Tapoti Bhowmick, secretary of Kolkata-based rights group Sanlaap, talks about the current challenges of countering human trafficking in persons with the Dhaka Tribune’s Afrose Jahan Chaity
Sanlaap, a Kolkata-based organization, has been rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking victims for more than two decades. It is one of the first organizations in the region to adopt a holistic approach to the issue of trafficking in persons. Sanlaap’s counter-trafficking measures include campaigning on the issue, rescuing and rehabilitating the victims, and overseeing their socio-economic reintegration.
What is the current situation of trafficking in persons?
The trend of trafficking in persons in South Asia has been changing. Brothel-based prostitution has decreased while non-brothel based prostitution is increasing. If it (the problem) is visible, then we can do something. Otherwise, it is difficult for us to take action.
Who are the traffickers?
Apart from brokers, sometimes the traffickers are people known to the victims, such as their neighbours and family members.
What are the challenges?
We found a girl from Bangladesh after the BNWLA (Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association) reported that her mother was trying to bring her back. The daughter alleged that her mother was the trafficker but the mother rejected the claim. We rescued her with the help of police and secured a repatriation order for her, but she refused to go back.
This has created a complicated situation. The law allows a minor to stay at the shelter, but she will be transferred to jail once she turns 18. Maybe she will be pushed back [into Bangladesh] at one stage. We do not know what will happen to her.
When I went to Dhaka, the girl’s mother told me that the person who had taken her daughter to India was the trafficker. Until now, there has been no investigation to find out what actually happened and who the trafficker is.
The man who brought her here is in jail but the girl is claiming that she had run off because her mother had forced her into prostitution.
Another challenge involves the change of monitoring authority in Bangladesh, which deals with the repatriation of the trafficking victims. We handed over a girl to the BNWLA. But when we looked for updates of her case, we found out that Rights Jessore was handling her case. We did not know when BNWLA handed over the case to Rights Jessore. We are in the dark. The follow up mechanism between the organizations dealing with the repatriation in India and Bangladesh is not there anymore.
It is taking time because of the judicial procedure. I do not have any connection with Rights Jessore. I have submitted all papers in BNWLA’s name.
Another problem involves the prosecution of perpetrators. We rescued a girl from Pune who later helped us trace her traffickers from West Bengal’s Kalighat. The girl is still at the shelter home in India. The lack of evidence and witnesses help the traffickers secure bail easily. They flee to other countries, particularly Bangladesh and Nepal.
We cannot get the perpetrators back once they flee to other countries. Getting justice is hard, especially for Bangladeshi victims.
Sometimes, police in Bangladesh and India ask for a huge amount of money during the verification process which families of the victims cannot provide. The victims learn about the matter from their families when they contact them.
Why do some of the victims refuse to go back?
Let’s say a child bride is trafficked to India from Bangladesh and rescued after several years. Her husband may have gotten married during her absence. So, the victim remains confused as to whether her husband will accept her or not when she goes back.
The scenario is also difficult for a victim rescued while pregnant. What will she say about her unborn child? Will she tell her neighbours that she was sexually abused? I do not think that she will be accepted by society.
There is always the fear of being trafficked again.
How does trauma affect the lives of trafficking victims?
The rescued child trafficking victims spend their childhood at the shelter homes. No-one comes to a shelter willingly. Ninety percent of children are abused by their families. So, I do not think children are safe in their homes either.
It is difficult for the trafficking victims. No amount of love or rehabilitation can reduce the trauma of a trafficking victim because she cannot forget the 14-15 customers she had to receive daily. It is impossible to forget and will haunt them throughout their lives. Many victims may also suffer from mental disorders.
I have seen a Bangladeshi sex trafficked victim, who is now about 20-22 years old. She still suffers from the pain and trauma. No amount of counselling can make her forget what she had to go through.
What should be done?
It will be difficult to deal with cross-border cases without a verification mechanism, coordination among NGOs of India and Bangladesh, and victim support system in both countries. Only sensitizing the Border Security Force or police to the cases will not be enough. We need a mechanism to verify the statements of the trafficked victims, a political treaty, victim support system, and coordination among the NGOs.
We need to ensure justice for these victims. We have to ensure punishment for the traffickers. A political treaty is important to ensure justice, at least to address cross-border trafficking.
India and Bangladesh are both at fault for failing to ensure justice. It is not the victims’ fault that they are trafficked. We need to protect them. The victims have to help themselves and step forward and seek justice. At that point we need voluntary repatriation.
A discussion should take place on why the victims do not want to go back, their future, their status, whether they will get citizenship or not.
Good parenting is important for protecting our children. We consider discussions on sex education with our children a taboo. But it is important to talk about it. We do not teach our girls that after menstruation, she can get pregnant. Many adolescents do not know about it either. And misconceptions about sexual reproductive health are still persistent.