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