Investigation: How young Nepalese girls, desperate for work, are being trafficked to the Gulf

Investigation: How young Nepalese girls, desperate for work, are being trafficked to the Gulf
12 min read
11 December, 2017
Traffickers are exploiting a legal loophole to avoid serious punishment, even when they are caught. Pramod Acharya investigates.
Fake documents used by human traffickers are becoming more and more sophisticated [CIJ]
On October 18, 2017, Indian police arrested six teenage girls from Nepal's Sindhupalchok district in Rudrapur, a city in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and handed them over to Maiti Nepal, an anti-trafficking NGO with an office in Kanchanpur.

Among the victims was a 14-year-old girl. But the age on her citizenship card was 19. The teenager, from the village of Selang, had been lured by a trafficker into a scam so that she could be sent to a foreign country.

An 18-year-old was also among the six arrested by the police, but her age on her citizenship card was 20. The teenager from the village of Helambu had lied about her age upon instructions from the trafficker.

The man behind the scam was Ramesh Tamang, orginally from Sindhupalchok district, now living in Kathmandu.

Tamang enticed both girls' mothers with offers of well-paid jobs in the Gulf countries. Their mothers granted permission for them to travel.

They were not the first girls from Sindhupalchok to be trafficked into India via Kanchanpur.

In the past two years, 50 girls from Sindhupalchok have been intercepted at the border and rescued by Maiti Nepal, said Maheshwari Bhatta, the organisation's programme coordinator in Kanchanpur.

"This number includes only those girls who were rescued. There could be many others who might have been moved across the border," she said.

The Indian police released a statement after the arrests in Rudrapur: "In Nepal, teenage girls are recruited to work as housemaids in Gulf countries. Since Nepal doesn't allow them to apply for a visa for such jobs, they use Delhi's international airport to make the trip."

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The Indian police has even identified some of the traffickers who smuggle the girls to Gulf countries. The members of this trafficking ring include Som Bahadur Gole (from Sindhupalchok), Nani Maya Majhi (from Sindhuli) and Bishnu Lopchan (from Parsa).

Both the Indian police and Nepal's police agree that the method of women-trafficking has developed over the years. In Sindhupalchok, the district with the largest number of trafficking survivors, there's been no complaint registered against human trafficking in the past three years.

"That doesn't mean there was no trafficking activity at all. The fact is that they have changed the tactics of trafficking," said Bimal Raj Kandel, deputy police superintendent in Sindhupalchok district.

"Human traffickers make sure that they have all the required official documents. They meet all the criteria, which makes it harder for us to identify if the activity is really trafficking or not."

The Indian police have identified members of the Gulf
trafficking ring, including (L-R) Som Bahadur Gole from
Sindhupalchok, Nani Maya Majhi from Sindhuli
and Bishnu Lopchan from Parsa [CIJ]

Previously, traffickers employed a variety of methods - sometimes physically hiding the girls as they crossed the border.

But now it's carried out in the name of foreign employment, according to Kandel. The traffickers even look after the logistics of obtaining citizenship for their targets, who, being mostly under 18, are not legally eligible to apply.

The word "setting", widely used in foreign employment sector, is characteristic of how the sector operates. In order to operate their network, traffickers make sure that everyone in the authority involved in granting permission for foreign employment - district-level officials and representatives alike - are on board.

After obtaining a recommendation for citizenship from a ward office, the girls travel to apply for a national ID at the district administration office. Kopila Tamang*, a 14-year-old from the village of Selang in Sindhupalchok, obtained a citizenship card by posing as a 19-year-old.

While obtaining her passport, the trafficker instructed her to use the same age as on her citizenship papers.

She was rescued by the Indian wing of Maiti Nepal.

"Ramesh Tamang (of Sindhupalchok) had persuaded Kopila and her mother to travel to the district's administration office to apply for the citizenship and passport," said Maheshwari Bhatta of Maiti Nepal.

Assured by their traffickers, the girls and their parents themselves testofy to officials that they qualify to obtain citizenship cards.

"If we question their age, their mother would say: 'I have given birth to her so I know when she was born.' We would have no means to counter further," said an officer at the District Administration Office.

The applicants would be furnished with a recommendation letter issued by their local representatives. So, despite having suspicions about their age, government officials say they have no option but to issue them citizenship papers.

