For Nepali women seeking work in the Gulf, new routes and old risksDespite restrictions from traveling to the Gulf countries, desperate Nepali women are falling into traps of trafficking agents who are exploiting new routes to take them out of the country.
When Parvati Waiba arrived in Aizawl in the Indian state of Mizoram, she was exhausted. It was April 24, 2019 and she had travelled 20 hours on a bus from Guwahati in Assam to reach Aizawl, a teeming city in northeast Indian. At the buspark, she met Bal Bahadur Kadariya, who took her to the Leela Hotel for some rest. Kadariya told 39-year-old Waiba that she would have to stay at the hotel for a few days and then, they would cross the border into Myanmar, en route to the Middle East for work.
After nine long days of nothing to do in a foreign city, Waiba, who is from Kakani in Nuwakot, was getting frustrated. But on May 3, there was a knock on her door. She assumed it was Kadariya, come to take her to Myanmar. It was the Aizawl police.
Twenty-three Nepali women along with Waiba were taken into protective custody and on May 9, handed over to Maiti Nepal, an anti-trafficking organisation, on behalf of the Nepal government.
The women were from all over Nepal--Jhapa, Rupandehi, Nawalparasi (East), Surkhet, Kathmandu and Nuwakot--and ranged from the ages of 20 to 50. Similarly, two of the women were from Nawalparasi and two from Kathmandu. All the women had been told the same thing--they were going to the Middle East to work as domestic help.
The ordeal of these 23 women shed light to a new, previously unexplored, human trafficking route to the Middle East--via Myanmar. As there are restrictions on Nepali women travelling to the Gulf countries for work, women desperate for work are lured by trafficking agents with promises of large salaries in domestic work. But in order to get them to the Middle Eastern countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, where most of these jobs are, traffickers explore new routes even as old ones are discovered and closed down by the authorities.
The May 3 raid on the Leela Hotel was prompted by the foresight of Major Tarun Kunwar of the Assam Rifles, who was deployed at the Indian border with Myanmar, according to the Aizawl police. On May 2, he had noticed a few Nepali girls crossing the border and as Kunwar could speak Nepali, he asked them where they were headed. The girls informed him that they were planning to go abroad and that there were other girls like them in Aizawl. Suspecting human trafficking, Kunwar informed the Aizawl police who in turn coordinated the raid and arrested Kadariya in the process.
Nepali traffickers like Kadariya are increasingly using the Myanmar border to traffic humans with the help of Indian nationals who can speak Nepali, said Superintendent Kartik Kashyap, the Aizawl police chief.
“Investigations have revealed that there have been similar incidents not only along the Mizoram border but also in Manipur,” said Kashyap. “As people in both Myanmar and along the border towns in India can speak Nepali, it has become easier for traffickers to cross the border.”
Trafficked and re-trafficked
In the late 90s, after numerous cases of women being taken advantage of in the Gulf began to emerge in the media, the Nepal government had prohibited women from going abroad for domestic work. Since then, the ban has been lifted and replaced multiple times. Most recently, the government has begun allowing women with older work permits to go abroad again, but has refrained from allowing first-timers to go abroad for work.
In 2015, the government had restricted workers, both men and women, from going to Malaysia and the Gulf countries as domestic workers. The Department of Foreign Employment had then identified 49 manpower companies that were allowed to recruit and send Nepalis abroad for household works.
“The government has introduced this policy for the security of Nepali workers,” said department director Bholanath Guragain. “However, people are still going abroad via illegal channels.”
Social activist Basanta Karki agrees, saying that restrictions on travelling abroad do not prevent human trafficking; instead, they only force vulnerable people towards more perilous avenues, leaving them more at risk of exploitation.
Among the 23 women rescued from Aizawl, 16, including Waiba, had already been abroad while seven were going for the first time. Waiba had previously been to Lebanon and Kuwait for four years.
