Young girls from India's remote northeast are lured with promises of good jobs and trafficked to Southeast Asia and the Middle East on Nepalese passports, campaigners say, amid fears traffickers are finding new ways to escape checks.
"Over 100 girls from the northeast and northern part of West Bengal state were trafficked in the last two years, nearly 50 to 60 percent of them on passports issued by Nepal," Hasina Kharbhih, founder of anti-trafficking charity Impulse NGO Network, said.
The Kathmandu connection
"Obtaining visas for Middle East countries is difficult on Indian passports, so recruitment agents are getting them from Nepal," Kharbhih told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Shillong, the capital of northeastern state of Meghalaya.
"They are doing the paperwork for both passports and visas in Kathmandu."
Traffickers have been trying new ways, including transporting women on tourist visas to Gulf nations to get around Indian emigration checks. They are also trying routes through neighbouring countries – including Nepal – where the collusion of officials with traffickers is suspected.
Campaigners said traffickers are flying the girls from Kathmandu airport and in some cases crisscrossing through Indian airports with them before flying to a Gulf nation such as Kuwait or Oman.
Young girls from areas in Nepal hit by the 2015 earthquake have also been the victims of human trafficking – often via the Indian border. A human smuggling ring uncovered by Indian police was transporting girls through Delhi to other countries. Nepal has a high rate of
For destinations in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore and Malaysia, the girls are trafficked through Myanmar.
Sex and domestic labour
India's underdeveloped northeast, a region marred by ethnic violence and armed conflicts, is bordered by China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan and is a hub for sex traffickers to source girls for brothels in Mumbai and Delhi.
But cases of trafficking for labour to other countries are being increasingly reported.
Recruitment agents peddle dreams to college graduates of well-paid jobs in hotels and spas in Gulf nations or the frozen fish packaging industry of Malaysia. They target illiterate girls for jobs as domestic help.
"The agencies are focusing on these areas because they find many girls are happy to go to Middle East countries as they find they can earn more there," Kharbhih said.
But when they arrive they often find themselves trapped in bonded labour, having to pay off debts to traffickers.
"Their passports are taken by the employers. They are not paid, as promised," she said.
On the trail
The police in Sikkim – considered prosperous among northeastern states – is currently investigating the case of a 25-year-old who flew to Kuwait to work as a housemaid in 2010 and went missing after that.
Her family lodged a complaint with police last year.
"She had flown on a passport issued by Nepal. This is our first such case," an official with the Sikkim anti-human trafficking unit said.
A similar case three years ago put campaigners on the Nepal passport trail when a woman trafficked to Lebanon committed suicide.
"We found during the investigation that she was among a bunch of others who were taken there on Nepalese passports for housemaid jobs. That one case was our entry point into the issue," Kharbhih said.
Cases have been trickling in since then – a recent one of a girl taken through Chennai on her Indian passport to Malaysia to work in a beauty parlour. Her passport was seized by her employer and she couldn't renew her visa when it expired.
"It was a complex case as she was legally detained for overstaying in Malaysia. It was very difficult to get her back," Kharbhih said.
Impulse NGO has police from India's northeastern states and campaigners logged on to its trafficking alert software. It is now training border forces on how to send alerts on the system in an effort to curb the numbers of trafficked girls and women.
"These girls want a good job, and some mortgage assets and take loans with the hope of returning home with money. In some cases, they do send money back home, but these happy stories are short-lived," Kharbhih said.