‘We want to strengthen anti-trafficking ecosystem in India’

“Our stay in shelter homes were very stressful, because we were kept there for months and years, without knowing when we would be getting out,” says 19-year-old Rahima, a survivor leader from West Bengal, while narrating trafficked survivors’ experience of the shelter homes they were put in following rescue.

“We were clueless. We did not know about our rights. Neither did we have any access to reach out to those who are making these policies for institutionalization,” says Nasima, another survivor leader from West Bengal. “Nobody has ever asked us whether we want to stay in shelter homes,” she alleges, adding that policies have been made for trafficking survivors but without consulting them and understanding their life experiences.

“We want to be considered stakeholders in the decision-making process. We want to play a participatory role in policy formulation,” asserts Rahima, while speaking at an event of Indian Leadership Forum of Trafficking, or ILFAT, a national federation of survivors of various forms of human trafficking launched in Delhi last November.  Rahimi and Nasima are two core members of the federation which has currently over 2500 members belonging to 11 survivors’ collectives from across eight states of India.

“We have been fighting for our rights at our district and state levels in a fragmented way. Our issues and demands have hardly reached the mainstream policy discourse, and through ILFAT we want our voices to be heard at the national level,” says another ILFAT leader Aatmaram, a labour trafficking survivor from Chhattisgarh.

The forum, according to ILFAT leaders, will act as a catalyst for sharing, learning and taking action. They want it be a platform for them to share insights and evidence relevant to human trafficking which is growing unabated in the country because of systemic failures. They believe that their experience and expertise will be a great aid to the anti-trafficking ecosystem to plug gaps in its efforts combat the organised crime. 

“We want to contribute with our personal experiences and insights to strengthen the anti-trafficking system in the country,” affirms Hashina, a survivor leader from Andhra Pradesh, and informs that ILFAT will work with media as well to change the perspective around the issue and trafficking survivors.

“We want our media friends to do more investigative stories on traffickers and their nexus in both source and destination areas. It is time media should go beyond sob stories and dig deeper into the issue of human trafficking,” adds Rahima.

Human trafficking is one of the most shameful crimes, affecting the lives of millions of people around the world. It remains a significant problem in India too with women, men and children being trafficked for diverse reasons or purposes such as commercial sexual exploitation, forced marriage, bondage and forced labour etc. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, three out of five people trafficked in 2016 were children below the age of 18 years. Of them, 4,911 were girls and 4,123 were boys.

The inadequacy of legal machinery, lack of institutional accountability and poor rehabilitative processes for those rescued are some of the factors that explain the increase in trafficking especially for the purpose of sexual exploitation in India. And thus, ILFAT is advocating for an adequate and effective anti-trafficking ecosystem that would help contain trafficking in the country.

One of their primary demands in this regard is to have a comprehensive law against trafficking that should be inclusive of all forms of trafficking right from forced and bonded labour, sex trafficking to begging and servitude.  They want the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018, which could not be passed during the last government, to be strengthened and made into a law, which must have provisions for stringent punishment to traffickers as they believe there will be some deterrence effect with better conviction rates and harsher punishments.

They also want the new bill must lay down provisions for community-based rehabilitation to ensure the re-integration of survivors in the community though ensuring opportunities for social, personal and economic development. The rehabilitation of a survivor, according to ILFAT leaders, won’t happen in isolated spaces but in an open society. This is a gap that ILFAT believes needs to be fixed.

“We think it is very important that fast track courts be instituted for the trafficking cases. Many of us have gone through and are still undergoing the long and exhausting process of law to get justice,” says Sarifa, another ILFAT leader from West Bengal.

“Most of us are from very poor economic backgrounds. The long wait to get justice is draining for the survivors and hence we demand that special fast track courts be instituted for the cases of human trafficking,” she adds.

ILFAT leaders are also going to advocate for the streamlining of the implementation of victim compensation schemes across the country. They believe that victim compensation for trafficked survivors should not be conditional upon rescue and want the new bill must fix accountability of duty bearers and those providing rehabilitation services in informing trafficked survivors about the victim compensation scheme and their rights to get compensation, and failure to do so must lead to penal provision.

Currently, ILFAT leaders are busy raising public awareness around human trafficking and promoting discussions on preventive as well as corrective measures to combat the crime at various levels. They are also working on strengthening their network by supporting new groups and connecting with existing networks across the country. They are providing training to new members so that they take charge in their advocacy efforts.

“We have begun our journey. It will not stop until we build a solid and effective system to end human trafficking,” they say collectively.

About the Author: Saroj Pattnaik is a freelance journalist associated with grassroots organisations working on the issue of human trafficking in India.

Disclaimer: The article was published on The News Minute as part of Meri Suno campaign aimed at giiving voice to survivors of trafficking. The campaign is led by members of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, a survivor-led organisation formed to combat trafficking.