The women stood out in the crowd on a September evening.

Raj Kumar Gurung and Rajesh Singh spotted the three – one clad in a saree and two others in worn-out jeans and T-shirts – looking “totally lost” next to the pay-and-use toilet in front of Bagdogra International Airport.

Gurung picked up a conversation with them. The older woman in the saree was 45, and the younger two were 18 and 24. All three were from Jhapa district in eastern Nepal. They only had printouts of their tickets for Delhi and little money in their handbags. They had no luggage, and no idea where in the big city they would be staying and with whom. From Delhi they were to go to Oman in the Persian Gulf as domestic workers “soon”.

Gurung and Singh knew right away they were potential victims of trafficking.

The two men are members of the transit monitoring team set up by the non-profit Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra in Siliguri. Their goal: to prevent the crossborder trafficking of Nepalese girls and women through Bagdogra airport. The team of volunteers catches potential victims, counsels them, and tries to take them back to Nepal. The monitoring unit was set up in May at the airport that is barely 20 km from the India-Nepal border. Since then, it has sent close to 100 Nepalese women home.

The three women were sent back too.

From left to right: Raj Kumar Gurung, Rajesh Singh and Milan Chhetri of the transit monitoring team of the Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra at Bagdogra International Airport. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

Trade route

Human trafficking from Nepal rose after the devastating earthquake of 2015, as thousands of lives were lost, houses flattened and livelihoods disrupted. A trend emerged of vulnerable girls and women being lured with money and sold into child labour, forced marriage or sexual slavery.

The following year, Nepal, like it had done several times in the past, imposed a ban on its women travelling to the Gulf countries for domestic work, following reports of abuse of maids there. This has driven women – in search for job opportunities – to increasingly use underground recruitment channels to help them travel illegally. An unforeseen result is that many get trafficked in the process.

India, always a destination for cheap Nepalese labour and trafficked girls for domestic work and prostitution, has emerged as a major transit point in this trade. Since the border between the two nations is open and citizens of either country are free to travel to the other, Nepalese women first come to India, from where they are rerouted to other countries.

This issue came to the fore this July and August, when the Delhi Commission for Women rescued around 70 girls within a span of a week, in three raids. The girls were holed up in flats and hotels around the city, waiting to be flown to countries in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

The Panitanki-Kakarvitta border crossing, close to Bagdogra airport, is the preferred entry into India from Nepal because it is well-connected with Kolkata, and the rest of the country, by road, rail and air. Air travel has recently become the preferred mode to transport the trafficked women, thanks to the relatively low fares offered by budget airlines. Besides, long train journeys have always been fraught with the risk of run-ins with authorities.

Inside Bagdogra International Airport. Photo credit: samarkumarsarkar/via Flickr [CC Public Domain].

“We decided to put a full-fledged monitoring team at the airport in May after we got tip-offs from the police and the Central Industrial Security Force that looks after airport security,” said Prabhat Pathak, a founder member and project coordinator at Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra. “When more and more women started getting intercepted at the airport, we set up a permanent watch there. Since then, we have intercepted almost 100 potential victims.”

Most were headed for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. “The girls are kept in Delhi for a month or two, during which time the agents do all the documentation that helps them to fly out,” Pathak said. “Sometimes, from Delhi, they route the girls via Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to skirt some Indian rules. It is a big, big racket.”

Chappals and carry bags

The volunteers of Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra begin their work even before they reach the waiting area outside the departure gate. They are now attuned to keeping an eye on the passing cars, autos and e-rickshaws on the way to the airport every morning.

“The agents drop them [the women] off at the bus stop [about 3 km away], from where they are on their own,” said Gurung. “Some of them are so poor that they walk to the airport.” Flip-flops as footwear and a single plastic carry bag for luggage are usually the dead giveaways.

Those who arrive at the airport have already made it past layers of checks at the border: the Nepal Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal, and foot soldiers of a host of anti-trafficking NGOs. In regular clothes and slippers with no big bags to show, the girls try to fool the authorities into believing that they’re going across the Mechi river (the natural divide between India and Nepal) to shop for vegetables at the Indian bazaar at Panitanki. In 2017 alone, the Sashastra Seema Bal rescued 607 potential victims, a 500% rise from the figure of 108 in 2013.

Crossing the Mechi river. Photo credit: Wonaw/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported].

“The last two years have seen a drastic change in the modus operandi of the traffickers,” said Thomas Moktan, an activist with the anti-trafficking NGO Tiny Hands International, at a recent seminar organised in Siliguri by World Vision. “Earlier, we could identify the victims trying to cross the border. Now it is very difficult. And instead of the usual Panitanki border, they are crossing the river [Mechi] on foot at other points and managing to land directly in Naxalbari [6 km from the border], dodging all border checks.”

