‘She’s like my wife, you know how it is’

Every day, 4,000 people cross over from Nepal to India at Rupaidiha. The crowd is ideal camouflage for trafficking

Fellows 2017

By Nimisha Jaiswal

April 10, 2017

Also published by The Hindu

Sushant, 18, was accompanying two girls from his college to a nearby market to shop for make-up supplies when he was stopped and questioned by the Nepal police.

“These checks are a complete nuisance,” said the young man. “It’s harassment!” His other young friends laughed and waved as they strolled across the border from Nepal into India to shop.

Although hundreds of young men and women like Sushant and his friends from Nepal roll their eyes at the inordinate number of checkpoints and stops along the Nepalgunj-Rupaidiha border between Nepal and India, local NGOs and the Border Police insist this is a necessary inconvenience.

According to Maiti Nepal, an NGO fighting trafficking from Nepal, an average of 12,000 girls and women are trafficked from Nepal into India every year. After the devastating earthquake of April 2015, the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal noted a 15% spike in trafficking. These statistics are tenuous at best because of the easy flow of people through legal and illegal border crossings, but what makes monitoring more difficult is that almost all of this is disguised as economic migration.

At the Nepalgunj-Rupaidiha border alone, over 4,000 people from Nepal cross into India every day, in small vans, battery rickshaws, horse carts, bicycles or on foot. Despite anti-trafficking checkpoints run by four different NGOs and the cooperation of four police forces in Nepal, the massive movement is ideal camouflage for trafficking.

And so, while the vigilance is understandable, a large number of people who cross the border legally—shoppers, seasonal labourers or tourists—find themselves unwittingly caught in the anti-trafficking net. On its part, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment has attempted to ease the passage of economic migrants with pre-departure trainings, safe migration counselling and age restrictions for passports and work visas.

However, agreements between Kathmandu and New Delhi have translated into 1,751 km of open border where citizens of both countries do not require a passport, visa or work permit to cross over. And in hundreds of poorly connected Nepali villages, job-seekers are convinced by local brokers that it will be the easiest thing to circumvent the government’s tedious foreign employment laws by crossing into India and travelling to Malaysia or West Asia.

“Ninety per cent of workers headed abroad are approached at home in their villages,” said Nilambar Badal of the Asian Human Rights and Culture Development Forum. “The broker prepares all their documents locally.”

Spike after earthquake

“We don’t want to inconvenience people, but we have to stop and separately question young girls and their companions,” said a young Nepal Border Police Force officer who asked not to be named. He explained that battery rickshaws are instructed to offload all passengers 100 metres before the border. Travellers then have to walk through Border Police and NGO checkpoints, so that ‘suspicious groups’ can be identified.

The policeman stopped to apologise to an elderly lady walking with her teenage granddaughter to buy vegetables. They had been flagged down, and the girl was whisked away for questioning. The grandmother was questioned separately.

“We generally ask them their father’s name. Where they live. How many people are in their home,” said the officer. “If their stories don’t match or they begin to fumble, we hand the boys over to the police station and the girls to shelter homes.”

Three boys, pulled over for travelling with a young girl, have just spent a night in jail. Their parents could not be reached through the numbers they gave. “We were visiting Rupaidiha just to roam around. It got late on our way back,” said one boy. He hesitated before saying he was 19, though he didn’t look older than 16. “The girl with us is like my wife, you know how it is,” he continued. “We were just taking her back to Kathmandu when they stopped us.” The girl with the detained boys said she was 16. “We were on our way to Kathmandu,” she repeated. Wearing a hooded jacket over her thin frame, she looked much younger and barely spoke. Later, the girl’s father told a social worker that she had been missing for three weeks and they had no idea where she was. He had moved from Sindhupalchok, one of the districts hit hardest by the earthquake, to Kathmandu.

“We definitely saw a spike in trafficking right after the earthquake,” said a Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) officer on the Rupaidiha border. “People who lost their homes and livelihoods headed to India looking for work and fell prey to traffickers.” What complicates matters is that the girls at the time of being intercepted on the border may not know they are being trafficked. “These girls could have been told they are being taken to Kathmandu when they were crossing the border into India; they have no idea,” said the social worker at the shelter home.

Another girl intercepted at the border told the social worker she did not remember the contact details of her parents. She could only recollect the telephone numbers of some boys she had spoken to but never met. “It’s common here for young girls to receive missed calls from boys; they begin relationships over the phone,” the social worker said. “ But how can she remember their numbers and not her family’s?” Some women’s rights advocates view this line of interrogation and detention as an infringement of a woman’s right to free movement. They suggest information dissemination on trafficking as a better tool to safeguard the girls.

“In the name of trafficking, the government has curtailed the freedom of women to migrate,” said Aviram Rai from the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre in Kathmandu. Even though adult women are free to go where they wish, those suspected of being minors are often detained and asked to call their parents.

“They stop us every single time,” said a woman in her 20s. She was on a shared rickshaw returning from the Indian side of the border after buying clothes. Nepali guards inspected the shopping bags she and her friend carried at three different checkpoints. “This is a violation of our rights, but we can’t say anything,” she added.

Rights vs. safety

There is a simple bench on the Indian side of the border, where bags are inspected, and a covered spot where the women are frisked and questioned. “We have restrictions too, we cannot check women travelling alone too much as it would be viewed as harassment,” said the SSB official. According to him, the SSB focuses more on intercepting drug smuggling, which is also rampant. Trafficking is tracked more by NGOs such as Maiti Nepal on the Nepalgunj side and Dehat Prahari Project in India.

Dehat, headquartered 30 km away in Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh, is the only NGO working against trafficking at the Rupaidiha border. Three volunteers take turns to man a small booth. From the booth, volunteers walk up to travellers and help them with tools to identify traffickers.

“The traffickers know we are checking, so they send the kids separately,” said Hasan Firoz of Dehat. This is why Firoz believes just monitoring ‘suspicious groups’ may not be enough. “Often, little boys and girls are asked to cross on their own and meet disguised traffickers at a meeting point like a bus stop or railway station,” he said. “We go there or ask our staff to look out for groups of children.” Firoz spoke of a group of four children he had intercepted a fortnight ago, who were told they would get ‘marketing’ jobs in Agra. “They don’t speak Hindi, only Tharu,” he said. “How will they do marketing here?”

Funding is the constant problem for the NGOs. In fact, Dehat’s funds run out in June. Sanjai Awasthi, a social worker in Bahraich, also took up an anti-trafficking project on the border in 2007, training rickshaw and tanga drivers to act as counsellors. Since then, he has repeatedly sent proposals for a permanent shelter and project to the government, but has not heard back. Though an anti-trafficking unit exists in Bahraich, it is common knowledge that it is only on paper. “NGO resources are limited,” said Awasthi. “The government has to intervene, we can only raise awareness.”