Tuesday 27 September 2016

Special investigation: One year on, how ruthless child traffickers exploited Nepal's earthquake

It's a year since the beautiful south Asian country was devastated by an earthquake that caused the death of nearly 9,000 and made two million homeless. But while this poverty stricken nation struggles to recover, the shocking scourge of child slavery and sex trafficking is worse than ever.

Jason O'Brien in Rasuwa

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Buddha Bir Tamang (7) and his brother Subhas (2) near their home in a camp at Bogetar in Rasuwa, Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
Buddha Bir Tamang (7) and his brother Subhas (2) near their home in a camp at Bogetar in Rasuwa, Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
Buddha Bir Tamang (7) and his brother Subhas (2) near their home in a camp at Bogetar in Rasuwa, Nepal. Pic:Mark Condren
A woman outside her earthquake-damaged house in the Nuwakot region. Photo: Mark Condren
A Nepalese girl takes a ride in a truck. Photo: Mark Condren
A young boy begging on the streets of Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren

IT'S possible to make a convincing case that Subhas (2) and his brother Buddha-Bir (7) are incredibly lucky. Possible, but not easy.

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The young Tamang brothers lost both parents last April, for one thing: their mother and father killed instantly when a building they were working in collapsed during the earthquake.

The orphans are now living in a galvanised hut, for another. It's just the one room, with eight other people. There is no running water. Right now in the camp it is oppressively hot, in the mid 30s. Next month, monsoon season starts and parts of the camp will turn to swamp, and there isn't much hope for the basic latrine system.

On top of that, Subhas and Buddha-Bir are growing boys, or should be. But food and clothes are not easy to come by - as shown by Subhas wearing a heavy fleece jacket, and little else, in the midday sun - with money in short supply. That same money shortage is likely to impact on gaining anything approaching a formal education.

So it's not immediately apparent how the brothers have won big in life's lottery.

But they have.

Ram Raja Kumal and his wife Sabitri, parents of Sushila, who vanished last June, at their home in Pipaltar, Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
Ram Raja Kumal and his wife Sabitri, parents of Sushila, who vanished last June, at their home in Pipaltar, Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
Sushila Kumar, who vanished last June from her family home in Pipaltar. Photo: Mark Condren
Ram Raja Kumal and his wife Sabitri, parents of Sushila, who vanished last June, at their home in Pipaltar, Nepal. Pictured with Punima (7), who lost her parents in quake. Photo: Mark Condren

"I don't know what might have happened to the boys if we let them go... but maybe something bad," explains their grandmother Maugu Tamang (45), the matriarch of the family now living in the one-room galvanised hut.

"That's what I heard. But I don't know what 'bad' would happen."

Read more: Performing acrobatics: the circus that is fighting the slave traders

Since the death of their parents, the two boys have twice come close to being trafficked to an 'orphanage' in Kathmandu. Both times a close male relative tried to push through the move, claiming it would see the boys' education paid right through secondary school.

A local woman walks across a bridge in the Nuwakot area of Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
A local woman walks across a bridge in the Nuwakot area of Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren

At one point, in the chaos and upheaval just weeks after the quake, the boys were in his care. It would later emerge he had accepted a cash offer - amount unknown - for the boys. He was also trying to gain access to €3,500 in government compensation due to the boys following their parents' deaths. That's a lot of money in a country where the average annual wage is less than €800, and where one third of the population ekes out a life on less than €1 a day.

This man's attempt to get the compensation led indirectly to investigations by the Nepali government's Child Welfare Board which later found there was no orphanage, no school, and no accommodation for the two boys.

On both occasions the plans to send them to an 'orphanage' were stopped -once by the authorities, once by their grandmother. The compensation will be waiting for them when they hit 16.

The young brothers are oblivious to all this, naturally. They don't say much, but Bir smiles shyly when his grandmother mentions the colourful scarf she is knitting is for him, and fearless Subhas (2) thinks nothing of jumping off a five-foot embankment in the fields farmed near the camp - and laughing to himself when he hits the ground with a thump.

Girls washing their hair in the Rasuwa region of Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren
Girls washing their hair in the Rasuwa region of Nepal. Photo: Mark Condren

Where were they going to be sent?

Child trafficking is a thriving industry in Nepal, and arguably the term sanitises the reality. It is selling kids into domestic slavery, prostitution and forced labour.

It means dangerous and dirty work for little or no pay, with enforcement through threats and violence. Sexual abuse is common.

Read more: Nepal one year on: Why are billions still unspent and so little rebuilt?

It's a murky, complicated, distressing world, often connected with unregistered or unregulated orphanages in the capital (see panel), and targeting poverty-stricken families in rural districts.

