Escaped traffickers are back in business luring quake survivors with promises of a better life for their children
Photo: Bhrikuti Rai
Sarita Lama was in Kathmandu sorting out earthquake relief supplies at her office when she heard that dozens of prisoners had escaped when the walls of the Sindhupalchok District Prison collapsed.
Among them were Sukhman Dong and Kaila BK who had been sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2012 after a court found them guilty of trafficking young Nepali girls to India. Lama was one of them, and now she is worried the traffickers will go back to their profession of selling Nepali children across the border in India.
“I am worried for my family members who are still in Sindhupalchok, they say they have seen Dong few times around the village,” says Lama who was sold with five other girls to a brothel in Agra. It was she who filed a complaint against Dong and his accomplices in 2009.
Sunita Danuwar, chairperson of the anti-trafficking organisation Shakti Samuha in Kathmandu who helped Lama after her escape from India says the police have been alerted to provide security to families who had testified. She is also worried that Dong and others will go back to trafficking.
It is a coincidence that the hardest hit districts in the earthquake are those from where young Nepali girls have traditionally been trafficked and where criminals have worked hand-in-glove with local politicians: Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot and Kavre.
“These men were big fish we had been able to get hold of, if they are able to cross the border now they will reactivate their trafficking networks and again start luring parents to send their children to India promising better education and employment,” says Danuwar.
An estimated 1.7 million children are out of school in the 14 districts, they are living in temporary shelters with parents desperate to provide for them. This makes them vulnerable to traffickers. Shakti Samuha is working with the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare and district child welfare association in quake hit areas to spread awareness and increase surveillance.
Police rescued 80 unaccompanied children crossing district borders over the last month, and the government has banned the registration of new orphanages, suspended inter-country adoption and tightened procedures to move children from one district to another. The Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB) is working with police and local groups to monitor district border check points.
“The ban will minimise the risk of child trafficking,” said the CCWB’s Tarak Dhital last week. “There are already fake orphanages being set up in earthquake-hit villages and we want to stop that.”
Although the government directive states children cannot be enrolled in a child care home or other residential facilities (such as school hostels) without approval, state run orphanages like Bal Mandir received 37 children from Okhaldhunga, Rasuwa, Bhaktapur, Nuwakot and Dolakha after the earthquake.
“Some were brought by relatives, others by police, but that was during the rescue phase where the children’s safety came first rather than following the procedure,” explained Subash Kumar Pokharel, General Secretary of Bal Mandir, “we have already sent some children back to their families and will rehabilitate the remaining ones.”
Next Generation Nepal (NGN) which helps reintegrate rescued children with parents is working in Sindhupalchok with the District Child Welfare board to keep tabs on the movement of children and spread awareness about traffickers. NGN has found 60 children who lost parents in Sindhupalchok alone, and they are all living with extended families.
Activists fear that families whose lives have been torn asunder and are living in tents will be vulnerable to traffickers enticing them with promises of better lives for the children. “Towards the end of conflict, there was a rise in orphanage trafficking and the emergency situation after earthquake might trigger a similar flow,”
says Martin Punaks of NGN. “Families are desperate for help, there are more donations for quake victims, so traffickers have a greater incentive to separate children from their families.”
Some names have been changed.
United against trafficking
Gita Karki was only 15 when a labour recruiter in Sindhupalchok got her a passport in 2006 and promised her a job in Lebanon. But when she reached Delhi she was driven to a brothel in Agra where she spent two horrifying years before escaping to Nepal.
She received shelter and support at Shakti Samuha and along with five other trafficked girls filed a case against Sukhman Dong, Kaila BK, Bajir Singh and others.
Karki, now 25, is outraged that criminals escaped from prison in Sindhupalchok last month. She hopes that Dong and BK will be arrested soon and vows to continue her fight against trafficking.
“I ran from the brothel risking my life, because we knew that if we were caught they would kill us,” says Karki, “we fought against those powerful men but now they are roaming freely, trying to lure desperate parents.”
“My son is innocent”
Last Friday Bhagirathi Thami, 50, of Dolakha received several urgent calls from relatives and police in Kathmandu. Her 20-year-old son Purna Bahadur Thami was arrested with four others for bringing children from Dolakha to Kathmandu without permission from local authorities.
“My son is innocent, he has done nothing wrong,” says Bhagirathi, holding a plastic bag of grapes she bought for her son. “I hope he will be released soon.”
Purna Bahadur returned to his village last year after completing high school in Dehradun and now teaches at a local school in Dolakha. He was selected by Pestalozzi Children Village in Dehradun for his education in India and he had brought children from Dolakha last week for an entrance test. The Thami family is trying to get all the required documents from Dolakha to secure his release.
“We gave Purna, Kiran Thami and representatives from Dehradun the permission to bring our children for the entrance test here,” says Gopal Thami of Lapilang of Dolakha whose son Sabin was among the children brought to Kathmandu last week, “we didn’t know they needed approvals.” The children were in shelters in Kathmandu, and were handed back to their parents on Monday.
“The parents have testified and we are still investigating whether or not the motive of bringing the children for education was genuine,” says DSP Dan Bahadur Karki at the Baneswor Police Station.
The government effort to be strict about stopping trafficking seems to also be unwittingly dragging some innocent families into trouble.
Sindhupalchok's sorrow, Bhrikuti Rai
Ban on new orphanages, Om Astha Rai
Pimps on the run, Sangeeta Lama