transit point as well as a destination of human trafficking from Nepal. It acts as a base for women sent off to other countries, even as a large number find themselves in various places within the country.

The kingpins who run trafficking networks are extremely hard to catch. Those who do get caught are intermediaries, paid to do what they do. “There’s a long chain of people employed at every step in Nepal and India,” says Keshav Koirala, district coordinator, Maiti, Nepalgunj. But there are some names that keep cropping up. Koirala mentions a Nepalese woman called Kajol, who operates from Delhi. “She keeps changing her location. She is the kingpin of the trade in Delhi and western UP.” Regmi mentions one Anjum Nepali, a trafficker active along the Bhairahwa-Sonauli-Gorakhpur route. Maiti has a list of suspected traffickers that it shares with the police. One of the operators, Vishnu Maya Tamang from Nuwakot, Nepal, was arrested two years ago. Found to be ill, she was released last year. “There is no trace of her since then,” says Khanel, “and in all probability she might be active again.” Another woman trafficker, Dolma Tamang has been at large for the past year or so, evading the police dragnet and thought to be staying in India at present.

Not all traffickers are Nepalese. Indian groups are active as well. Chaturvedi says he recently submitted a list of 17 traffickers who are active in the region to the authorities. In some cases, FIRs have been filed at various police stations, but none of them is in custody. “We are constantly engaged with the SSB in the area to prevent human trafficking,” says Neha Pandey, SP, Bahraich. “Some NGOs are helping us too in tracing the culprits.”

The governments of Nepal and Indian border states have upped the vigil against trafficking, but volunteers are needed. Maiti has check-points at every border passage, where its volunteers in blue salwar and yellow kameezcan be spotted. There has been a series of official border meetings organised in which NGOs, locals administrations and NGOs from both sides have participated to work out how best to collaborate in curbing the menace. “All the security agencies posted at the border will have to be active to prevent trafficking,” says Sanjeev Gupta, DIG, Gorakhpur range. “We are also setting up offices of the Anti-Human Trafficking (AHT) cell at the border.”

But there are flaws in the system that need to be addressed. Anti-Human Trafficking cells have been established in 37 border districts of UP. “But the officers are not trained and equipped to handle the situation,” says Rajesh Mani. “Till date, there is no standard operating procedure to guide them on how to deal with trafficking. In most cases, traffickers get away with easy charges rather than being booked under Section 4 and 5 of India’s Immoral Traffic Prevention Act.”

Adds Vats, “The poor compliance with legal protocol coupled with weak enforcement machinery, delays in justice delivery and low conviction rates encourage traffickers to continue their lucrative trade in both countries.” Rehabilitation efforts are not adequate either. “This results in re-trafficking,” says Vats.

This May, four girls were rescued by Indian paramilitary forces and handed over to Nepal’s police. The same girls had been rescued by Sathi earlier, but they somehow ended up in the clutches of traffickers again—using a different route this time. “Traffickers think much faster than we can come up with solutions,” says Chaturvedi. “The issue needs better efforts from various departments of the Government. What we are doing is only to resolve one part of the problem.”

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