"If we feel that the applicants are not honest about their age, we will urge them to wait for a few years before going abroad. But they seem so determined that no matter what, they will obtain it," said Pitambar Pandey, an administration officer at the Sindhupalchok DAO.

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Fake citizenship

When she was barely eight years old, Santoshi Tamang* was lured by her aunt into travelling to New Delhi, India, with a promise of paid work.

But her aunt couldn't find an above-board job for her, so Santoshi started working as a domestic helper for an Indian family. She was soon subjected to physical exploitation.

Seven years later, traumatised by her experience, she met Yubaraj Lama in New Delhi.

She hoped Lama would finally help her travel to a Gulf country. He promised he would help the now-15-year-old travel to the United Arab Emirates. But Santoshi had neither a citizenship card nor a passport. In order to apply for her travel documents, Lama and Santoshi headed for Sindhupalchok.

Four other young women also joined them in the district headquarters at Chautara, where all of them were staying at a hotel.

"Within an hour, Yubaraj appeared with passports and citizenship for five of us. We were then told to head to Mumbai instead of Delhi," Santoshi told police on October 9, 2017.

Two weeks after being issued with the illicit passports, four of them left for Dubai while Santoshi remained in Mumbai. Now aged 16, she gave birth to a baby, fathered by Lama.

When the baby was just three months old, Lama sold the child and sent Santoshi to Dubai, according to her statement to the police.

While returning to Nepal in 2014 for a vacation after working in Dubai, Santoshi lost her passport in the Indian town of Siliguri. She needed another passport to return to Dubai.

When she applied for a new passport, the Passport Department in Kathmandu required her original citizenship card. It also sent the application to the Sindhupalchok DAO for verification. Her passport turned out to be fake and Santoshi was arrested.

In her statement to the police, Santoshi said: "I signed on the application for my citizenship, but I didn't go to the DAO." She told police that Lama had brought all the papers to her hotel for her to sign.

Prabhakar Acharya, whose signature appears as an official on her citizenship card, never worked at the DAO. Her citizenship number wasn't found in the database of Sindhupalchok DAO.

But the hologram and the government stamp on the papers were legitimate. This demonstrates that traffickers have established a network that stretches from the DAO to the Passport Department.

"This is not the work of any ordinary person. Yubaraj Lama must be a member of big trafficking ring," DSP Kandel said. Without the help of a network of associates at every point - at the DAO, Passport Department, national and international airports - it's impossible for such a ring to operate, said Kandel.

The traffickers take extra precautions when handling these agencies. They use original holograms and government stamps on the fake citizenships and passport. The officer who signed Santoshi's citizenship never worked at the DAO.

This makes investigating the officers in cahoots with traffickers and tracking them a tough job. The traffickers produced copies of passports and citizenship cards with the original signatures and thumbprints of the bearers. Traffickers naturally want their counterfeits to pass as credible documents at airports.

To prevent their collusion being exposed, the traffickers often kept the documents with them until the last moment, handing them to their victims only just before their departure.

Speed-dial smuggling

Teenage girls and their parents are attracted by promises of a decent job in a foreign country. The traffickers, at work at an entirely different scheme, never let them know what's in store.

Some traffickers even show the girls' photographs to their potential clients, offering them in for exchange of money.

Bishnu Lopchan, a trafficker who operates under the guise of foreign employment, is now in the custody of the Indian police.

His testimony offers a window into how trafficking operates from Nepal to destination countries. In his statement, Lopchan confessed to sending Nepali girls' photographs to his clients so they could choose from a pool of potential victims, according to Maheshwari Bhatta, the head of Maiti Nepal in Kanchanpur.

"It will ensure me good money," he told Indian police officers.

This has been corroborated by Indian police. Lopchan had told officers that he collected photographs of girls interested in travelling abroad for work and sent them to his Arab clients in the UAE.

In their statements to the Indian police, other traffickers have revealed that the sponsors sent a copy of the visa on their mobile phone.

"After sending the girls to the Gulf, we don't keep track of them," the police recorded traffickers saying.

'After sending the girls to the Gulf, we don't keep track of
them,' the police recorded traffickers as saying [CIJ]

For many decades, India served as the only destination for Nepali trafficking victims.

But India is no longer the only country to which Nepali girls are trafficked.

According to the Sindhupalchok DAO, girls from the district have been trafficked to Gulf countries including Oman, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon.

