Trafficking’s human face
Many vulnerable girls in Nepal are tricked into leaving home and working as prostitutes, sometimes by older women in their own communities. But now a local Catholic aid agency is raising awareness of trafficking and putting pressure on the Government to crack down on it
Rupa Rai, standing in a dusty village in western Nepal, gestures to a house where a family of orphans lives. “These are the girls the pimps look for,” she says. The two oldest children – both girls – are doing chores, bringing hay for the animals and scrubbing the floor.
Throughout Nepal, an impoverished country on the north-east border of India, “employment agents” and “friends of the family” are hanging around in villages like this one. They’re looking for the girls who are most desperate and least cared for: a girl whose father died and whose mother has HIV; a girl whose mother is a drunk, or whose father is mentally ill; girls who are beaten; girls who have dropped out of school; girls with not much to lose.
Rai, who runs anti-trafficking programmes for Caritas Nepal and has seen the pattern for years, said: “They look for the vulnerable girls, poor, the ones without parents.” The agents offer the girl an exciting or well-paying job far away, a chance to help their families financially and escape from a dead-end life.
Seventeen-year-old Kamala (not her real name) grew up in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal. She had heard the term “trafficking”, but when her young sister-in-law proposed a trip to the capital city of Kathmandu, Kamala listened.
“I said, ‘My teacher is strict, I don’t want to be absent,’ ” Kamala remembered. “My sister-in-law said, ‘You can go for two or three days and you’ ll earn 2 lakhs [200,000 Nepalese rupees, about £1,450]. We’ll lie to your parents.’ ”
The girls told their families that they were going to a wedding, and went to the city with a well-dressed friend of the family named Savitra, explained Kamala, adding: “Savitra took us to a building with many storeys. Later I learned it was a place where they rented rooms for one night. I saw only men there. I cried. I didn’t like it. I felt strange.”
Locked in a room for four days, Kamala said she and her sister-in-law kept crying and shouting despite threats from Savitra. She said: “Old men started to come there. Savitra would talk with them in another room. The old men would come in our room. We’d shout at them. They tried to put their arms around us, but we wouldn’t allow it. I kept thinking of home and crying and crying. I said, ‘I’ve already missed too much school.’ ”
Eventually Savitra gave up and returned the two girls to the refugee camp. Kamala knows she and her remorseful sister-in-law had a narrow escape. Her case was one of internal trafficking; she didn’t leave Nepal. But many pimps plan to bring Nepali girls to India or other countries, sometimes for unpaid maid work, sometimes to brothels.
Though human trafficking is often perceived as bringing people from poor countries to rich nations to exploit them, it also happens between poor countries and poor regions. Part of traffickers’ ploys is to disorientate their victims, taking them to a place where they don’t know the geography, the language, how to telephone for help.
The Nepal-India border is particularly porous. Nepali people can enter India legally without a visa, taking a bus or even bicycling down a path that looks like a country road. Very often, they aren’t stopped. It’s a bonanza for human traffickers.
Reports estimate that 5,000 Nepali girls
Presentations at a major event in Rome on 8 May revealed the extent of global trafficking: how it manifests itself in different regions and how it has become the second biggest criminal enterprise after the arms trade, writes Kevin Hyland. Countries of origin include Thailand, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Nepal, Vietnam, China and the Czech Republic. One common theme shared throughout the conference was the control inflicted upon victims by the traffickers, often resulting in violence, rape and even death.
The participants were brought together by Bishop Patrick Lynch, chairman of the Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and a team from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, who also chaired the day. In preparation for the conference, Bishop Lynch worked closely with Scotland Yard’s Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Command (SCD9) to understand the dilemmas and trauma faced by victims who are trafficked and to begin to design a process to coordinate a response from the Catholic Church in partnership with law enforcement and other organisations.
