Myanmar emerges as transit hub for trafficking northeast girls to South East Asia
For 17-year-old Kate Lam (name changed) the offer for a job in Singapore seemed the best chance to escape the poverty of her home at Churachandpur district in Manipur.
The minor, however, had no idea that she would become a victim of an international trafficking racket and would be sent illegally to Myanmar to be flown later to Singapore to work as domestic worker.
She was lucky. Timely action by Indian authorities ensured the minor along with seven others (three minors)—all from Churachandpur--were rescued from traffickers in Yangon and brought back home last month.
The girls, who were trafficked in June this year, were victims of an emerging racket of trafficking girls from poverty stricken or broken homes in northeast India to countries in South East Asia via Myanmar.
Arrests of six traffickers in India and several Myanmar nationals in the neighbouring country in recent weeks have revealed how vulnerable girls are lured with offers of good jobs and trafficked abroad.
“The prime accused, a 32-year-old woman named Esther Lalpianmawii, a resident of Manipur, has confessed to have trafficked over 100 girls through Myanmar in the past two years,” Churachandpur superintendant of police Rakesh Balwal told Hindustan Times.
The latest case came to light after Balwal and his team rescued six girls while they were being transported to Myanmar. Last year too police in Manipur had rescued four girls from the state before they were sent across the border.
“We came to know about the plight of the girls in Yangon after one of them managed to contact her parents who in turn informed us. We contacted Myanmar government and the Indian embassy there, which resulted in their rescue,” Balwal said.
India and Myanmar have a free movement agreement which allows people from either side residing within a 16-km radius of the international border to travel to the other side and stay for a maximum of 72 hours without visa or passports.
Traffickers use this arrangement to make fake documents for the trafficked girls so that they are able to enter Myanmar through the Moreh-Tamu border for their onward journey to Yangon.
“There they are kept in hideouts where they are provided training. The good looking ones are taught beauty treatments while others are trained about domestic chores. The traffickers procure fake Myanmarese passports for the girls before sending them to South East Asian nations,” said Balwal.
Interaction with the girls after their return to Manipur last week revealed that 20-30 of them were kept in each room and were not allowed to go out or interact with others before they are sent to SE Asian countries.
Since the trafficked girls entered Myanmar without Indian passports and valid visas, bringing them back involved lot of paperwork and legal procedure.
Besides government agencies, Impulse NGO Network (INGON)—a Shillong-based non-profit organisation, which works in Myanmar as well, provided crucial help.
“The trend of trafficking girls from the northeast through Myanmar emerged nearly a year ago. Last year six girls from Mizoram, who were being taken to the neighbouring country, were rescued. Usually the destination points are Singapore and Malaysia,” said Hasina Kharbhih, chairperson of the INGON.
Kharbhih’s team in Myanmar coordinated the rescue of the girls from a room on the fifth floor of a Yangon hotel and took care of their stay, legal processes, counseling and repatriation.
“We have been handling human trafficking cases for over two decades and in the recent case we used all our expertise to rescue the girls on September 9 and then take care of them until they reached Kolkata on September 29 and Manipur a day later,” Kharbhih said.
Though they have returned to India, the rescued girls are apprehensive to return home due to social stigma. The authorities in Manipur have placed them in care of experts who are counseling them and will provide vocational training to help them earn a livelihood.
Balwal claims to have busted the trafficking racket in Churachandpur district. But there is likelihood of more traffickers like Esther still active in other states of the region.
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