Clueless travellers

At the airport, once the interceptors of Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra’s monitoring team spot a “Nepalese-looking girl, a possible first-time traveller...nervous and out of place,” they swing into action.

“It takes just a few questions to identify a victim of trafficking,” said Milan Chhetri, another member of the monitoring team. “They invariably know very little of their journey, things like where exactly they would be going, who would be coming to receive them, where they would be staying. Many times, they don’t even know the other persons booked together on the same ticket as theirs.”

In early September, two women in their late 30s (one from Nepal’s Panchtar district and the other from Jhapa) were caught by the Central Industrial Security Force inside the airport, just before they were to go through security check. They didn’t know each other or the two other passengers – a mother and son – with whom they were booked on the same ticket by a travel agent in Delhi.

Raj Kumar Gurung, member of the Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra's monitoring team, inspecting documents of a woman traveller at Bagdogra International Airport. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

The women usually clutch a small piece of paper, which has nothing but the phone number of the person they are supposed to call on landing in the capital. “One look at the paper – sometimes it’s just Prince or Raj...just one name – and we know the rest of the story,” Chhetri said. On several occasions the Princes and Rajs have verbally abused and threatened the volunteers with “dire consequences” when they have called to verify.

The trio from Jhapa, apprehended on September 29, did not even have a number. They said the person coming to receive them at the airport in Delhi would recognise them on the basis of their photos sent to him by the agents.

Of choice and chance

For an illegal female migrant, the risk of getting exploited is high. According to a Nepali Times report, the women are “sold off” to the employers like “livestock” as soon as they reach their destinations. “While the promised job is that of a domestic help,” said Pathak, “many end up in the flesh trade as commercial sex workers.”

Talking to the girls and women is the only way for the volunteers to prevent them from getting trafficked. “We cannot, and do not, force someone who is travelling with valid documents,” said Gurung. “Nor can we cause them any delay with our questioning and make them miss their flights.” He, along with the others, has attended a number of workshops as part of the job training. So the team has to act fast, and also be accurate.

The poor chappal-and-plastic-bag image is not true for all cases. Less than a month before the Delhi raids, Gurung intercepted a group of dozen Nepalese women. “There was nothing to suggest they were trafficked,” he said. “The girls were well-dressed, they knew what they were doing. They had good money on them, which is generally not the case with others.”

They laughed off Gurung and his team’s fears. However, Gurung still gave his number to one of the girls, “just in case”. As it turned out, they were kept in a hotel in Delhi for a month with a promise that they would be taken to Hong Kong to be employed as domestic workers. Just after the Delhi raids, they were set free by their scared agents. “They came back to Bagdogra and headed back home,” said Gurung.

Those who make up their minds to return are driven to the border and handed over to the Kakarvitta police, who then take them back to their homes. “In the absence of a standard operating procedure between the two countries, this is the best we can do,” said Pathak.

The Mahendra highway in Nepal leads to the Kakarvitta-Panitanki border. Photo credit: Mark Estes/via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

“Trafficking through this airport has gone down,” said an official of the Central Industrial Security Force, lauding the monitoring by both the Kanchenjunga Uddhar Kendra team and the CISF. The volunteers believe the current lull is also because of the Delhi raids. They are proud that they have been able to convince 80% of the women intercepted at the airport to abandon their trips. “But there are some who just want to take a chance,” said Gurung. “‘It’s my life and I will see how much worse it will get’ is what we often get to hear. They are just so desperate to leave.”

No alternative

The intercepted women from Jhapa were handed over to the Kakarvitta police who have transferred them to a transit home run by a non-profit. Here they will be handed to their family members after counselling.

The 18-year-old is too scared to face her parents. She hadn’t told them about her plans – she had run away with her cousin, the 24-year-old, after facing opposition from her family.

The 24-year-old is not sure how to face her family either. She had left her children – a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son – with her husband, promising to send them money for a better life, like many other women in her village had done.

Even the lure of celebrating Nepal’s biggest festival Dashain with her children didn’t hold her back. “The opportunity just arose because didi (the 45-year-old woman) was going,” she said. “She has experience [she had earlier worked in Kuwait for eight years] and had arranged for everything. How could I let go of this chance? Besides, what is the point of festivals when there’s no money at all?” Her ill husband is unable to earn and poverty has caused a rift between them.

Will she try to go again?

“Yes! But, no, not from India…I will go legally after Nepal lifts the ban. What else is there to do?”