"It appears that they apply for jobs abroad, but they end up being trafficked," said DAO officer Pandey.

Sindhupalchok tops the list of districts with the most women trafficked to foreign destinations from Nepal. According to police, the district first recorded a case of trafficking back in the year 2000 of Nepal's calendar, the Vikram Samvat [1943 in the Western, Gregorian calendar].

Most of the district's trafficked girls come from the northern areas, according to local authorities. Those villages are mired in poverty and many here simply don't know of the perils of trafficking. A small police presence also makes it easier for traffickers to operate. Most of the victims belong to the Tamang community, the indigenous inhabitants of the Himalayas.

According to police statistics, Sindhupalchok's northern villages - including Helambu, Ichok, Mahankal, Golche, Gumba, Hagam, Panchpokhari, Banskharka, Balkharka, Baruwa, Bhotang, Gunsa and Thangpalkot - are the hotbed of trafficking.

"Those who are illiterate and from poor families are more likely to be tricked by traffickers," said Khyali Singh, a sub-inspector at the district police headquarters. "Women from that group are likely to be victims of trafficking."

Sindhupalchok is second only after Jhapa among districts with the most female migrant workers leaving Nepal. In the past seven years, 7,770 women have left to work abroad, according to the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE).

In the current fiscal year, 2,020 women left home to work in a foreign country, according to the DoFE. But very few checked about the job before leaving or received any training. In the past two years, just 144 women bound for foreign employment received training, according to the Safe Migration Project (SaMi).

Women who join foreign employment without seeking information or training often face exploitation from traffickers.

The trafficked women often face sexual abuse and end up being exploited by their employers, according to Rina Shrestha, a coordinator of SaMi in Sindhupalchok. Her office has received cases of women sold into prostitution, who have gone missing, with some deprived of their passport and other documents - and others who have died.

In the past three years, SaMi has registered 83 cases including the complete disappearance of five women.

Legal loopholes

The modus operandi of women trafficking has changed. It now operates under the guise of foreign employment, but the trafficking continues unabated. There is no legal framework to address the problem.

Neither the Foreign Employment Act of 2007 nor the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act of 2007 addresses this new form of human trafficking. The Foreign Employment Act is silent on human trafficking. The Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act doesn't clearly describe the act of human trafficking under foreign employment as an offence.

Confusion reigns over which legislation to follow for cases of trafficking under foreign employment. The traffickers are taking advantage of this legal loophole.

Girls rescued by Uttarakhand Police and Maiti Nepal,
with a statement from police [CIJ]

The Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act defines human trafficking as an act of forcing women and children into sexual exploitation.

But it doesn't include the trafficking of women with false promises of foreign employment. The Foreign Employment Act, on the other hand, defines trafficking as an act of cheating - by an individual or a recruitment agency. Under the act, the offender is subjected to a lenient punishment.

A human trafficker faces a 20-year jail sentence, but under the Foreign Employment Act, the guilty party is sentenced to between three and seven years in jail.

Mohan Adhikari, an information officer at DoFE, said his office was working to amend the law to clear up the confusion and close the loophole.

"We have already sent the amendment to the Ministry of Law," he said. "It must be pending because we don't have a parliament now. It will speed up after the elections [for parliament and provincial assemblies]," he said.

Roshani Devi Karki, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, said preparations were underway to amend both pieces of legislation. Karki said her ministry was preparing a work plan to resolve the increasingly complex problem of trafficking.

Prabha Ghimire, the president of KI Nepal, an anti-trafficking NGO, said the idea that human trafficking was forcing women into prostitution was preventing authorities from taking action against trafficking under foreign employment laws.

"The method of trafficking has changed. These issues - foreign employment, human trafficking, smuggling - must be clearly defined in law in order to combat trafficking," she said.

To punish traffickers under the act of "cheating" is to allow impunity to traffickers, said Manju Gurung, the president of Pourakhi, an NGO working for safe migration. "They travel with their own passport, but it's 100 percent trafficking," she said.

"They are not given work permits, but are moved across the border using fake documents. This cannot be defined just as cheating."

*Names of some victims of human trafficking have been changed

Pramod Acharya is a leading investigative journalist from Nepal. He is an assistant editor at the Center for Investigative Journalism, Nepal. He is a Dart Fellow at Columbia University, New York.

Follow him on Twitter: @acharyapramod

This report was originally published by the Center for Investigative Journalism, Nepal