Porous border, poor interception and changing forms continue to enable human trafficking to flourishTrafficking of Nepali girls and women remains a big challenge for the country as traffickers use the open border–not only to traffick them to India, but also to further smuggle them into the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Two years ago, when her husband landed in Qatar for a job, she thought that they were in for better days. But misfortune struck quickly. Within three months of reaching the Gulf state, her husband was suddenly jobless. The company he was contracted to work for shut down. He had no option than to return. The couple with two kids was buried under a loan of Rs 200,000.
She then decided to take matters into her own hands. She told her husband that instead of him, she would go on foreign employment.
“I knew a woman earning enough in the United Arab Emirates to support her family,” said M., who asked to be identified with her initials only. “My plan was to work for two years or so and then return home. I just wanted to dig my family out of debt.’
She soon came in touch with “an agent” from Pokhara who promised her a job in Kuwait.
“A salary of Rs50,000 a month just looked too good to be true,” M. told the Post.
There were six women, including M., from different districts in the group. The journey to Kuwait began from Nepalgunj, but ended without the women reaching their destination. M. and five other women were trapped inside a house in the Jharoda, New Delhi for more than three months.
“I had asked why we were not flying from Kathmandu. But the agent said they can’t do so since there is a ban on women going for housemaid jobs,” said M. “After a 13-hour drive, we reached New Delhi at 3am on March 15.”
While M. was promised work in Kuwait, five other women were told they would have jobs in different countries in the Persian Gulf.
On March 25, 10 days after their arrival in Delhi, the Indian government imposed the coronavirus lockdown.
“Our passports were with the person who was with us in that house. We begged him to send us home,” said M. “He demanded Rs50,000 from each of us. We were captives in that house.”
After about two weeks, according to her, she managed to come out of the house and call her family members in Nepal. Subsequently, her father, who works in the Chhatisgarh state of India, was informed.
“My father sent money to the bank account of a couple who operates a hotel near the place. I managed to buy a phone and a SIM card with the help of the hotel operator,” she said.
M. then made several calls clandestinely to family members, ultimately leading to her and the five other women’s rescue.
The six were rescued and brought to Nepal earlier this month.
“I persuaded others to return home,” M. told the Post from a shelter home where she is kept in Kathmandu.
M.’s efforts and timely intervention from concerned agencies saved the group from being trafficked to the Gulf. However, this was not the only group that was rescued during the lockdown.
According to the Anti-human Trafficking Bureau of Nepal Police, a total of 41 Nepali citizens—all women—have been rescued from different parts of India and several districts in Nepal. This shows traffickers have remained active even during the pandemic.
Of the total rescued during the period, 28 were brought from India—which has remained the top destination for trafficked Nepali girls and women for decades.
Even after several years of efforts, cross-border human trafficking between Nepal and India continues to be a major challenge for law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border, say human rights activists and other stakeholders tackling the issue.
They believe that the open border makes it easier for traffickers to use land routes to take Nepali girls and women to India, and smuggle them into the Gulf region and Southeast Asia.
“After the Nepal government banned female migrant workers from going to the Gulf for domestic help jobs, traffickers have been using the Indian route,” said SP Govinda Thapaliya, spokesperson for the bureau.
Trafficking of Nepali girls and women can be traced back to at least the 1960s when they were mainly sold in Indian brothels. Since then, every year hundreds of Nepali women, men and children are trafficked to India for sex trade, forced labour, and housemaid work, among other purposes. In the later years, traffickers started using India as a transit to smuggle people into third countries.
Bhumiraj Bhattarai, who has been working against human trafficking for the last 15 years along the western part of the Nepal-India border, says cross-border trafficking of Nepali citizens is still rampant.
“Nothing much has changed. People are still being trafficked,” said Bhattarai, who oversees districts from Kapilvastu to Kanchanpur as regional coordinator for Peace Rehabilitation Centre, Lalitpur, an organisation working against human trafficking for nearly 27 years. “During the earlier days, there used to be minimal reporting about trafficking, but the problem has been the same along the Indian border from east to west for years. ”
According to Bhattarai, the forms and purposes of human trafficking have changed over the years. What used to be trafficking of women for sex to Indian cities has now evolved into various complicated forms.
“Previously, minor girls or women would be taken to Indian brothels. These days, trafficking has moved beyond India to third countries, and from sex trade to the entertainment industry in Africa and housemaid work in the Gulf,” said Bhattarai. “The open border makes it easy for traffickers.”
Nepal shares about 1,850 km-long porous border with five Indian states–Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim.
“Before, underage girls from rural and remote areas used to be trafficked to Indian cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, Kolkata and Assam for sex trade. Underage and illiterate girls from certain communities and districts used to be the usual victims,” said Govinda Ghimire, who has been posted at the Kakadbhitta border point connecting the northeastern states of India with Nepal, for intercepting potential human trafficking victims.
Ghimire is the eastern regional programme officer for Maiti Nepal, a non-government organisation working for rescue and repatriation of trafficking survivors. “Now, trafficking has turned into unsafe migration, as many women are taken to the Gulf countries via India. It’s much more complicated now,” said Ghimire, who has been working in the region for the last 24 years.
According to Ghimire, human trafficking has flourished under the guise of foreign employment in the aftermath of decade-long conflict and the 2015 earthquakes. Rising unemployment in the country is yet another factor, he says.
