Trafficking in humans for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor is escalating into a major heinous industry in South Asia. India figures among the top human trafficking destinations, with over 35,000 young girls and women from Bangladesh and Nepal being brought into the country every year.
There are many reasons for this booming, illegal international trade that rakes in an annual turnover of US$32 billion at the expense of millions of victims. They range from displacement caused by natural disasters that could prompt increased migration leading to greater susceptibility to human trafficking; a growing gender imbalance due to female feticide and infanticide, creating a demand for women and girls to provide sexual services and a market for trafficking for marriage; and a growing demand for young girls as a result of misconceptions that sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), between two to three million people are trafficked annually in and out of India. Most disturbingly, a large number of people, especially girls and women, from states such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa and the north-eastern region, are trafficked to the metros such as Delhi and Mumbai.
People from these states are trafficked to work in brothels, dance bars, pubs, restaurants, friendship clubs, massage parlors and for domestic chores, says Dr P.M. Nair, a senior police official and co-author of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) study entitled 'Trafficking in Women and Children in India'. (The study was published in 2005 and subsequently re-printed in 2006 and 2007.)
Describing human trafficking as the world's third largest profit-making illicit industry after arms and drugs trafficking, Gary Lewis, UNODC Chief in India, says that India is among the favored destinations. "In India, 20,000 to 25,000 women and children are trafficked from Bangladesh annually, while 5,000-15,000 are brought in illegally from Nepal for the primary purpose of prostitution and slavery", he informs.
While the movement of young girls from Nepal and Bangladesh into brothels in India is common, significantly, most of the trafficking takes place within the country itself. There is further movement of these girls and women to the Middle East as well as other destinations. For instance, Malaysia and Singapore have a large Tamil population; hence, these countries are the favored destinations of many Tamilians. There are also many migrants to these countries and, along with migration, trafficking is also reported to be taking place, says Nair. Trafficking and exploitation of girls takes place under the garb of placement agencies for maids.
Another disturbing trend is the exploitation of girls in the garb of bar dancing. The "item girls" who crowd the floors of squalid Mumbai bars night after night and/or are taken to the Middle East, particularly Dubai, have been trafficked from West Bengal, Nair points out.
Sadly, the response to combating the crime of human trafficking by the countries of South Asia has been inadequate. There is limited awareness and although knowledge of and the willingness to speak out against trafficking have increased significantly in the last five years, it is still only at minimal levels. For this reason and because trafficking in persons is a trans-national crime affecting almost all countries of the world, UNODC, in partnership with other members of the UN family, recently launched the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT).
As part of the new initiative, a regional conference on 'Responding to Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in South Asia' was held in the Capital on October 10 and 11, 2007. Representatives of all the SAARC countries as well as other stakeholders such as NGOs, academicians, artists, business houses, enforcement agencies and communities were part of the event.
Among the priorities identified at the conference was to make the police more aware of what trafficking is and how they can help prevent and prosecute it. According to the NHRC study, 852 police officers were interviewed of whom over 80 per cent attached either "nil" or "low" priority to the issue of trafficking. Forty per cent of the officers surveyed had not even heard of the concept of trafficking, while only seven per cent had received any kind of training on the subject. Policemen need to orient themselves to target traffickers, pimps and brothel owners rather than the victims, the study underlines.
Another major challenge is the high level of migration in the region, especially of those seeking better opportunities who are more vulnerable to predatory traffickers. Discussing the issue in the context of the north-eastern region, Hasina Karbih of Impulse NGO Network, a child rights organization based in Meghalaya, says the region is now not only a source point for the whole of India, but has also emerged as a transit point for children coming from Bangladesh and sent to different states.
"It is not only children below the poverty line but also young, educated girls duped by traffickers posing as representatives of fraudulent companies from other states who lure them with attractive job offers," she observes. "The opening up of the borders of the north-east, while promising economic growth, will raise the vulnerabilities of our children and women. We must, therefore, put in place effective strategies for safe migration," she emphasizes. Roma Debabrata of Delhi-based NGO STOP says the ultimate objective should be the empowerment of the survivors who can work as activists against human trafficking.