Nepal

Nepal in April was hit by a deadly earthquake that killed thousands and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, throwing many families of modest means further into poverty. Human traffickers have preyed on such families, promising to take children to other places where they can study or get jobs and send money back home, but the children often end up in the sex trade or in circuses. However, checkpoints have been set up and have rescued hundreds of children, who are returned to their families.

DHADING BESI, NEPAL —  It was late May, just a month after a massive earthquake destroyed portions of Nepal. Ranjita Nepali, 12, and her sister Aasma, 9, were playing in a bus terminal, Ranjita says, when their 25-year-old cousin asked if they wanted to earn money working as waiters in a restaurant in Pokhara, a city west of Nepal’s Dhading district.

Ranjita and her sister are part of a family of seven. They lost their home and everything they owned in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake April 25 that devastated portions of Nepal. They lived in a tent for a while, then began to share a single room. The tension of poverty wore on the two girls, and they ached to leave.

Without even returning home, they boarded the bus with their cousin.

When the bus stopped at a checkpoint at Malekhu, about 20 kilometers from Dhading Besi. the cousin quickly left, Ranjita says, and police are still searching for him.The temporary checkpoint was set up to combat the illegal movement of children after the earthquake, with two policemen and officials from Prayatnashil Community Development Society (PRAYAS-Nepal), a community-service organization in Dhading district.

Nepal has for years been a point of origin for the trafficking of women and children, but experts say the April earthquake, which left countless Nepalese without adequate shelter and sent many already-poor families deeper into poverty, created a free-for-all for human traffickers.

Nepal has for years been a point of origin for the trafficking of women and children, but experts say the April earthquake, which left countless Nepalese without adequate shelter and sent many already-poor families deeper into poverty, created a free-for-all for human traffickers.

The Nepalese government is scrambling to stop the flow of children being moved for exploitation – about 500 children have been rescued as they were being transported – but the task is fraught with challenges. Among them are parents who believe traffickers who promise to give their children opportunities to study and work in big cities, including Kathmandu.

Instead, the children are mostly taken to India, where they enter the sex trade or work for circuses, factories or begging syndicates, says Bishwaram Khadka, director of Maiti Nepal, a nongovernmental organization working to prevent trafficking and abuse of women and children in Nepal.

After the earthquake, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare directed its local offices and Child Welfare Boards in all 14 earthquake-affected districts to prohibit the movement of children unless they are traveling with their parents or legal guardians, says Ram Prasad Bhattarai, information officer at the ministry. Parents or guardians are no longer required to accompany children when they travel, but police are still operating checkpoints.

Globally, human trafficking, an estimated $32 billion industry, is a thriving organized crime, third behind illegal drugs and arms smuggling, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It’s estimated that more than 150,000 people are trafficked within South Asia each year for sex work, labor, forced marriages and the organ trade.

An estimated 13,000 people were trafficked from Nepal in 2012-13, according to a report from the National Human Rights Commission – Nepal.

Dhading, Ranjita’s home district, was among the 14 districts severely affected by the earthquake, with about 680 deaths and more than 81,000 homes destroyed, according to Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs. In total, about 2,700 children died and about 2,100 children were injured, according to the State of Children in Nepal 2015, an annual report compiled by the Central Child Welfare Board. About 175 children were orphaned, while 1,837 children lost one parent.

Namuna Bhusal, chief program manager at the Central Child Welfare Board of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, says that between May 5 and July 15, around 500 children were found to be traveling illegally. That number includes children who were being trafficked and those who were being moved from one district to another by relatives. The children are taken illegally from one district to another on the pretext of providing education or work, she says.

Children from the Dhading district made up the largest group among those rescued, Bhusal says.

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Ramesh Tamang, 6, sits under the shade of trees in a forested area in Alchi Danda. Ramesh says he doesn’t have a safe house to stay in since the April 25 earthquake. Ramesh is not related to Dhan Maya Tamang.

