An anti-trafficking NGO worker talks with a suspected victim. (Brendan Brady/IRIN)

Nepalganj – The daily flow of Nepalis over the border to India is relentless, as they come by car, motorcycle, rickshaw and horse-drawn carriage, but mostly on foot, through the main gate at the border city of Nepalganj.

Not all the migrants are legitimate, however, and there are lookouts to prevent traffickers’ false promises from being realized. Waiting by the side of the road, Puspa Rana and Bimala Shrestha blend in with the rickshaw drivers, food vendors and resting travellers.

The two women with Saathi, a local anti-trafficking NGO, notice a young woman walking briskly with a young man, and pull the two aside for questioning. But the couple’s story checks out; they are going to India to work as potato farmers.

Just a few minutes later, two workers with the NGO International Nepal Fellowship (INF) hand over to Saathi a young couple whose behaviour, they say, is suspicious. “When we asked them where they are going, the girl started weeping and the man tried to run away,” said Hem Bahadur Thapa of INF.

The girl said she was 14 and that she had married the man, who appeared at least several years older, a month previously. Twice she changed her explanation for the trip: first it was for work, then for a medical check-up, and lastly, to visit her sister. “We think he could be a broker, but we have don’t have any clear evidence yet,” said Puspa Rana of Saathi, referring to the man. The NGO workers then escorted the couple to local police, who are supposed to open an investigation.

Looking for a better life

Nepal’s per capita GDP is just US$467 and often substantially lower in rural areas. Such poverty compels some 1.5 million Nepalis every year to work abroad, mostly in neighbouring India but, increasingly, in other countries in Asia and in the Gulf, according to the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Many find work across the border on their own; others are enticed. Traffickers offer poorly educated rural Nepali women jobs as domestic workers or factory staff that promise steady pay.

However, the deals can be a ruse, say anti-trafficking NGOs. Once out of their country, some trafficked Nepali females are sold into bonded labour as domestic or sex workers with no pay and no way out unless their families pay for their return, or the women are rescued or flee, say rights groups.

According to researchers from the UK-based University of Southampton in the most recent and comprehensive study on this topic, released in 2005, most trafficked females are between the ages of 13 and 18, unmarried, illiterate and born into the Mongoloid or Dalit “untouchable” castes – which while no longer legal are still widely observed.

The report, based on interviews with victims of trafficking at NGO shelters, estimated some 7,000 Nepali women and girls are trafficked annually, through deception or abduction, into India for forced sex work. NGOs say the report’s findings remain true today.

On the lookout

Saathi and fellow anti-trafficking NGO Maiti Nepal say that in the first 10 months of 2010 at the Nepalganj checkpoint, they counselled more than 16,000 border crossers, sent back 106 and were contacted by the families of 99 missing persons.

“First, we look at their behaviour. Do they look concerned?” said Bharat Singh Rathaur, the police officer in charge of the border outpost. “Second, we see who they are with. Are they on their own – which makes us concerned – or with friends and family?”

Since police and NGOs have stepped up their surveillance at major transit points in recent years, traffickers are using more isolated routes along the open 1,880km border between Nepal and India, said Rathaur.

Nepali women were banned by their government from working in the Gulf in 1998 because of safety concerns, leading traffickers increasingly to circumvent the ban by transiting to third countries through India, said Navaraj Joshi, head of Saathi in Nepalganj.

[Published by IRIN on December 13, 2010]