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Child Trafficking in South Asia Facilitated by Open Borders

The writer* is Co-Founder, ENGAGE, Inclusive Change Through Volunteering, a not-for-profit in Nepal.

Thousands of men, women and children fall victim each year to human trafficking, a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. The 18-year-old girl (pictured) was taken to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and promised work as a housekeeper but forced to become a sex worker. Credit: UNICEF/UN045727/Pirozzi

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Apr 20 2021 (IPS) - The numbers are so staggering that is hardly imaginable striking a positive tone about the situation of child trafficking in Nepal and yet some positive developments are occurring here in a country that soon could be set to graduate from the group of least developing countries.

Only last week a story was published about seven girls aged between 10-18 from a district neighboring India that had gone missing but luckily were found safe by the Indian police and returned back to their families.

The existence of an open border between the two countries poses one of the greatest challenge in fighting child trafficking as also explained by Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi in a program held in December 2020. This is just one episode amid an ongoing crisis that is affecting thousands of children every single year.

For example, on the 2nd of April, the national police arrested five men accused of trafficking and forcing to prostitution underage teenage girls.

Unbelievably as it might seem, according to the official data from the Government of Nepal, around 300 children, with girls being in the majority, go missing because of child trafficking.

Those ending up in India, deceived and entrapped without apparent escape, are forced into a circle of exploitation and abuse that will mark their lives, while for others their subjugation means a new life characterized by misuse and ill treatment in the Gulf countries.

At the same time, we should not forget the heinous patterns of enslavement within Nepal that feed many industries, from entertainment to construction to public transportation. While boys are also victimized, it is clear that child trafficking is particularly hard on underage girls that become objectified as domestic and sexual workers.

In all the cases, none of the children dragged into these abuses know if one day will be able to be rescued, rehabilitated and have a chance to start their lives anew.

#EndHumanTrafficking visual. According to the UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 30% of human trafficking victims are children. Credit: UNODC

A recent report published by the Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens portrays the situation even in starker terms with estimates that 2,729 children, including 831 boys and 1,898 girls, were reported missing in fiscal 2019- 20, a stunning number but still a reduction in comparison to the previous year when 3,422 had been missing.

Probably the only factor that contributed to the slowdown was the closing of the international borders due to the pandemic but with the lockdown that followed hitting the poorest the most and with a second wave of the virus now reaching the country, it is very realistic to imagine a much worse scenario in the months ahead with more and more children finishing in the networks of unscrupulous traffickers, many of which are relatives or known people.

The economic boom that followed the signing of the peace agreements and the abolition of the monarchy did not materialize in positive advantages for the most vulnerable segments of the population, another evidence that trickle down economy only works to help the middle class move on the social economic ladder.

Despite the gloomy scenario, we are witnessing some positive developments that might help revert the trend and constitute important steps towards ending child exploitation in the country.

The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons of the US State Department in the latest edition of its annual Trafficking in Persons Report published in 2020 highlights the challenges faced by the country but also recognizes some important improvement, especially in terms of the Government’s commitment to eradicate the problem.

First of all, Nepal ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons also known as Palermo Protocol that came into force in the country on the 16th of June 2020.

It is an important legislative milestone that is now prompting the Government to amend the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act, making it a more robust legislation able to better deter and punish those engaging in acts of children’s trafficking.

Due to the complexity of the issue, other legislations have to be amended including the Foreign Employment Act but also The Immigration Act, exposing the links between child trafficking, force labor and abuses in foreign employment.

The National Child Rights Council is a new institution that builds on the legacy of the Central Child Welfare Board and was born out of Section 59 of the Children’s Act 2018, the recent piece of legislation aimed at modernizing the entire approach to child protection in the country.

Just recently the Council was able to rescue 53 children in Nepal involved in street vending selling items like water and food through local contractors that have been recommended to the Labor Office for prosecution.

Now these children are being protected, thanks to the Council, in safe shelters with the goal of having them reunified with their families as soon as the conditions will allow.

“We are expanding in, cooperation with the Provincial Governments, our outreach in all the seven provinces and soon we will be able to have a stronger presence throughout the nation” says Milan Raj Dharel who has been involved in the field of child protection for his entire life, first working with established civil society organizations and now as founding executive director of the Council.

In order to better intervene in the incidents of child trafficking like the one involving the seven girls, the Council, explains Dharel, is working to systematize cross border rescue protocols so that it will be easier for children rescued in India to be repatriated back to Nepal.

Moreover, some improvements have been also made in the sensitive process of de-institutionalization, closing many faked orphanages that have been taking advantage of and profiting out of the hosted children.

It is still a serious problem, said Dharel, but important achievements have been taken in this regard but at least stronger regulations are in place and very importantly, these are now being enforced.

“Another area we are working with is the upcoming entering in force of new Child’s Rights Rules” that we expect to be endorsed within the end of the May this year”.

According to Dharel, with the new Children’s Act in place, it is now imperative to have the new rules endorsed that will better reflect the transformation of the country in a federal republic where many powers are enshrined with locally elected governments and provinces.

The new regulations will also codify the existence of two child help lines, the 104 being managed by the central police with technical support of the Council and the 1098 that instead is managed, always with Council’s help, by CWIN, a leading civil society organization working in the area of child protection.

According to its official data, only in 2021, 492 case were registered by the 1098 help line, the majority of which were made by female with abuse and child marriage resulting as the two main causes for the requests of help, reinforcing the rationale that only long term solutions encompassing a full spectrum of support, including better social protection schemes directly reaching out the most vulnerable families, are the answers to the complex factors underpinning child abuses, including trafficking.

According to Dharel, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Affairs, is working to ensure that the amendments to the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act will be tabled in the next winter session if the situation allows as Nepal is undergoing a delicate situation politically and fresh elections might be called soon.

Despite the objective difficulties of the problem itself and the instability that the country faces, the fact that in this particular sphere of governance, focused on ensuring better life prospects for the most vulnerable children, there is a political will to act and improve the existing legislations whereas needed and finally enforcing them is definitely encouraging.

Partnerships with civil society organizations remain indispensable as they play a big role in stopping and rescuing many minors as well more efforts are required to ensure intra-institutional collaborations within the organs of the State, including with the National Human Rights Commission that since 2005 has been publishing the flagship annual National Report on Trafficking In Persons in Nepal.

Will the country be able to do more, leveraging its “whole of system” approach, mobilizing more partnerships and innovative social programs to root out the causes of child trafficking and finally shut down this dark business that still enriches many and victimizes many more innocent minors?

*Simone Galimberti writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.


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