Photos by Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal

Children stand outside the tents in the open grounds in the Nilkantha municipality in Dhading district. The April 25 earthquake forced many families to live in tents with their children.

Children play at Alchi Danda, Nilkantha municipality in Dhading district. Families from five villages are living in tents after their houses were destroyed in the April earthquake.

Ram Tamang, 8, takes a nap under the trees in the small forest area close to the tents in Alchi Danda in the Nilkantha municipality in Dhading district. Many children come to these forests to play and to rest, and to escape the severe heat under the tents. There are no adults to supervise the children, and they come and go as they like. Ram is not related to Dhan Maya Tamang.

Sunita Tamang, 3 (left), and Jiwan Tamang, 4, who are not related to Dhan Maya Tamang, play in the dirt outside their tent in the Nilkantha municipality in Dhading district. They have been living here with their parents since the April 25 earthquake destroyed their home.

Ranjita Nepali, 12, and her mother Maya Nepali, 43, sit inside the room they rent. Seven family members share this small space, where they cook, eat and sleep. They lost their home in Kalleri village in the April 25 earthquake.

Police officers and non-governmental organizations work together to search buses and private vehicles that stop at police checkpoints like this one, in Malekhu, in Dhading district. The checkpoints are intended to stop traffickers from moving children to other districts.

For Ranjita, the promise of work in a city sounded like an escape from crushing poverty and abuse. She lives with Aasma, her parents, her father’s parents and a cousin in a small rented room in Dhading Besi, a large town in Dhading district, about 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.

The family’s house in Kalleri village in Dhading district was destroyed by the quake, says Maya Nepali, 43. Nepali is Ranjita’s mother. After living in a tent briefly, they moved to the small room. They cook, eat and sleep here.

Then, things got worse. Nepali fell ill and could no longer work carrying stones in a nearby quarry. Ranjita’s father spent his earnings as a laborer on alcohol, the girl says.

The family had no food to eat. Often, they couldn’t pay the monthly rent of 3,000 rupees ($29) for their room.

Ranjita and her sister were enrolled in a school in Dhading Besi, but they were often absent because they didn’t have school supplies or could not complete their schoolwork, she says. There is no space in the family’s room to study or play, Ranjita says, so she and her sister often went outside to walk and play near a bus terminal.

That was also an escape from her parents’ fights, she says.

“At home, my father gets drunk and scolds and hits my mother,” Ranjita says. “After the earthquake, their quarrels increased due to the lack of money. Seeing my mother’s suffering, I didn’t like to live in the same room.”

Violence at home is a common theme among the children who wind up in the hands of traffickers.

Aakash Thapa Chhetri, 10, was rescued Aug. 21 by officials of the district Child Welfare Board at a checkpoint in Dhading. He had willingly left his home with a man who promised a better life.

Aakash says his father died in 2010 and that his mother remarried and moved away from their village, leaving him in the care of his older sisters, ages 20 and 15. The sisters earned money working in fields and others’ homes, but after the earthquake the three siblings were forced to move into a tent. After a few weeks, Aakash’s sisters went to India to find work, and they took Aakash to live with his mother and stepfather in Baireni village in Dhading district, Aakash says.

His mother was happy to see him, but his stepfather would hit him and tell him to leave the house, Aakash says. Aakash spent most of his time outside playing.

Two days after he had come to his mother’s house, a man approached him and asked him why he was playing outside alone. They talked for some time, Aakash says.

The man offered to take him to Kathmandu, where he could live in a good home and go to school, Aakash says. Aakash has never attended school.

They boarded a bus for Kathmandu, but at the main bus terminal in Dhading, policemen got into the bus and started asking questions of people traveling with children. The man got out of the bus, and Aakash did not see him again.

PRAYAS-Nepal was involved in the rescue of Aakash. Usha B.K., chairwoman of PRAYAS-Nepal, says the man who took Aakash has not been found.

