Human trafficking persists during Covid at Indo-Nepal border


Since the signing of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the nearly 1,800-kilometre border between Nepal and India has served as an open passage for citizens to migrate freely between countries, start a business and earn a living. There are no barbed-wire fences, thick walls, or heavy military presence; people move freely and unhindered on foot or by road. But in the 1980s, ABC Nepal became the first NGO to raise awareness of human trafficking in Nepal. Since then, the border has become a point of more sinister activities. 

In March 2020, India and Nepal sealed their borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But human trafficking has continued unabated, with traffickers finding new routes and new reasons to target vulnerable people – particularly women and girls facing unemployment, poverty, violence and abuse. 

The business of trafficking

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” Human trafficking is a thriving global business that accounts for $150 billion a year worldwide. Nepal is one of the world’s most lucrative markets for human trafficking, and women and girls make up the majority of all victims. Many are trafficked for sex work, domestic labour or the illegal organ trade in India, Southeast Asia and the Gulf.

Poverty and unemployment are two of the most common push factors into human trafficking. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues, as nearly a quarter of all Nepali workers have lost their jobs, according to the central bank. Other factors include a lack of human rights protections, political instability, caste power imbalances, conflict, natural disasters, low literacy and corruption. Women and girls facing domestic violence or without childcare or familial support are even more at risk, and traffickers prey on them with promises of work, opportunities, marriage and good fortune. 

Nepal India border
Before the pandemic, people moved freely across the border at Sonauli. Photo: Flickr

‘Human interceptors’ at border checkpoints 

India-Nepal government discussions on human trafficking often focus on official border crossings, and thus the issue is largely seen as a border security problem. Primary intervention typically involves government officials, police forces, NGOs and activists intercepting and detaining traffickers at border checkpoints. Rescue missions are widely publicized anti-trafficking activities, and local and international media have reported several cases of trafficked women that have been rescued since the nationwide lockdown began.

Border guards, known as the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) in India and the Armed Police Force (APF) in Nepal, are often the first responders in human trafficking interception. The APF posts around 22,000 personnel at nearly 1,200 border outposts. Some NGOs also deploy their own officers to intercept human traffickers. These guards are trained to identify victims through observation and interview techniques, cross checking information, and working with other officials, such as immigration authorities, emergency workers and embassies to rescue victims and detain traffickers.

Thus, the border serves as a definitive point that enables human interceptors to distinguish legal migrants from victims of international trafficking. It creates a social reality wherein people are categorised as “trafficked” upon reaching the border, where they are potentially intercepted, rescued and rehabilitated by their respective governments.

According to a report from India’s border police, the number of human trafficking victims from Nepal has gone up by 500% since 2013. That number is expected to continue to rise amid the pandemic. Photo: The Times of India.

Disease outbreak and increased trafficking

Research shows that there is a direct link between disease outbreak and increased human trafficking, which is why the risk of exploitation for Nepali women and girls is so much greater during the pandemic. As governments grapple with surging infection and death rates, counter-trafficking activities such as border intervention and preventive measures are put on hold, and limited financial and humanitarian resources are directed elsewhere.

An example of this is the closure of some NGO border monitoring booths during the pandemic and the government’s decision to mobilise NGOs to curb COVID-19 through provision of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies. But people are in desperate and growing need of jobs, food, water, healthcare and childcare support – and traffickers are actively exploiting these needs. The closure of official border points is hardly a deterrent, given the movement of many narcotics, weapons, and even consumer goods across the porous border through unofficial border points.

Therefore, emphasis should be on borderwork beyond the border itself, through targeted and specific preventive strategies including job creation and economic empowerment, appropriate policy, education, awareness and rehabilitation.

Strategies for prevention and rehabilitation

Migration policies that discourage women’s movement, such as Nepal’s total ban on women migrating for domestic work, makes them more vulnerable to human trafficking because they are forced to take illegal and unsafe alternative routes. These strategies also reinforce the narrative that women lack agency over their own bodies, which are seen as export commodities that are easily erased and devalued.

But several NGOs, notably Maiti Nepal, have achieved considerable success in combatting human trafficking through prevention and rehabilitation strategies. In addition to deploying border intervention officers at various outposts, Maiti operates transit homes for rescued victims, as well as rehabilitation centres for shelter, education and employment. They also host a weekly radio programme that depicts real stories of trafficked women and girls and raises awareness particularly for low-literacy populations in high-risk areas. According to their website, Maiti has intercepted over 40,000 women and girls and convicted over 1600 traffickers since 1993. 

The pandemic has made the issue of human trafficking more urgent than ever. With the collapse of important counter-trafficking activities such as border interception, traffickers are preying on those that have lost their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods. Prevention involves borderwork that is done at the border and within it, through economic empowerment, preventive support, community mobilization, awareness-raising, and reinforcing government bodies and local anti-trafficking committees.

Human trafficking is closely linked to migration, as people move in search of better opportunities elsewhere. In the absence of appropriate interventions, human traffickers will continue to exploit that desire and turn people into profits. 

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.

Featured image caption: Trafficked Nepali women rescued from New Delhi in July 2020. Photo: Kathmandu Post

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