Agunita Tamang in the bottom bunk-bed and four boys above including Sureju Maiia, Krisuna Buda and Dil Buda, who were found after the earthquake, at an Umbrella home in Nuwakot. Photo: Mark Condren
Agunita Tamang in the bottom bunk-bed and four boys above including Sureju Maiia, Krisuna Buda and Dil Buda, who were found after the earthquake, at an Umbrella home in Nuwakot. Photo: Mark Condren

The exploitation of trafficked children takes many forms - the market dictates, and the market is evidently strong.

Nepal's national human rights commission estimates that up to 30,000 children are trafficked within and from the country each year.

That's 30,000 kids forced into the sex trade, domestic slavery, sweatshops, and so on. That's roughly equivalent to the population of Kilkenny. Some non-governmental organisations - both national and international - say the figure is higher.

Tsewang Norbu Lama, project manager with Umbrella Foundation, pictured in Rasuwa. Photo: Mark Condren
Tsewang Norbu Lama, project manager with Umbrella Foundation, pictured in Rasuwa. Photo: Mark Condren

A US State Department report classified Nepal as a Tier 2 country, meaning the government "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so."

It has a way to go before it is classed as Tier 1, alongside the likes of Ireland.

However, don't kid yourself that its problem only concerns the other side of the world. Earlier this month, it was revealed that children from Nepal were being offered as domestic staff to rich families as far away as Britain for approximately €6,600. And while Britain is a long way from Nepal, it is not so far from Ireland.

"The department is not aware of any reported case of human trafficking (child or adult) in Ireland where the victim is from Nepal," a spokesman for the Department of Justice said.

Of course it is both the trafficker and the buyer's job to ensure the department is unaware.

Subhas and Buddha-Bir were blessed their grandmother was found and took them in after the first attempt to sell them last summer, and refused to entertain a second attempt despite an ostensibly-tempting offer.

A scene at Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren
A scene at Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren

"The boys are doing well," their grandmother says.

"Some people came to take them to Kathmandu and put them in education but I said 'No'. I was given the responsibility of looking after them so that is why I did not send them."

The boys' uncle later came to the camp. It is located at Bogetar in Rasuwa, about 120km north-east of Kathmandu. The camp was built by the residents of the nearby Dandagaun village which was flattened in the quake and saw 23 deaths, including the boys' parents.

"He told me that the boys' education should not be spoiled because of this 'so-called love'," their grandmother says with a dismissive shrug.

"But I said 'No'.

"I will try my best to feed and educate them and, if not, I will think of something. I am now working full-time, and will try my best until the last day."

A woman collects firewood for cooking in the Langtang mountain range in Rasuwa. Photo: Mark Condren
A woman collects firewood for cooking in the Langtang mountain range in Rasuwa. Photo: Mark Condren

Her best is based on love and responsibility. You take heart from that. The boys are lucky. Monday marks the anniversary of the first of the two quakes which killed almost 9,000 people and left up to two million homeless.

Nepali officials say more than 40,000 children either lost their parents, were injured, or were placed in a precarious situation following the disaster.

Human trafficking was scarce before the quakes - with many cases unreported - and there is no comprehensive recording system in place. But natural disasters have long been seen by child traffickers in particular as an opportunity, and Nepal is no different.

Unicef alone intercepted 245 children from being trafficked in just two months after the quake.

Over the last year, Nepali officials say they had intercepted 400 children moving in groups without their parents.

That appears to have been a drop in the ocean.

"There are many other stories of trafficking in my head, and some of them would take your breath away (see panel above)," says Tsewang Norbu Lama, child reintegration manager with the Umbrella Foundation - an organisation that rescues vulnerable children, and which was founded by two Irish people in 2005.

"There is no easy solution, no quick solution, because you're largely dealing with people who don't know much about the wider world but believe - or want to believe - that their children can have a better life.

"And most parents want a better life for their children."

Generally, traffickers know exactly what they're doing as they prey on these aspirations - who to approach, how to convince, and how to get the child quickly out of reach.

The rural districts around Kathmandu are most-regularly targeted, because the people are predominantly subsistence farmers with low levels of education. Convincing them there are better life opportunities elsewhere - and that they can send back money earned - doesn't require major persuasion skills.

It is also easy to move children from here to Kathmandu and from there to India and further afield, if necessary.

Usually a mediator will approach the families. He or she will likely be a relative, someone that the family can trust and someone with a relationship with the orphanage or traffickers.

Unicef estimates somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal each year. Some are taken overseas, as far away as South Africa and Europe. (Ruhama, an NGO which works in Ireland with women affected by sexual exploitation, said it has no record of assisting Nepali women over the past six years.)

But the vast majority stay local.