Many of Nepal’s poor, isolated villages welcomed strangers in the aftermath of the earthquake, as many people, foreigners included, came to Nepal to help earthquake-affected families, says Khadka, the Maiti Nepal director.

“When they see a new face in the village, these children follow them, hoping to get something to eat,” Khadka says. “In such a situation, anyone can easily lure children into trafficking on the pretext of giving them a better life.”

Like Ranjita, many children are lured by people known to them who want to collect money from trafficking agents.

“Agents have created relationships with people, from cities to the nooks and corners of villages,” Khadka says. “It is difficult to remove this network created by trafficking agents.”

It’s also difficult to stop trafficking when some Nepalese parents willingly hand their children to traffickers who promise jobs and schooling.

Dhan Maya Tamang on May 21 sent her oldest child, 7-year-old Rita, with a former neighbor who said he would find work for the girl in a Kathmandu restaurant. Tamang was looking forward to receiving a regular income from her daughter’s work.

But later that day, her daughter was returned to her by PRAYAS-Nepal staff. The bus that the girl was on was stopped at a temporary checkpoint, and the former neighbor ran off.

Tamang says she was angry when her daughter was returned.

“The government cannot call it a rescue if the only thing they do is bring back the children to their guardians,” she says. “Either the government has to provide food and shelter to the children or let the people who are willing to help, help us.”

Tamang, her husband and their five children live in a tent in the Nilkantha municipality of Dhading district. Their house in the village of Ree Gaun was destroyed in the earthquake. The quake also destroyed the family’s stockpile of grain, as well as livestock – a buffalo and three goats – that brought a regular income.

The government cannot call it a rescue if the only thing they do is bring back the children to their guardians.

Tamang’s youngest child was born three days after the earthquake. She doesn’t have anyone to look after the baby or her other children, so she can’t hold a job. Her husband works as a laborer at a nearby stone quarry.

Tamang says she didn’t know about child trafficking. The officials from PRAYAS-Nepal explained to her the dangers of sending children away from home, she says.

But Tamang is not convinced that Rita was being trafficked and believes their former neighbor was only trying to help their family.

“After eating in the morning, we get anxious about what we will be eating at night,” Tamang says. “In such a situation, the police are arresting those people who come to help us by taking our children for a better education.”

B.K. says many parents of children who are rescued do not appreciate the danger from which their children have been saved.

“Even when we rescue the children and reconcile them with their families, we are scolded by their parents,” she says. “They do not know whether their children are trafficked. It is quite a challenge for us to make them understand.”

The parents are extremely poor and believe their children are being provided a better life, she says. Circumstances are overwhelming, so parents give their children to anyone who offers a helping hand, she says.

The Nepalese government has stepped up efforts to stop trafficking, says Bhattarai, the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare information officer.

Surveillance has been increased through checkpoints in all districts of the country, he says. Police officers in civilian clothes travel on long-distance buses, and others carry out spot checks on private vehicles traveling across district borders. There’s also increased surveillance along checkpoints at the Nepal-India border.

In April, right after the earthquake, the government temporarily banned all international adoptions as a precautionary measure to prevent trafficking of children in the guise of adoptions, Bhattarai says. The ban was lifted Sept. 1.

The district Child Welfare Boards are also working to create awareness in communities regarding child trafficking, Bhattarai says. They distribute pamphlets and perform street dramas to tell people about the dangers of trafficking.

Ranjita hopes to one day join the effort to protect children from trafficking.

She was terrified, she says, when police found her on the bus.

“The police found out that I had not informed my mother, and I thought police would beat me up and put me in jail,” she says.

But the police and PRAYAS-Nepal officers told her of the danger from which she had been rescued and talked with her about trafficking.

Now, she understands what she was saved from.

“I want to save others when I grow up, like I was rescued from being trafficked by police,” she says.

Rachana Upadhyaya, GPJ, translated this story from Nepali.