One day, around a year ago, Waiba received a message from another woman who had returned from Kuwait. She wanted to meet. It had already been a year-and-a-half since Waiba returned from Kuwait but had been unable to save much and was under financial stress. The woman assured Waiba that she would help her return to Kuwait for work.
According to Waiba, she was put in touch with an agent named Deepak, who lived in Delhi. In mid-April, Waiba travelled from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj and crossed the border. Police and Maiti Nepal officials duly questioned Waiba at the Jamunaha border in Nepalgunj but Waiba had been coached to say that she was travelling to meet some relatives.
“I was taken to a hotel in Paharganj but there were lots of other girls there so I was not scared,” said Waiba. “They were from different districts of Nepal and I learnt that a few of them had already spent over a month at the hotel.”
Waiba was introduced to Deepak, who assured her she would be able to depart for Kuwait as soon as she received her visa from Myanmar. After 10 days in Paharganj, Deepak told her that since it was difficult to arrange the itinerary from Delhi, they would have to go to Mizoram. Waiba then took a 35-hour train ride to Guwahati from Delhi and spent a night there. The next day, she travelled 513 kilometres to reach Aizawl.
Anyone entering the state of Mizoram requires an inner line permit, a travel document issued to any visitor by the state government as part of measures to protect indigeneous populations and cultures. Waiba had with her a certificate issued in the name of the Presbyterian Church of India. The certificate stated ‘Mizoram Synod, Baptism’, meaning that Waiba was going to be baptised into Christianity at the Mizoram synod of the Presbyterian Church of India.
The Presbyterian Church of India, which started in Mizoram, is a Protestant Christian church with its primary headquarters in Shillong, Meghalaya. All the 23 girls rescued from the Leela Hotel were carrying similar baptism certificates, signed by one David Chhetri.
According to Superintendent Kashyap, all the girls had crossed into Mizoram on the grounds that they were going to be baptised by the church. Upon interrogation, Kadariya, the agent, implicated Delhi-based agents Ram Tamang, who is originally from Dharan in Sunsari, and Laxman Magar from Gaushala in Kathmandu as also being part of the trafficking ring, said Kashyap. As per the police investigation,Kadariya, who hails from Jhapa, had come to Mizoram to check the area.
“It was after he returned with the assurance that it was safe to traffic girls from that area that Nepali women were brought to that location,” reads the police investigation report.
Waiba, like many Nepali women who choose these dangerous, illegal routes to the Gulf, did not have an easy life back in Nuwakot. Thirteen years ago, she lost her husband to cancer, leaving her with three kids to look after. Unable to adequately provide for them, Waiba decided to leave her children with her parents and fly to Lebanon in 2011. She made Rs 10,000 a month with room and board and although she wasn’t allowed to leave the home she was working in, she didn’t mind as the job wasn’t too difficult.
“I sent my salary home every month for my children,” said Waiba, who was in Lebanon for two years. “I spent all that I had earned in those two years on my children’s education.”
When she returned to Nepal, she came back with just Rs25,000.
Although she didn’t think she would have to go abroad again, her finances remained dire, leading her to fly again, this time to Kuwait. Once again, she spent all her earnings on her children’s education. And when she was in Kuwait, the earthquakes of 2015 struck and destroyed her home. She returned to Nepal and applied for relief, but she says she has received no help as she is a single woman.
Since being rescued from Mizoram, Waiba has been working in a carpet factory in Jorpati, where she makes about Rs12,000 a month.
“I can manage with this income so I won’t have to go abroad for work,” she said. “I am happier here.”
Mizoram and Manipur to Myanmar
India shares a 1,624 kilometre-long border with Myanmar and although there are ongoing plans to create a barrier, many border points remain a relatively lax zone, with people crossing easily into both countries. Four Indian states share the border with Myanmar--Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur.
