A Horrible Business: Nepal needs accurate data and urgent action to ensure that human trafficking does not continue to persist at disturbing rates

Some businesses in Nepal have slowed down due to the decrease in tourists after the earthquakes while others are closing down due to fuel shortages. But there is one transaction that is going on strong.

It could even be argued that it has been on the rise due to both the devastating events.

The cruellest of all transactions, human trafficking, has a long, and sad history in Nepal. Many media houses across the world have gone so far as to claim that the number of trafficked Nepalis is currently rising at an unprecedented level. But where does the truth lie in all of this?

Sold for work

“She was 17 years old. Still a child. We repatriated her from India shortly after the April earthquake with help from the Indian Police. She had been lured out of the country by marriage promises, and was being sold to a brothel.”

Aashish Dulal, Media Coordinator of the multi-award winning anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Samuha, sits me down before explaining the cases of nine women and girls rescued from the hands of traffickers by their Support Network, following the earthquakes. He further upholds that local authorities rescued 70 children at checkpoints between the first earthquake and the beginning of October. Many of the 70 children were being taken away for child labour, and some for sexual purposes.

“We cannot claim for sure that the trafficking rates have been on the rise after the earthquakes. However, reports from the Nepal Police show that more than 200 children have been missing ever since. We keep receiving an alarming number of missing people alerts to this day. Of course they may not all be linked to trafficking, but it makes you wonder,” Duhal continues.

The local branches of Shakti Samuha also note the presence of newcomers in many villages. Traffickers promise overseas employment to rural residents, a ploy typically used to convince people to go into exile. Once they cross the border, they are completely cut off from their families and communities.

The hazards of migration

A spokesperson from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Nepal, also shared with me the organisation’s fears that the earthquakes could have increased the risk of trafficking in men, women and children due to increased vulnerability, deteriorated living conditions, and loss of livelihood options. However, mentioning that there is no nationwide consolidated and centralised data yet, the spokesperson added, “It has been difficult to get any reports from the field on this issue as trafficking is typically handled directly within the community and not on an official level.”

According to the Nepal government’s official count for 2014, a minimum of 2.2 million Nepalis left the country to work abroad. This statistic however does not include unregistered migrants, which according to local NGOs, would add at least another hundreds or thousands of migrants.

It is said that Nepalis have been migrating mostly to Gulf countries, South Korea and Malaysia for foreign labour in the recent years. As a result of the earthquakes, the IOM Nepal spokesperson informed me that more people seem desperate to work abroad: “This is based on our interactions with potential migrant workers in the field. Some of the individuals we spoke to were returnees from Malaysia and Gulf countries and said they wanted to leave Nepal again to earn money to support their families.” A growing number of people could, therefore, be tricked by traffickers with false employment promises abroad.

Emerging trends

Trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Nepal. The UN estimates that 13,000 Nepali women and children were trafficked in 2014, of which more than half were sent to Nepal’s neighbouring country, India. This has been going on for roughly 20 years. Women and girls are taken from rural areas to brothels, especially in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata where they are forced into sexual slavery. Despite the majority ending up in India, some are also taken overseas. Popular destinations include South Korea, Malaysia, Dubai and South Africa. Women and girls are offered lucrative jobs or marriage proposals before being taken on buses to Delhi, flown to provincial airports, and then booked into international flights.

Men and boys are not immune to also becoming shipped goods. According to Dulal, “Nowadays, we can see different emerging trends in trafficking. Women and girls are not only lured by marriage proposals, but also with promises of foreign employment and education scholarships. Therefore, men and boys also become easy targets. Another common form of trafficking is organ transplant. Many men and women have been convinced in the last couple of years to sell one of their vital organs for a modest sum of money.”

What’s more, Nepal is not only a transit country but also a destination. Many trafficked victims are lured from the hinterlands to Kathmandu. Currently, nearly 20,000 women and girls are sexually exploited in the sex and entertainment sector, particularly in massage parlours, strip clubs, or on the streets of the Capital. Robyn Raymond, who works for an anti-trafficking NGO 3 Angels, even claims that there has been a rise in the number of internal-trafficking incidences due to the ongoing fuel blockade.

“The number of girls intercepted from being trafficked across the Indian border is negligible since the closures but there has been an increase in internal trafficking. Passports and more control at the borders would, no doubt, slow things down long-term but we still have a lot of work to do with educating locally to protect Nepali girls from falling prey to traffickers,” she says. In the past, 3 Angels even bluntly asked the Nepali government to close its border with India, which migrants can easily cross through open fields without any passport or identity card.

It is therefore difficult to give a precise estimate on whether the trafficking of Nepalis has been on the rise following the earthquakes. Despite the rather well founded media hype, it seems to me that trafficking has not been raised as a priority issue either by the international community or the Nepali government. Emergency assistance programmes focus primarily on the immediate needs of the survivors, while too little is done to counter the exploitation from happening in the first place.

One thing is certain: more than six months after the earthquakes and now with the blockade, accurate data and urgent action is needed to ensure that instances of human trafficking does continue to persist at disturbing rates.

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