‘One common theme at the conference was the control inf licted upon victims by the traffickers’
Speakers included representatives from law enforcement, support workers who provide services to victims of trafficking, and church representatives. Delegates included an English victim of human trafficking, “Sophie”, archbishops, bishops, priests, women Religious, senior police officers, including the head of the Polish police, government ministers, non-governmental organisation support workers, ambassadors to the Holy See and lawyers.
Hearing Sophie’s story highlighted that this heinous crime could happen to anyone. She shared her experience of being deceived into leaving the United Kingdom by her Albanian boyfriend who promised her a holiday in Italy. She explained that as soon as she arrived in northern Italy, she had a gun held to her head and was forced to sell herself for sex. Sophie was only 18 at the time of her trafficking and “punters” were plentiful. She paused and regained her composure to explain how corrupt police officers assisted her traffickers, and it was only when she was admitted to hospital that she found the strength to call her mother in the UK for help.
Having heard this harrowing account, Sr Eugenia Bonetti of the Union of Major Superiors, who has supported many hundreds of trafficked victims in Italy, begged for Sophie’s forgiveness for the violence and hatred she had received at the hands of this man.
Sophie’s story brought a real focus to the need for a coordinated and effective response, not just from the Catholic Church, but from all those represented at the conference. Sophie revealed that this was her first visit to Italy since her exploitation, and as she drove from the airport to the Vatican, the road signs and landmarks brought back emotions she had forgotten. However, she also explained that the kindness and welcome that she received from Cardinal Turkson and all the delegates at the conference would
4 | THE TABLET | 19 May 2012 are taken into India each year, most of them to brothels.
“The pimps use different border crossings at different times so they won’t be recognised,” says Sr Pamela Gurung, a Cluny sister who works to fight human trafficking in the eastern Nepalese town of Damak. “The pimp might take a girl across the border in a cyclerickshaw, put a tikka dot on her forehead so it looks like she and he are married. When they’re crossing the border, she probably doesn’t know yet what’s happening. Till the end, she doesn’t know.”
If officials have enough advance notice, they can sometimes catch traffickers at the frontier, as Shashi Adhikary, a lawyer in Kathmandu who prosecutes crimes against women, explained. “There was a girl from the Lalitpur neighbourhood of Kathmandu – she was 10 years old. She had a male teacher. She trusted him. He told her, ‘There are beautiful places in India, movie halls.’ ”
The girl left Kathmandu with her teacher. When her mother realised she was gone, she contacted Adhikary’s group. “We said, ‘We suspect her teacher has trafficked her,’ ” the lawyer continued. “We faxed her photo and his to border area police. Plain-clothes policemen caught them at the border.” The man was jailed for 10 years.
Catching criminals in the nick of time is good news. Keeping girls from getting into rickshaws or buses with them is better. Caritas Nepal and other groups run awareness sessions, teaching women and teens about the ways that traffickers trick people and sell them. In some cases, women who survived forced prostitution abroad, and are back in Nepal, talk to school groups, sharing their experiences.
It’s estimated that there are 12.3 million victims of human trafficking around the world.
Lakshmi Paudel, 16, is an orphan. Since her parents’ death, she and her sister do farm chores and take care of their three younger siblings. Caritas pays her school fees so she doesn’t have to drop out of school. Photo: Katie Orlinsky for Caritas
At least half of those victims are female. The umbrella organisation for Catholic aid agencies, Caritas Internationalis, recently released a report – “The female face of migration” – on the state of women migrants. On an international level, the report calls for governments to work together to prevent cross-border trafficking. On a national level, countries need to enforce legislation that clamps down on corruption and punishes the criminals. At the grass-roots level, Caritas Nepal runs radio shows about trafficking, puts posters and booklets in risky places, and talks to women who are considering going abroad.
If villagers are promised a maid job, “we ask them, ‘What job are you taking? Who’s the agent?’ ” said a co-worker of Sr Pamela. “We advise them to go through a registered agency, not a middleman.”
help in her journey towards recovery.
