Rescue of 179 Nepali nationals throws spotlight on human trafficking in a border town in Manipur

The rescue of 179 Nepalis — 147 women and 32 men — in Manipur by the state police earlier this month reveals Moreh, a bustling commercial town bordering Myanmar, to be an emerging point for human trafficking.

It was a 22-year-old Nepali girl who sounded the alarm that eventually led to the biggest human trafficking rescue operation in India of Nepali citizens. Narrating the details of her movements, Kalpana (name changed) said she was flown from Delhi to Imphal and she stayed in a hotel in Imphal for about ten days before finally crossing over to Myanmar on a ten-day permit via border gate number 2 in Moreh. "Twenty-three of us crossed over and waited for our turn to fly to Dubai along with 12 other Nepali women who were already there before us.”

Kalpana said she got suspicious on the eighth day and called her brother in Kathmandu. She asked him to alert Maiti Nepal, a Kathmandu-based NGO working against human trafficking. Kalpana was rescued by the Yangon Anti-Trafficking Task Force in Myanmar.

 Rescue of 179 Nepali nationals throws spotlight on human trafficking in a border town in Manipur

Representational image. Reuters.

The rescue mission was undertaken after Maiti Nepal informed a Shillong-based NGO, Impulse, that a large number of Nepali girls and boys were travelling to North East India to cross the border into Myanmar. Maiti Nepal also informed Impulse that 301 of them had already crossed into Myanmar, and were being trafficked to Gulf countries in batches.

The modus operandi of the traffickers was to take their victims to Manipur via air or land, and cross over to Myanmar via Moreh. From Myanmar, they would be sent to countries in West Asia like the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, etc.

According to the statement issued by the Manipur Anti-Human Trafficking Unit, the rescued persons had neither their passports nor tickets with them. Most victims, both boys and girls, were highly educated and fluent in English. While a few of them flew to Imphal from Delhi, most flew to Bagdogra in West Bengal. From there, they took a train to Dimapur in Nagaland, and then boarded buses to Imphal and Moreh.

In the police crackdown, at least eight persons were arrested. However, the main handlers of this case, who are apparently a couple, escaped, taking away all of their travel documents, including their Nepali passports.

According to Emarine Kharbhih, programme manager of Impulse NGO Network, the victims were promised jobs as company executives or secretarial jobs in Malaysia and Dubai, but they were in fact mostly to be recruited as construction workers or as bonded labourers.

“As many as 301 people crossed over to Myanmar from December 2018 to January 2019 via Moreh,“ stated Keisham Pradipkumar Singh, Chairperson of Manipur Commission for Protection of Child Rights while briefing the press in Imphal. “Details recorded at the Moreh border check-post proved that they are all Nepali citizens. However, local authorities and activists have not yet been able to confirm whether they are still in Myanmar or have moved to other countries,” he further said.

“The next round of the operation is taking place in Myanmar. We’re working with the Myanmar authorities and other partners to track those who have already crossed the border,” informed Kharbhih.

Moreh, besides being a centre for legal border trade of cheap Chinese electronics and garments, is notorious for smuggling activities, from Burmese precious stones to animal products, teak, sandalwood, supari, gold, arms and contraband drugs. However, till now, human trafficking had not made it to the list of illicit activities which take place here.

Maiti Nepal, in its communication after the Manipur rescue, stated that this "is a fresh manifestation of human trafficking.”

Normally, traffickers would use the porous borders in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to transport people from Nepal and subsequently fly them out from Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to West Asia and other foreign shores. Taking note of this trend, the government of India had made it mandatory for every Nepali citizen flying abroad from India to produce a "no-objection certificate" from the Nepali embassy. This appears to have prompted traffickers to drop the air route and opt for new land routes. Seemingly, their choice for the time being is Moreh.

As per an existing bilateral agreement between India and Myanmar, Moreh comes under the visa-free movement regime, allowing people living within 16 kilometres on either side of the border to cross over and stay up to 72 hours with permits issued by designated authorities on either side. (India shares a porous 1,643-kilometre border with Myanmar.) Moreh is also India’s "gateway to South East Asia," as the momentum of trade and mobility between India and South East Asia is steadily increasing due to India’s Act East Policy. This has made Moreh a preferred route for trafficking of people to South East Asia and West Asia.

According to Hasina Kharbhih, founder and chairperson of Impulse NGO Network, one of the key factors that contributed to the success of the Manipur rescue operation was the fact that “several different organisations with different fields of expertise came together under one technology platform to play different roles in assisting law enforcement in anti-trafficking intervention”

In 2012, the Impulse NGO Network developed a highly confidential information sharing software with the help of all the Director Generals of Police of the eight northeastern states.

Through this software, called the Impulse Model Case Info Software Technology Platform, all nodal officers of anti-human trafficking units of the northeastern states as well as concerned police officers are connected online. They are also connected to several national-level and state partner NGOs working against human trafficking. This can ensure speedy communication between various law enforcement authorities in India as well as outside the country.

In the recent rescue case, the alarm triggered by Maiti Nepal in Kathmandu was put into the Impulse Model Case Info Software. "This alerted our partner in Myanmar, which is the YMCA, Young Men's Christian Association. The YMCA then informed the local authority, which led to Kalpana being rescued by the task force,” said Hasina Kharbhih.

Alerts were also sounded to the Manipur Enforcement and the Impulse’s state partner, New Life Foundation, Manipur. This translated into quick information sharing and fast action on the ground. The Manipur Director General of Police as well as the Joint Secretary, Home were also duly informed. This led to a well co-ordinated action that eventually led to the rescue of 179 human trafficking victims and the arrests of eight handlers from various parts of Manipur. Forty-two people were rescued and 3 accused were arrested from Moreh itself.

Hasina Kharbhih said that while the global trend of opening of borders is good for economic reasons, one must understand that there will be movement of people. According to her, this gives scope for the aspirations of young people of the North East to go to South East Asia. “In this emerging migration trend, we need a highly-trained border force to ensure unsafe migration does not take place," she said.

Though both India and Myanmar are signatories to the UN protocol on human trafficking, strong laws at the ground level are essential to effectively counter the menace of human trafficking.

Other than Moreh in Manipur, Zokhawthar in Champhai district in Mizoram and Lungwa in Mon district in Nagaland are also border points used by traffickers, according to data available with the Impulse NGO Network.

Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 23:46:13 IST