In July 2020, a group of trafficked Nepali women was rescued in India through the joint efforts of the state of Manipur’s anti-trafficking unit and the Nepalese Embassy. Despite the rescue, neither country had measures in place to assist with the women’s repatriation, so they were left stranded at a Manipur shelter. This unacceptable situation arose because India and Nepal lack a formal anti-trafficking agreement.
Nepal is an important source country for the Indian human trafficking business. Estimates suggest that around 50 women are trafficked from Nepal to India every day. Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal (NHRC) found that in 2018-19 alone, 35,000 Nepali citizens were trafficked. The NHRC report also predicted that around 1.5 million Nepalis are currently at risk of being trafficked to India. These individuals are generally forced into exploitative work, including child labour, bonded labour, and sexual slavery.
The scale and persistence of human trafficking stems partially from poor screening at the open Indian-Nepalese border. But formal mechanisms to address the socio-economic and human rights aspects of the issue are also lacking in both countries. It is therefore necessary for both the Nepalese and Indian governments to recognise trafficking as a legal, socio-economic, and human rights problem. Acknowledging the muli-faceted nature of both the causes and the effects of this issue would in turn allow the states to respond more effectively.
For example, in 2015, the Indian and Bangladeshi Governments registered a memorandum of understanding concerning human trafficking. In the memorandum, the parties agreed to take steps to prevent all forms of ilicit cross-border activity, with a focus on the prompt and effective implementation of a coordinated border management plan. This plan included provisions on the rescue, recovery, repatriation, and reintegration of victims of human trafficking. India has shown an interest in reaching a similar agreement with Nepal. However, even after five years of negotiations, there is yet to be a formal understanding between the two countries.
With the current informal mechanisms, the only legal instrument with the power to curtail human trafficking is a ‘no objection letter’ issued by embassies. This letter is issued to every Nepalese citizen travelling to third countries via India, with the intention of verifying the reason for their journey. However, since the Nepalese government made these letters mandatory, there has been an increase in the production of fake letters and the use of land routes and small border towns to circumvent airports.
It is clear that further measures are necessary. First, the Nepalese government should pressure the Indian government to enter bilateral agreements similar to those with Bangladesh. These agreements should include measures to strengthen cooperation and information sharing in trafficking cases. It will then be possible for both states to be held accountable for their failures, resulting in more coordinated rescue and repatriation operations. Without this, victims will continue to face state-supported psychological trauma due to a lack of procedural compliance, as in the case of the women trapped in Manipur.
A legal agreement would also help civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with victims in both countries. For example, by providing well-coordinated repatriation and support, a bilateral agreement combined with the work of NGOs would ensure that victims are not only able to return home, but also provide access to measures such as employment schemes. Since poverty is a key risk factor for individuals’ vulnerability to trafficking, training and support could help to prevent victims re-entering the vicious cycle.
Additionally, states must also strategize and engage with civil society to provide other forms of aid to victims and protect their human rights. This could take the form of psychological and medical care, as well as education to sensitise and empower their families and wider society. Community engagement should be fundamental in both the prevention of trafficking and the proper repatriation of victims, who frequently face significant social stigma.
Until there is a formal agreement, the least both countries can do is ensure that the existing mechanism of no objection letters is not misused. For instance, a specialist officer with the authority to reject forged letters could be stationed at all the airports frequently used by traffickers.
In the longer term, the states must uphold the same duty of care and protection of rights to foreign trafficking victims as they do their own citizens. Without this, criminal organisations will continue to exploit the vulnerabilities of these already marginalised groups.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
The author would like to thank Varun Kannan for his input.