Following a morning of presentations, three separate groups chaired by a senior FBI special agent, a South African priest and a Thai anti-trafficking expert considered actions that could be taken to develop prevention, pastoral care and reintegration opportunities. Each group of experts prepared three recommendations to make sure that the aims of the conference become a reality. These recommendations, which were focused on continuing to develop inter-agency cooperation and collaboration, were presented to Cardinal Turkson at the close of the day. With 1.1 billion Catholics across the world, Bishop Lynch wanted the conference to happen in Rome to help raise awareness of the scourge of human trafficking and to help develop international networks. The conference built on a national UK conference that took place in Amigo Hall, Southwark, in November 2011. As a direct result of the London conference, the Embassy of the Philippines reported that a large number of their nationals were victims of exploitation in the British capital and these cases are now being investigated by police.
Through working in partnership with Bishop Lynch and the Office for Migration Policy, the Metropolitan Police now has support facilities in Nigeria run by an order of religious sisters, who are able to receive trafficked victims returning home. Victims from this region are regarded as being at a particularly high risk of being re-trafficked so this type of cooperation is essential.
Bishop Lynch could not have anticipated how successful the conference would be in terms of global awareness-raising and networking. The FBI representative, John Iannarelli, commented: “I would never have thought about some of the ideas suggested today and it is now clear to me that the Church can play a major role in victim support and prevention of crime. This conference will influence my decisions and can enhance opportunities in a number of areas of law enforcement.”
■ Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland is operational head of Scotland Yard’s Human Trafficking Unit.
If an employment agency is registered with the Government, it can’t disappear overnight, said Sr Pamela, adding: “With unregistered agencies, if the person goes missing, the family calls a phone number and there’s no answer.”
It’s a never-ending battle, but the awareness campaigns are working. In a slum area in eastern Nepal, 14-year-old Nagchung Sherpa dropped out of school and would get into fights. She didn’t like to be home – “my mother drinks a lot. When I say ‘Don’t drink,’ my mum gets mad at me” – and didn’t have much to do. A female neighbour who lived three metres away from her family house “kept asking me if I wanted to go to a foreign land”, said Nagchung.
Nagchung was scared to ask her father whether she should go, admitting that “he probably would have said no”. But she was interested in the offer from her neighbour, whom she called “auntie”.
“Auntie said I’d do maid work. She solemnly swore, putting her hand on top of her head, that the work was good. So I was convinced,” remembered Nagchung, saying that “auntie” said she’d talk to her father, buy her clothes, and get her the right ID papers.
“Auntie took me to get photos for ID documents. When they took the photos, I felt strange and awkward. They used a different name on my papers. I don’t know why the papers weren’t in my father’s name,” said Nagchung, who did not tell her family of her plans, but did reveal them to a young friend who told another neighbour, a woman named Meena, who a few months earlier had taken a Caritas course about trafficking.
“If this had happened before I took the course, I might have encouraged Nagchung to go, because the family is poor. I’d say the girl could support her family,” said Meena. But now she knew that something else might be going on. “Auntie” had been promised 5,000 rupees [about £36] by a female agent – a huge sum by village standards. Girls from the Sherpa ethnic group, such as Nagchung, are considered attractive by brothel clients in India.
“I said we need to tell her father,” says Meena. “I asked the auntie a lot of questions but she didn’t really answer. The president of our women’s group called the police.” Nagchung’s family intervened, and the 14year-old didn’t go abroad.
Nagchung will still have to deal with her alcoholic mother and life in the slums. Kamala will still have to live in a crowded refugee camp. Teenage girls in Nepal who are orphans, or disabled, or uncared for, will continue to struggle – and continue to be tempted by offers from strangers who seem kindly.
But they’ll be more cautious. Nagchung isn’t sure what “auntie” had in mind, said Rupa Rai, adding that she “knows women are sold, but she doesn’t know for what purpose”. But Nagchung does know one thing, as she explained: “When people promise me things now, I don’t believe them.”
■ Laura Sheahen, a communications officer for Caritas Internationalis, travelled to Nepal in March 2012.
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