According to a 2019 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nearly 1.5 million Nepalis are at risk of various forms of human trafficking. The rights watchdog report said that aspiring migrant workers, Nepalis working abroad, people in the adult entertainment sector, girls and women from rural areas, missing persons and child labourers are among the groups most vulnerable to trafficking.
As per the report’s estimate, nearly 35,000 Nepali citizens—15,000 men, 15,000 women and 5,000 children—were trafficked in 2018-19. Foreign employment and child labour made up nearly 70 percent of the total trafficked population, followed by those from the entertainment sector and those reported missing.
According to Raju Aryal, deputy inspector general of the Armed Police Force (APF), more than 22,000 APF personnel are posted along the India-Nepal border at nearly 1,200 border outposts.
One of the tasks of the APF along the border is also to keep an eye on possible human trafficking.
But it is not easy, says Aryal.
“Security forces try to keep track of suspicious movements,” Aryal, who is also the armed police spokesperson, told the Post. “On almost all occasions, traffickers usually prepare a tight script for those being trafficked. If our personnel intercept or if they find something suspicious, the usual answer is they are going for personal visits.”
Traffickers sometimes even prepare fake documents which show women are being taken to Indian cities for medical treatment.
“Human trafficking remains a challenge for the country because of poverty, a lack of education and awareness,” said Aryal. “The potential victims are not even aware of what might happen to them. The state needs to invest more on awareness campaigns.”
A recent US government report said the Nepal government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Nepal was placed on Tier 2 watchlist, which means their governments do not fully meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law that provides tools to combat trafficking in persons, both worldwide and domestically.
Those working to combat human trafficking believe security forces alone cannot deal with the problem. What makes it even more difficult is a large number of potential victims of the working-age group willingly choose to migrate via illegal and unsafe routes looking for lucrative jobs abroad.
“Sometimes even family members accompany them or are informed about their unsafe journey,” said Bhattarai, whose organisation played a key role in bringing the six women to Nepal from Delhi. “At times, agents make them cross the border for a few days to deceive security personnel. If they are seen frequently crossing over and returning, they are perceived as locals by the security personnel. And when they cross the border for one final time to be taken to their destinations, there is no turning back.”
According to APF statistics, its personnel have rescued 104 trafficking victims from border areas in the last three years.
According to Bhattarai, security forces cannot keep guard everywhere and all the time, as the porous border with India is very long.
“In once instance, a girl from Kavre was trafficked by a man from Ramechhap by making her wear burqa at Krishnagar border of Kapilvastu, a district densely populated with Muslim people,” said Bhattarai.
Although cross-border human trafficking incidents remain a challenge for decades, an integrated system to maintain records of trafficking incidents is yet to be put in place.
For example, the NHRC report pointed out that the Nepal Police said 2,104 Nepalis—potentially human trafficking victims—were brought back from India-Nepal border last year, whereas various NGOs figure shows that over 10,000 have been rescued from various border crossings after screening during the same period.
According to the national rights body’s report, Indian security forces have estimated a 500 percent increment in cross-border human trafficking incidents since 2013.
KIN Nepal, an organisation working against human trafficking, says it rescues around 100 Nepalis from different parts of India every year. The organisation rescued and repatriated a total of 165 women and children between 2018-2019.
“The modality of cross-border trafficking has changed. Earlier, it used to be forceful. Victims were duped. These days traffickers brainwash potential victims,” said Naveen Joshi, a rescue officer with KIN Nepal’s New Delhi office. “Now traffickers lure potential victims into attractive jobs. They spend time studying potential victims’ psychology, mindest and needs.”
According to Joshi, who has been part of several rescue operations, tracing victims has become difficult as traffickers operate in a very organised manner, which is a complex web of agents in a vast network.
“The root causes are a lack of employment and awareness and poverty,” said Joshi. “Even those who cannot read and write and even make a phone call are being trafficked. This shows they are completely unaware.”
Nepal’s ban on women from taking up jobs in the Gulf as domestic help has also made them more vulnerable, as they often tend to take illegal and unsafe routes, experts have argued over the years. The blanket bank and restrictive approach have done more harm to women than good, according to them.
“Human trafficking remains a leading cross-border crime for Nepal,” said Senior Superintendent Prakash Adhikari who is also a counsellor at the Nepali embassy in New Delhi. Trafficked girls and women might be subjected to sex slavery and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of employers at domestic jobs. They can even fall victim to organ trade.”
Intercepting potential victims is quite difficult as they are adults, hold passports and visas, according to Adhikari. “Everyone is entitled to freely travel in any part of India,” said Adhikari. “Since potential victims are desperate to get a job given their poor financial conditions at home, they appear firm and more willing to reach the destinations.”
Even after being rescued, some of them think they were stopped from going to work, according to Adhikari.
M., who is in a shelter in Kathmandu, is currently waiting to return home. She also does not believe that she was being trafficked. She, however, has given up on her plan of migrating abroad ever because of what happened to her in Delhi.
“I wonder what would have happened to me if I had not been rescued,” said M. “My husband can rather go to India for work, and maybe, I will start a beauty parlour in my village. If not at once, I hope we will be able to clear our loans gradually.”
This reporting is part of Impulse Model Press Lab Cross-Border Human Trafficking Journalism Fellowship.