New Delhi: Women and children in flood-hit eastern region are at risk of being preyed upon by human traffickers and sold into slavery in middle class homes, restaurants, shops, and even brothels, aid workers have warned.
Heavy monsoon rains have caused rivers including the Ganges and its tributaries to burst their banks, forcing more than 2 lakh people into relief camps in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.
The deluge has killed at least 300 people, submerged thousands of mud-and-brick villages and destroyed large swathes of farmland, affecting millions of people across the five states.
Non-governmental organisations working in the worst-affected regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh said that trafficking was widespread in the aftermath of previous disasters in the region such as earthquake in neighbouing Nepal in 2015 and floods in Bihar in 2008.
“Children are always the most vulnerable during emergencies – especially during floods, when families are forced to move to higher ground, leaving their homes for an extended period of time,” said Thomas Chandy, CEO, Save the Children, India.
“A child’s parents may not always remain in their proximity and with the presence of strangers, the threat of sexual abuse and child trafficking is high. There are organised groups of offenders who are quick to seize opportunities to exploit the plight of children,” he said.
South Asia is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.
India alone is home 40 per cent of the world’s estimated 45.8 million slaves, according to a 2016 global slavery index published by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.
Thousands of children, mostly from poor rural areas are taken to cities every year by gangs who sell them into bonded labour or hire them out to employers.
Many end up as domestic workers or labourers in brick kilns, roadside restaurants or small textile and embroidery workshops. Many women and girls are sold into brothels.
The breakdown of social institutions in devastated areas creates difficulties in securing food and humanitarian supplies, leaving women and children at the risk of kidnapping, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Creating child-friendly spaces
Government officials in Bihar said that they were aware of the risk of exploitation and were working with non-governmental organisations like Save The Children, ActionAid and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to curb instances of trafficking.
“Before the current floods, we had held meetings early this month on the issues of human trafficking,” said Imamudin Ahmad, Director of Bihar’s social welfare department.
“We are sensitising people and are involving everyone including the police department, labour department and social welfare departments,” said Mr Ahmad.
Officials added that authorities were also checking trains, often used to transport victims, originating from impoverished districts where children labour is commonly sourced.
With schools destroyed or shut down, aid agencies said they were creating child-friendly spaces to give children a safe environment to play, learn and be with their families.
“The company of others, along with trained facilitators, ensures that children are able to discuss their challenges and reduce their anxiety,” said Rafay Hussain, General Manager for Save the Children in Bihar.
“From our experience, we have seen that children need the company of their parents, family and friends during such crises – and every effort should be made to ensure that they do remain in such company, for their safety and overall well-being,” added Mr Hussain.