5-11 September 2014 #723

The absent state

We haven’t just failed to protect citizens within Nepal and abroad, we have abdicated our responsibility
Anurag Acharya
When an Indian journalist was travelling in the mountains of Nepal in the mid-1990s, she noticed that young women aged between 10-40 years were missing from the local demography. As she began to look for answers, she was confronted with horrifying tales of modern day slavery which changed her life and career.

Ruchira Gupta travelled to villages across several districts in Nepal documenting how middlemen lured young girls to India by offering families money and promise of good jobs for their daughters in Indian cities.   “There was an entire supply chain network involving procurers who handed over girls to transporters in cities and border-towns who would then smuggle them across the border. Wink-wink, nod-nod and the border guards did not even look in their direction,” Gupta recalled at a program in Kathmandu this week.

That was 18 years ago, and Gupta’s award-winning documentary The Selling of Innocents was screened all over the world. The UN Protocol against trafficking was passed in 2003 and forced signatory states to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking of persons, especially women and children. Nepal is not yet a signatory.

Fast forward to 2014. Now, it is the young men who are missing from the hinterland. Young women are no longer being trafficked just to India, now it is brothels within Nepal that buy them. Nepali women going to the Gulf as domestic workers are being abused.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on human trafficking released this week puts the number of Nepali women trafficked between 2012 to 2013 at around 13,000. Nepal Police records for the same period show less than 200 reported cases. The real figure is much higher than both, and proof that you can’t trust statistics.

The Centre for Investigative Journalism published two reports on human trafficking this year which expose the role of corrupt police officials aiding traffickers who forge their identities by using fake passports. When the families report a missing person, the immigration records cannot trace them.

Often it is poverty and lack of opportunities that are blamed, but at the heart of it is the failure of the state to prevent criminals from running trafficking networks under various pretexts including foreign employment. When politicians protect these gangs, the circle is complete. Trafficking also undermines the rights of a woman to seek means of livelihood for the family and protection in a foreign land.

Nepal’s Human Trafficking and Transportation Control Act with its vague clauses for prosecution provides several loopholes and is ineffective to deter traffickers. For instance, under Article 15 (1a), any person involved in selling or buying a human being is liable to 20 years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 200,000. But 1(f) of the same article provides for only a year or two of imprisonment for taking a person from one place to another place within the country, and two years to five years of prison for taking them out of the country for the purpose of exploitation.

In a country where the judicial system is often found to be colluding with perpetrators, legal loopholes provide easy escape for traffickers, many of whom have been repeatedly caught, tried, sentenced and freed again.

Dozens of activists patrol the border, rescuing the girls, filing lawsuits on behalf of the victims and demanding prosecution of perpetrators. Now the government has banned women travelling to the Gulf for work, this will just make them even more vulnerable to traffickers. These steps are necessary, but do not address the structural failure of the state in its fundamental duty of protecting citizens.

It is a national shame that Nepal’s primary export is its people. It is even more shameful if we tally the cost in human suffering and misery. Even if there are problems with implementation, the first thing the Nepali state should do is to sign and ratify the UN Protocol on trafficking.

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