India’s new Act East policy under the Narendra Modi government has meant that it is pursuing more connections with South East Asia, especially Myanmar, which only recently opened up to the world. A significant part of the policy is a trilateral highway that will connect India with Myanmar and Thailand, the first leg of which involves linking Moreh in Manipur with Mandalay in Myanmar. But this new linkage has provided traffickers with new routes to explore.
Moreh is host to a significant number of people who speak Burmese and the Nepali language. Across the border, after crossing the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate, there are even more people who speak Nepali. So it is not untoward to see large groups of Nepali-speaking people gathered along the border towns.
However, on January 30, 2019, city police noticed a large group of nearly 150 Nepalis, mostly women, waiting to cross the border into Myanmar. All of them were taken into custody and interrogated. Of them, 57 were headed to Iraq, a restricted labour destination for all Nepalis, both men and women, according to Deputy Superintendent Rajkumar Silwal of the Nepal Police’s Bureau of Human Trafficking Control.
Police discovered that most had reached Imphal, the capital of Manipur, after crossing the Nepal-India border at various places, including Kakarbhitta, Nepalgunj and Bhairahawa.
According to Arjun Jogi, a social activist from Manipur, one Tularam Sangraula from Shantipur in Manipur was involved in trafficking these people. Sangraula had already spent 20 days in police custody for being involved in human trafficking. Among other men implicated were Akash Acharya, who in turn fingered one Madan Kharel, who was involved in scoping out Moreh.
According to Acharya, who was released after 18 days in custody, Kharel had told him that he knew of a few women who are planning to go abroad and that Acharya would have to help them cross the border. Since Acharya, who is fluent in Burmese, was already worked with immigration officials, he was a good point of contact for Kharel, who has in now in police custody in Manipur on charges of human trafficking.
“I helped him because of the Nepali connection but he ditched me in the end,” Acharya told the Post.
Acharya said that the Nepali women have been trafficked via Myanmar since almost four years ago. Although he said he had no role in the trafficking operation, he alleged that at least 300 Nepalis had crossed into Myanmar and then left for third countries.
In October 2015, an immigration office was established in the nearby Myanmar city of Tamu and Myanmar started providing e-visas on arrival. This has made it easier to traffic Nepalis, said police.
“It is easy to apply for an online visa for Myanmar,” said senior superintendent Adhikari. “Women are taken from Tamu to Rangoon, and from Rangoon to Colombo. From Colombo, they fly to other countries.”
There are currently seven Nepalis in police custody on charges of human trafficking at the Central Manipur Jail in Sajiwa, according to Manipur police.
When old routes closes, new ones open
Human traffickers are wily and tend to frequently change their tactics, according to police inspector Basanta Basnet. Trafficking agents employ motorcycles, rickshaws and even cycles to cross the border while others simply walk across. But on most occasions, women are taken to Delhi by road, as there is a direct bus available from Dang to Delhi.
Nepal and India share an open border of around 1,690 kilometres, which has made it easy for human traffickers to conduct their nefarious activities. Activists and police know this, and hence, there is often a sizeable number of security personnel alongside more than two dozen non-governmental organisations at the border points. Yet, it has not been easy to stop agents from taking girls across the border.
Local agents often cajole girls from poor families and sell them dreams of earning lots of money through easy work in foreign destinations. Some women are easily lured by these false promises while others have no choice but to go abroad due to their financial conditions at home.
According to deputy superintendent Rajkumar Silwal, the village is the starting point for human trafficking. Agents from the villages send women to employment agencies in the Capital for a commission. Urban agents then receive their own commission for sending women to Delhi from Kathmandu. From Delhi, the girls are sent to countries in the Middle East, where agents sell the women to landlords as maids.
“It has been found that landlords buy girls for Rs 400,000 to Rs 500,000,” said Silwal.
Without proper work permits, these women end up at the mercy of their employers and thus, are more prone to being abused--physically, mentally, financially and sexually.
Most women, however, are not aware of these pitfalls, said Silwal.
Reporting for this story was funded through a fellowship by Media Foundation.
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