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West Bengal: Adolescent Girls’ Disappearances Raise Concerns of Human Trafficking

Social activists report that the highest incidence of such cases has been observed in North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.
West Bengal

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Kolkata: Niloufar Khatun*, 16 (name changed), and Asma Khatun*, 15 (name changed), were two cousins residing in a village at Minakha of North Parganas district, some 80 kilometres away from the state capital of Kolkata. Last month, on March 21, they had gone to the local market to purchase the cosmetics they needed for the forthcoming Eid celebrations. That was the last time their family members saw them.

According to reports, some strangers accosted both of them and they are presumed to have been trafficked. When the cousins did not return home, both their fathers lodged missing complaints at the local Minakha police station. Minakha falls on the infamous trafficking corridor of West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, and the poor socioeconomic conditions of the area have contributed to multiple trafficking instances from the area.

Tahmina Khatun*, 17, had been abducted in the same manner from the neighbouring Bashirhat area and is still untraceable. Anjali Bera*, 16, however, was rescued, and the accused was put behind bars for two years. Anjali was awarded the Birangana Award by the West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR). Santana Haldar* was rescued as well, but the culprits remain absconding. In the case of Halima Nahar*, the accused has been arrested, but the rescue has not been ensured, and the girl is still untraceable.

Dearah Association for Social and Humanitarian Action (ASHA), an NGO, has been closely following each of these cases and working towards child protection and prevention of trafficking in the blocks along the Indo-Bangladesh border, Sundarbans region, and the Bashir Haat police district. Its secretary, Sanjeev Kumar Singh, is a member of the district monitoring cell on bonded labour, the sub-divisional monitoring committee on the atrocities on SC and STs, and other government committees. He is also a member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) in the South Bengal Frontier of the Border Security Force.

Talking to NewsClick, Sanjeev Kumar Singh said, "The socioeconomic conditions of the area are leading to an increase in human trafficking. Livelihood in the Sundarbans region is quite challenging, and adolescent girls are often trapped in the name of better opportunities. Police response is not prompt, and local villagers lack confidence when it comes to visiting the police station. Panchayat members do not support victim families, and child marriage is still prevalent in this location. The Block-level Child Protection Committees are non-functional. After Aila and recently Amphan, out-migration is at its peak, and a significant number of men are out for their livelihoods, leaving the female members of the family behind, who are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.”

Hazarilal Patra, a science activist from Minakha, spoke to NewsClick and said that cases have been on the rise in the post-lockdown period. “There have been regular instances where adolescent girls are being trafficked. In many cases of elopement, the girls are being trafficked to brothels, as was seen in the recent case of Riya Khatun. The only daughter of a carpenter, she was lured by strangers, abducted, and finally rescued from a brothel in Howrah. She was only 13 years old and a class 9 student at her school,” he said.

NewsClick attempted to speak with officials from the SCPCR who referred the case to the anti-child trafficking unit of the Government of West Bengal. However, they declined to provide comments on individual cases but acknowledged that child trafficking is on the rise in West Bengal. According to the non-profit organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan, between April and September 2020, approximately 1,127 children were suspected of being trafficked and were rescued throughout India. About 86 alleged traffickers were arrested.

In West Bengal, the state government had to set up a task force to save young girls from being trafficked.

In India, more than 80% of trafficked children are girls. They are often lured with promises of jobs and marriages outside the state.

According to activists, the majority of child marriages that occurred during the lockdown were forced marriages which could lead to child trafficking. In this context, Child Rights and You (CRY), a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on "rescuing," "restoring," and "rehabilitating" trafficking victims, has prioritised child protection. During the lockdown, the organisation reports having rescued over 1,000 survivors in the state, many of whom had been coerced into working in brothels located in other states.

Debasish Barman, a social worker residing in Hingalganj, informed NewsClick that residents of Hingalganj are amongst the most vulnerable populations. He further added that other high-risk areas are located in the interior regions of the Sundarbans, such as Kalitala. “Here, cases of 'rogue intermediaries' befriending housewives and students via Facebook and WhatsApp have become increasingly common. The police stations in the Sundarbans belt are overwhelmed with missing reports, and in several instances, such crimes are not even registered and are reportedly recorded as 'migrant labourers' in the local panchayat's books,” he said.

Social activists report that the highest incidence of such cases has been observed in North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.

Over the past several years, the Durbar Mahila Samanywaya Committee, an organisation working for the rehabilitation of sex workers, has claimed to have rescued a significant number of minor girls who were trafficked into the red-light areas of Kolkata. The organization's research has revealed that the highest incidence of girl child trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation occurs in three districts of West Bengal: Kolkata, Darjeeling, and South 24 Parganas. The districts of North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, and Murshidabad, which are connected to the international border of Bangladesh, are particularly prone to trafficking. Additionally, West Bengal shares borders with Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Sikkim, and Assam, as well as Nepal and Bhutan, making trafficking easier.

Over the past several years Durbar Mahila Samanywaya Committee, an Organisation working for the rehabilitation of sex workers claims to have rescued huge number of minor girls trafficked into the red-light areas of Kolkata. It examined that girl child trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation is highest in three districts of West Bengal – Kolkata, Darjeeling and South 24 Parganas. Three districts of West Bengal, namely, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Murshidabad, is connected with the international border of Bangladesh and are prone to trafficking. West Bengal also shares borders with Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Sikkim and Assam, along with Nepal and Bhutan, which makes trafficking easy.

In 2020, the West Bengal Police rescued 17 women, including both minors and adult women, who were trafficked from Bihar and brought to North and South 24 Parganas. Some of them had been reportedly sold to dance groups that were actually fronts for prostitution rackets, while others were subjected to bonded labour in factories.

In just a month after 'unlocking', as many as 12 child marriages have taken place in the Hingalgunj block of North 24 Parganas, and it is believed that these marriages were offered to vulnerable families as a form of trafficking. With schools closed and all sources of income dried up, families are left with little choice to be able to survive.

*This report conforms with the SCPCR protocol on reporting child trafficking and does not disclose the real names or whereabouts of the victims.

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