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Trafficking survivors want freedom to choose their futures

On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Sanjog's Roop Sen talks about the gaps in the recent bill on trafficking

The new draft bill will look at all forms of trafficking including sex work, domestic labour and forced labour. (iStock)

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Women and Child Development closed the suggestions for the draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) bill, 2021. The discussion on the bill comes at an apt time as researchers and NGOs are witnessing a potent environment for human trafficking due to rise in debt bondage and unemployment caused by the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

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On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (30 July), Roop Sen, founding member of Sanjog, one of the NGOs which is a part of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, a national platform by and for the survivors of human trafficking, discusses the lacunae in the draft bill, the challenge in data collection, and why a human trafficking law requires inter-ministerial collaboration. Edited excerpts.

What has been the impact of covid-19 on human trafficking?

There is data to show that there has been increase in borrowing, particularly among landless and informal sector labourers. Even those who used to borrow money from microfinance institutions and self-help groups (SHG) have been forced to borrow money from private moneylenders at a high rate of interest. There is evidence to suggest that people are falling deeper into debt bondage.

Data from several organisations that work in human trafficking rescues highlight that all of 2020 and this year, these organisations have continued to carry out rescue operations. Most of the survivors were minors, in their adolescence, who were trafficked interstate, from West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi and Maharashtra. This is the tip of the iceberg because intelligence gathering by small organisations like these is limited.

Is there specific data on the number of people trafficked in India?

There is no clear comprehensive data on trafficking and exploitation. At present, the data is gathered from three sources—when a victim or parents file a police complaint; if a victim calls a helpline that then mobilises a rescue operation with the relevant NGOs; and with NGOs that are tracking this issue. As a result, there is a lot of unevenness in region-wise data. However, we have anecdotal data which shows a pattern. Unless there is a law on trafficking, you won’t get the data showing the big picture.

One of the mistakes the government, NGOs and many funding agencies make is constant focus on source areas and destination areas. But there is unpredictability and fluidity in the destination, route and source; these are no fixed patterns. Therefore, crimes like these need investigation, where an investigator can easily move beyond state borders and not get caught by jurisdictional barriers, which is what’s happening now.

How do you see the draft trafficking bill tackling the issue?

One of the biggest positives of the bill is that it's creating a common law for all forms of human trafficking instead of multiple fragmented laws which exist today. This will remove the bias towards or against sex work vis-a-vis other forms of trafficking. Labour trafficking is not defined by any one work. That’s a huge structural shift. In fact, this bias towards sex work has been caused by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956.

The other big positive is that the law is recognizing trafficking as an organized crime, needing an organized investigation approach, as far as criminal prosecution is concerned. Now, the debate is whether the Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTU) or the National Investigation Agency (NIA) should be in charge of it.

The role and powers of AHTU (which is supposed to liaise with the concerned agencies for care and rehabilitation of victims) are not clearly defined, and 90% of these units are not notified when there is a trafficking case lodged by a law-enforcement agency. So the focus should have been on empowering AHTU and less on getting the NIA involved. There are concerns about the inordinate powers of the NIA. We have seen some of these laws, like the anti-terrorism laws, can be abused to victimize innocent people.

Why does the bill fall short on reintegration and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors?

Rehabilitation needs to be defined more clearly. For several decades, survivors of trafficking have been telling us that this whole business of rescuing them, putting them in shelter homes and giving them informal education or some vocational training and sending them back home doesn’t really help in employment, poverty alleviation, or stigma mitigation.

In the current bill, there is lot of focus on shelter homes, whether protective or long-term ones. But, over the last five years, we have seen scandal after scandal about shelter homes and closed institutions, where women and children are abused more than rehabilitated.

The bill also doesn’t talk about community reintegration, something the survivors have always been saying. They want to have the freedom to choose what kind of rehabilitation they want. If a vocational training is being formed, they want it from a formal institution, where there is scope of employment. So, the focus needs to move from shelter homes to community-based rehabilitation.

Then there is mental health. The bill doesn’t talk about trauma management. What has been going on in the name of counseling by these NGOs is really dismal. Most survivors of trafficking have sustained physical and mental torture.

In spite of having a consolidated law on trafficking, you believe there needs to be an inter-ministerial approach to combat trafficking crimes. Why?

As I said earlier, trafficking is not just for sex work—it includes domestic labour and forced labour as well. Interstate workers in brick kiln, construction, tea plantation fall in the latter category. Now the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act comes under labour laws. However, there is no clarity on how to protect labourers. Their rights to hold contractors and employers accountable are also weak. Therefore, one of the ways to prevent trafficking is to strengthen labour migration laws and have an interface with trafficking laws.

Another example is trafficking of minors, which has deep connection with The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Posco) Act, 2012. Posco criminalises all sex offenders, so all customers who have sex with a trafficked minor must be prosecuted. However, this part of the law has never been implemented. Having said that, I believe, law-making is an incremental process, and the new bill, too, will evolve.

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