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#NepalQuake: When Human Trafficking Is not Earth-Shattering And More Needs To Be Done

Anonymous hands in chains on a bed convey the helplessness of victims of human trafficking universally, 11 July 2012. Image by Flickr User @Imagens Evangélicas (CC BY 2.0)

Anonymous hands in chains on a bed convey the helplessness of victims of human trafficking universally, 11 July 2012. Image by Flickr User @Imagens Evangélicas (CC BY 2.0)

Nepal is infamous as a hotbed for human trafficking. When two earthquakes rocked Nepal in April and May, killing nearly 9,000 people, and leaving many survivors homeless, the vulnerability of men, women and children to the thriving flesh trade in the region was picked up on by international media within the first week of the earthquake.

There was much fear that an overwhelmed government would not be responsive to the threat, but with the help of international organisations such as UNICEF,  513 potential cases of trafficking have been prevented since the earthquake in Nepal. In this regard, many regard the government's actions to stem the trade in a positive light:

Yet, despite significant government efforts to stem the trade both in Nepal and neighbouring India, many wonder whether existing regulations are strong enough to fight against the old and sophisticated machinery of trafficking, a system many see as unbreakable due to long-standing political protection.

Human trafficking in Nepal is not news

As of 2011, according to a report by the United Nations, 10-15,000 women and children are trafficked from Nepal to India and the Gulf where they are either forcefully engaged into the sex trade, or sold as bonded labourers.

Last year, there were efforts to raise awareness of the problem through campaigns such as #taughtnottrafficked, while the U.S. State Department provided an award to a Nepali judge who helped craft victim-focused legislation to combat trafficking.

But Nepal has still shown little progress since 2008 in terms of rooting out the problem.

Some, such as commentator Jwahar Talchabhadell, see the issue as too endemic to be overcome:

We can write about it, we can talk about it in the seminars, we can make documentaries and movies about it, but this has become so entrenched a staple in the Nepali society that even successive progressive democratic governments have decided to maintain a “hands-off” attitude. Not even God can or will help Nepali women from being sold into brothels not just in India but in all other parts of the world including the darkest of the continent.

‘Earthquake orphans’ are a business

Children are an easy target, particularly through the adoption trade. Traffickers are known to lure parents into putting their children in orphanages and childcare homes. Prior to the earthquakes this year, about 15,000 children lived in child care homes, even though 85 percent of them had a least one living parent.

There was therefore much fear that in the state of emergency a flood of ‘earthquake orphans’ would be taken into such homes, regardless of whether they had families or not. International and local organisations, as well as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown argued bringing the children into school was the best means of protecting them from predatory traffickers.

On May 27, the Nepali government instituted child travel restrictions so that children would have to be accompanied by their parents or legal guardians when moving between districts and suspended both international adoption and the registration of new orphanages. It also intensified cooperation with the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs for greater vigilance on borders.

Moreover, authorities collaborated with UNICEF and Shakti Samuha, the first organsiation in Nepal to be established and run by survivors of trafficking, to spread information and awareness. A full list of all the actions undertaken in this project be found here.

But the complexity of trafficking cannot be understated.

The many ciphers of the trade

In the third week of July, a gang was caught trafficking 250 women from Nepal in the direction of the Gulf, with their accomplices including Air India officials, who were promised compensation equating to between $60 US and $80 US for every woman they got through the system.

While those Air India staff have been arrested, their involvement testifies to the multiplicity of actors at play in a typical trafficking scenario:

  • Trafficked persons, typically women, are approached in remote districts and offered lucrative jobs.
  • They are then taken to provincial Indian airports by buses and flown to Dehli.
  • They are then booked onto international flights to the Gulf. It is at the Delhi airport that airline employees such as those from Air India may receive bribes to help the women through immigration as international travelers.
  • In Dubai, trafficked persons’ passports are frequently confiscated, cutting them off from Nepal.

A structural problem

Human trafficking is deeply linked to poverty. One third of Nepal's GDP is made up of remittances. Migration is often seen as a family's only means of survival. From data collected in 2011, 35 percent of rural Nepali households have at lest one member of their family living and working abroad.

While campaigns have been pushed forward to educate vulnerable youth, Aidan McQuade, the Director of Anti-Slavery International points out the uncomfortable truth that this is not a situation wherein people are naive, but one wherein they are desperate. This is why much more is needed than mere awareness-raising work.

But it is not clear what economic opportunities a country already struggling before a tumultuous natural disaster might provide in its aftermath.

One change that must take place is in Nepali society itself, where victims are often blamed rather than comforted.

In one case, highlighted by the Guardian newspaper, a Nepali woman was sold into sex slavery in India. She later escaped the brothel where she was forced to work and took refuge in a shelter. Phoning her remote family home after the earthquake to check on the wellbeing of her relatives, her brothers did not acknowledge her, informing her she had dialled a wrong number.

Stories such as this and the story of Sapana, a girl saved from forced labour in a Kathmandu factory by the earthquake which destroyed it — only to narrowly escape the clutches of trafficking thanks to a local NGO — continue to recall the vulnerability of women and girls in Nepal.

While over 500 people have been saved through collaboration between the government, civil society and India, morality demands that offering protection to those most vulnerable to the human trafficking scourge becomes Nepal's very highest priority.

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