October 1, 2023

‘I trusted him’: human trafficking surges in cyclone-hit east India

6 min read

Anima was just 13 when the traffickers came for her.

It began gently at first, as a romantic relationship with Rubik, an older man from out of town. He had travelled for work to the area where she lived, in India’s Sundarbans, a unique landscape of rivers, mud flats, islands and the world’s largest mangrove forest, located in West Bengal. He had flattered her, romanced her and then suggested marriage, even meeting her parents.

Anima was brought up in a poverty-stricken village where the homes are made from mud and straw, there is no running water and little education opportunity. She shared her small home with more than a dozen family members, including her paralysed father. The promises made to her by Rubik were intoxicating. “I trusted him, I didn’t know what bad things he would do,” she said. “This was my mistake.”

One day he summoned her to meet him at the local railway station. “When I got there he said: ‘Let’s run away,’” she said. “When I said no, he brought out a white handkerchief and pressed it to my face. I fell unconscious and when I woke up I was tied up and locked in a house.”

Two girls listen by a river at an NGO meeting.
Traffickers target women and girls in the area with promises of jobs, marriages or simply better living standards. Photograph: Ahmer Khan/The Guardian

The ordeal for Anima only worsened from there. She said she was beaten, tortured and raped by Rubik, then tied up by a group of men who put a bag over her head, knocked her unconscious and moved her to another state – Bihar – where she was drugged, bound up and forced to work as a prostitute.

“Many of them raped me,” she said of the people who she was forced to have sex with. “I don’t know how many there were, maybe five or six people.”

After weeks in captivity, one evening the building fell silent. Though she was still bound up, she managed to free herself and smash open the door, running for her life through the unfamiliar streets of the small town in Bihar where she had been kept. Her cries for help were initially ignored by strangers until one finally lent her his phone and she called the police.

In almost every village in the Sundarbans are girls, and sometimes boys, with stories similar to Anima’s. Already an area where destitution is rife, and about 50% live below the poverty line, the Sundarbans is now on the forefront of the climate crisis. It is the area of India most regularly affected by cyclones, including three super cyclones in the past four years that killed hundreds of people, decimated homes and livelihoods and left the land salinated and arid. Many of the low-lying islands have also fallen victim to rising sea levels, and villages have become submerged.

The recurrent climate disasters here have left people poorer than ever. And into that vacuum of vulnerability, human traffickers have come in their droves, luring people with promises of jobs, marriages or simply better living standards. Once trapped, the victims are mostly forced into sex work or bonded labour, sold as brides or even used for organ and blood trafficking.

According to official statistics, about 8,000 children have fallen victim to trafficking across India since 2021, though that figure is widely considered to be a significant underestimate due to a lack of reporting. The Sundarbans has been singled out by experts and authorities as an area of particular concern, and they have warned that as the effects of the climate crisis continue to take their toll here, the vulnerability to trafficking will only worsen.

Subhasree Raptan in her office.
Subhasree Raptan runs an NGO that helps to recover and rehabilitate victims of trafficking. Photograph: Ahmer Khan/The Guardian

Subhasree Raptan, who runs Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK), a local NGO that helps recover and rehabilitate victims of trafficking, described the problem as “critical” particularly after two successive super cyclones hit in 2020 and 2021 and flooded villages, washed away homes and ruined farmland. Thousands had to be evacuated from their homes in the aftermath. After each disaster, said Raptan, local cases of trafficking rocketed.

“The traffickers know how these families are vulnerable and they come with hope when the situation is desperate, and people are searching for something better,” said Raptan. “They may offer a good job or a good marriage opportunity. They may trap the girls over the phone or in some cases social media, calling them or sending them messages or love proposals. They gain the trust – and then they exploit.”

Raptan said GGBK received about four cases of child trafficking a month. Many families often have no idea their child has been trafficked until months later, when contact was suddenly lost or money stopped coming, and GGBK is often the first port of call for families, who then help them file a case with police.

A self-defence class in Sundarbans.
A self-defence class in Sundarbans. Photograph: Ahmer Khan/The Guardian

Sougata Ghosh, inspector of police in Canning, the largest town in the Sundarbans, said that trafficking was one of the biggest issues he had to deal with in the area. “Obviously climate change has a direct effect on trafficking because it is directly affecting the financial status of the families. Often they are becoming homeless and more vulnerable,” he said.

Ghosh said that the traffickers often operated as part of a wide national network and would regularly pay local informants to let them know which families in the villages were most vulnerable or desperate for work.

After the cyclones of 2020 and 2021, the issue worsened after thousands had to be evacuated from their flooded villages and stayed for weeks or even months in large shelters. “These places were targeted by traffickers and they picked up so many girls at a time,” he said.

A woman seen fishing early morning in a river in Sundarbans forest.
Recurrent climate disasters in Sundarbans have left people poorer than ever. Photograph: Ahmer Khan/The Guardian

According to Ghosh, thanks to a cross-state network of police, they managed to retrieve about 80% of the girls who were kidnapped from the area. But Raptan’s figures from GGBK showed a less optimistic picture. “It can be very difficult to track down these traffickers,” she said. “In the last three years we’ve had 190 cases and only around 50 were rescued. All the others are still missing.”

Yet bringing the girls back is just one of the first steps. The stigma attached to trafficking, particularly when girls are forced into sex work, is huge in this region and often families need to be educated into accepting their daughters back home, and communities into allowing them to return.

Nayani, 17, became a victim to trafficking in 2021 when a doctor coerced her into travelling with him to Maharashtra for a job. She did not want to go, but as one of the sole breadwinners for a family of 16 people living in one small mud hut, she felt she had no choice. Once she was in the clutches of the man, he would drug her and repeatedly raped her, then sold her on to a brothel.

Eventually she was found in Delhi. “I was so badly drugged that when my mother came to rescue me, I couldn’t even recognise her,” said Nayani. She was also pregnant and had to have an abortion.

Parents of Sandhya Sardar – missing daughter.
The parents of Sandhya Sardar, their missing daughter. Photograph: Ahmer Khan/The Guardian

On her return home, she found herself ostracised from her village. “Ever since I came back, everyone says I’m a bad girl, I’ve done bad things, I’ve been in a dirty line of work. Some make fun of me, humiliate me,” she said, breaking down into tears. “I can’t describe what a jolly person I used to be once. This one event stole the joy from me.”

The process of justice for these victims can often be a dispiriting one. For those who try to pursue cases against their traffickers, it has been know to take a decade to reach the courts, and if they do reach trial the conviction rate is less than 2%. The trafficking gangs have often threatened the girls directly with murder or violence if they file cases, or put pressure on the families to make the girls withdraw their complaints.

Raptan said GGBK had also been targeted and threatened by traffickers on numerous occasions for its work to help survivors get justice. However, she emphasised the resilience of the victims, and their determination to put their traffickers behind bars at all costs. Many have joined GGBK’s network to educate other young people about the dangers of the traffickers, she added.

Yet as cyclone season approached once again, Raptan spoke fearfully of the future. “I don’t know what will be next, but ultimately the communities have to be resilient enough, they have to be prepared and have alternate livelihoods,” she said. “Because in the end, nature has all the power.”

Names have been changed to protect identities

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