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Free children from chains: India and the world need a multi-dimensional strategy to stop trafficking

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

Ideas have legs. So do human beings. When ideas are chained, we desecrate the very fundamentals of freedom. When human beings are chained, we desecrate the fundamentals of humanity.

One of the monumental milestones for mankind is the abolition of slavery. But while we have won many decisive wars against slavery and bondage, we haven’t succeeded in completely vanquishing this degrading and dehumanising practice. What is ironic is that the world today has the largest number of slaves at any point of time in history, even medieval or colonial.

Let us remind ourselves of some sobering and deeply disturbing facts. More than 21 million people across the world are victims of trafficking. They are de facto 21st century slaves.

While sexual slavery and forced labour remain the major drivers behind trafficking, shocking new trends have emerged. At least 10 nations have reported that trafficking has been related directly with organ harvesting. This is now a $32 billion a year business according to the UN.

But humanitarian agencies reckon that it has surpassed drugs and arms as the largest criminal business in the world with an annual revenue of $150 billion. Women and children constitute 71% of the victims. How can any civilisation allow this atrocity to continue and flourish?

Another alarming trend is that the line between migration, refugee crisis and trafficking is becoming very thin. It has been consistently noticed that the geographical paths and routes of trafficking bear striking resemblance with those of migration. The increasing scale of both natural and man-made disasters, particularly armed conflicts and civil wars, is creating a whole new generation of refugees who are becoming victims of trafficking gangs. Syria is a stark reminder of this trend.

Clearly, law enforcement agencies in developed countries as well as global bodies tasked to check trafficking need much more coordination and cooperation. Moreover, the international community – by incorporating abolition of trafficking and all other forms of modern slavery in a time bound manner in UN Sustainable Development Goals – has agreed this crime has wider negative implications on economic growth and development. Realisation of these goals requires will, resources and action at national and international levels.

India has not been immune to this global scourge. Official data indicates that close to 20,000 women and children were trafficked in India in 2016 but the real numbers could be far higher. More than 1,00,000 children go missing every year. Almost half of them are never traced. Most of the untraced children become victims of human trafficking, slavery, begging and prostitution rackets.

Since most victims of trafficking belong to poor and marginalised families, hardly anyone, including police personnel, paid much attention to these family tragedies. But a historic Supreme Court judgment of 2013 based on a petition by our movement Bachpan Bachao Andolan has directed the state to act promptly and effectively. Yet, trafficking and slavery continue to flourish in India.

And the stories are tragic. We had rescued 13-year-old Malvika (name changed) from Gurgaon. She was trafficked from a village in West Bengal with promises of good wages. Her life was hell after that. In two consecutive homes where she worked as a domestic help, Malvika was treated like a slave with the employers routinely beating her. In both houses, she was raped repeatedly by drivers.

Malvika is lucky that she was rescued and is back with her family. Hundreds of thousands of victims like her have not been as lucky. What can we do in India to stop the barbarity against young girls like Malvika?

For starters, we need a strong law against trafficking. Despite endless debates and repeated pleas by civil society groups, stringent anti-trafficking laws have not been passed by Parliament. Nor have state governments taken meaningful measures to stop this atrocity. It took almost 19 years for India to ratify the ILO conventions that prohibit the worst forms of child labour. Let us not drive hundreds of thousands of innocent children into cruel and miserable lives of slavery by indulging in such unforgivable delays.

We as citizens too need to play a more proactive role by refusing to keep our eyes and ears closed. We must protest and report cases of suspected trafficking victims in our neighbourhoods. That is a moral imperative. Equally important is the need to target the economic roots behind trafficking. It is states like Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Assam and Odisha that still witness extreme poverty that report the most cases of trafficking.

Apart from vastly improved awareness and law enforcement, what India needs to deal with trafficking and slavery is economic opportunities. When poor families earn enough to feed themselves, they become less vulnerable to criminal gangs. When incomes of poor families improve, their children go to school instead of seeking work. When children go to school, their chances of being trafficked and sold into slavery diminish dramatically.

For 70 years or so, India has not ensured economic security to a large number of its citizens. Of what help is India becoming an economic superpower if hundreds of millions remain in poverty with their children vulnerable to predatory traffickers?

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