South Asia is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

India, alone, is home to almost half the world's 36 million slaves, and the vast majority of these Nepali girls end up in Indian brothels where they are forced to sell their bodies in appalling conditions.

In Nuwakot, for example, the natives are predominantly Tamang - an indigenous group with relatively-light skin, considered especially attractive over the open border in India.

Sushila Kumal's exact whereabouts are unknown. The 15-year-old vanished from Pipaltar in Nuwakot last June after telling her family she was going to check on crops.

For months there was no word.

"We don't have much but we spent it looking for her," her mother Sabitri Kumal says. "But we quickly ran out of money, and we didn't find her."

As with a lot of these cases, this a murky one, with claim and counter claim both within and outside the family unit. These include a suicide, Sushila apparently turning up in India, and the teenager latterly going to school in Kathmandu.

Sushila's aunt took her own life after she was questioned by police about the teenager's disappearance. It remains unclear whether she was the mediator, as some in the family openly suggest.

A phone call from an anonymous man earlier this year claimed Sushila was in Faridabad in India. But no one was able to talk to her from the family, or confirm what she was doing there.

"I am afraid she might be forced into prostitution," her mother says.

As she speaks outside her basic home, the other residents of the rural village listen in and give their frank opinions. It is obvious some feel there is more to the story than is coming out.

The explanation of how the family recently learned Sushila is apparently in Kathmandu - a long-winded story involving a mix-up with a photograph - is greeted with open scepticism. In private, one of Sushila's sisters says she recently managed to talk to her briefly by phone. "I asked her if she was happy," she says quietly. "[Sushila] hesitated for a long time. Then she said 'Yes'."

Still no one has seen her, or knows what she is doing, and whether she is safe.

Sushila dived under her bed when the earthquake hit last April. The roof collapsed, but she was safe.

She was lucky then, but it's far from certain her luck has held.

On the day of the earthquake, her little cousin Punima (7) lost both her parents. Punima was subsequently taken in by Sushila's parents and continues to live with them, despite their own poverty. They are fundamentally decent people, struggling to make ends meet.

Sushila's story, a little like Nepali child trafficking in general, leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and the uncomfortable feeling that not enough people care enough about what is going on.

Just who is driving this thriving market for 30,000 abused children each year? Why isn't much more being done to target them? And why are so many simply turning a blind eye to this ugly, life-destroying crime?

This article was made possible with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

Photos by Mark Condren

*Faked death certs and false dawns

There are around 800 orphanages registered in Nepal, but children's rights campaigners claim the country is home to a huge number of unregistered facilities.

There were some 15,000 children living in orphanages in Kathmandu alone when the first earthquake struck on April 25 last year. However, a study by Unicef, published in 2014, found that 85pc of children at the orphanages they visited had at least one living parent.

Traffickers can go to great lengths to ensure children - perhaps given up by their parents on the promise of free education or a brighter future - are considered orphans and therefore available for adoption.

One common way is to buy faking death certs for parents. Another way to 'legalise' an orphan is to publish an advertisement for 'found' children in newspapers. Nepal's laws state that if no one comes forward to reclaim a child, it can be put up for adoption as an orphan.

According to Unicef, orphanage owners can make between $5,000 to $25,000 on an international adoption.

*The Irish battling corruption

The Umbrella Foundation is a non-profit NGO set up in Nepal a decade ago by a pair of concerned Irish people. It was founded by Viva Bell and Dave Cutler in response to the growing number of corrupt children's homes or 'orphanages' in Kathmandu.

The foundation describes itself as "a safe place for children who were victims of trafficking and neglect".

Among the cases of child trafficking identified by the organisation in recent times are:

l Some areas such as Gyanghphedi in Nuwakot District, about 80km east of Kathmandu, where there are no young women as they have all been trafficked in recent years - often with the knowledge of their families. The population is only in the low hundreds - but zero young women is a striking fact.

"These people are incredibly poor," Tsewang Norbu Lama, Umbrella project manager, says. "Many send their daughters to work in India. They know it is prostitution, but it doesn't matter to them. It's how they think, and difficult to change. It's difficult for us to do anything there."

A Korean religious group who visited a camp shelter in Haku in Rasuwa, in the foothills of the Langtang mountains, in May of last year and took at least three girls "to Kathmandu" without completing the necessary administrative or legal procedures. They remain missing.

Nine kids rescued from an unregistered 'orphanage' in Nuwakot last year. The owner was hiring the children - all under 12 - out for work in shops and restaurants. He was taking the proceeds.

A father in Gatlang in Rasuwa who sold his daughter for $15 to a neighbour to work as a domestic slave last year because he wanted money for alcohol.

"This was a relatively easy one for Umbrella to track, and she is in care," Tsewang says.

For more information visit umbrellanepal.org

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