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Trapped in an alien land: Tales of trafficking and identity theft from the north-east

Girls in the north-east are being lured by agents to work in Southeast Asian countries. They transit through Myanmar, where all proof of their Indian identity is taken away. They are given Myanmarese passports, their families have no way to trace them. Yet most cases go unreported

india Updated: Mar 13, 2018 14:12 IST
Sarika Malhotra
Sarika Malhotra
Hindustan Times

A girl who was a victim of trafficking and identity theft outside her home in Manipur. Unregistered placement agencies in states such as Manipur and Mizoram are sending women to Southeast Asian and Gulf countries, taking advantage of the porous India- Myanmar border. The physical resemblance between people on both sides of the border makes identity switches easy. (Vipin Kumar / HT Photo)

Mercy Bawm was 17 when she died in Singapore in 2014. Four years later, her family in Mizoram is still unaware of what really happened. “We couldn’t bring her body home. Or even see her one last time, since we neither had passports nor the money to travel to Singapore,” says Nancy, 40, her mother. Nancy is reluctant to talk about the ordeal the family suffered since the fateful telephone call from her daughter’s employer, informing them that Mercy had committed suicide.

“It was after she died that we discovered that Mercy had not travelled to Singapore on an Indian passport,” says her mother, revealing the reason why her daughter’s body could not be brought home. Both Mercy’s employer and other people from Mizoram working in Singapore, told the family that Mercy had a Myanmarese passport while working in Singapore. Neither her name, nor her age or address were real. “Our daughter didn’t have an Indian identity anymore,” says Nancy.

Unregistered placement agencies in the north-east, in states such as Manipur and Mizoram, are sending women and young girls to Southeast Asian and Gulf countries, taking advantage of the porous border that north-east India shares with Myanmar. Myanmar is, however, just a stop-over, where the girls are given a new identity and trained for their life to come, before being sent to work in salons or as housemaids in countries such as Singapore. Their Indian documents are taken away and they are given Myanmarese passports. The physical resemblance between the people on both sides of the border makes the identity switch easy.

Educated till class 11 and from a lower middle class family, Mercy was excited at the prospect of working in a foreign country. As a housemaid in Singapore, she was hoping to earn ₹20,000 per month. Mercy had been offered work by a local agent, who promised her family that she would face no problems.

A year after moving to Singapore, however, Mercy had sent home only ₹7000. The Bawms didn’t mind. Neither were they unduly alarmed – as long as they believed their daughter was happy. But then came the devastating news of her suicide. The local agent stopped answering their calls after that. He even left town for a while but is now back and has resumed work. The Bawms are, of course, shattered. Yet, they chose not to lodge a police complaint against the agent, or ask for an official enquiry into Mercy’s death. “It will not bring our child back. And Mercy has three siblings. We have to live here,” says her mother in a helpless voice. This explains why the Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) in Mizoram doesn’t have a single registered case of cross-border trafficking.

Not The Only One

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Manipur, Lamzakap Simte, father of Esther Hoihnunching, is a worried man. His daughter left home in the first week of April 2017 and contacted the family only in December to inform them that she had reached Singapore. “On 18 January this year, Esther called us again, this time from a different number and told us that she has a different name now. Her age is 18, but on the new passport, it is 22 years. While the couple she is working for is good, their extended family is cruel. She longs for us and wants to come back,” says Simte.

At his wits end as to how to help his daughter, Simte advised Esther to continue working in Singapore, till she had saved enough money to return home and was confident of doing so on her own. “What if she tries to come back and gets lost on the way?” wonders the worried father. “I am in a fix. I fear that once the details of the Singapore agents are out, my daughter will be harmed and shifted to a new location and will be untraceable. Her identity is already changed.”

In Manipur, Lamzakap Simte, father of Esther Hoihnunching, is a worried man. His daughter left home in the first week of April 2017 and contacted the family only in December to inform them that she had reached Singapore. She now wants to come back. Her father has register an FIR in Churachandpur. ( Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO )

Simte mustered the courage to register an FIR in Churachandpur in September. But Rakesh Balwal, superintendent of police, Churachandpur, says that since the girl has a new identity, her passport details or location are needed to first trace her and then initiate the repatriation process. Her Indian name and details have been sent to the state home department, he says.

Few families in the region file a police complaint when they stop hearing from their daughters – though a case of immoral trafficking was registered in Manipur in 2017 after eight girls were rescued from Yangon in 2017. One of the girls had managed to alert the superintendent of police in Churachandpur, when she realised that her identity was being changed in Myanmar.

Chinneihlam Gangte, officer-in-charge of the Women Police Station in Churachandpur, says that this kind of trafficking has been happening since 2012. “We can only act if a case is registered. Parents are scared. Everybody is aware of what’s happening, but no one wants to talk about it because of the stigma attached.”

Leaving no trail

The modus operandi is similar in most of the cases in the region. A local agent scouts for girls and lures them with the promise of employment – to work as a housemaid or babysitter, with good food and accommodation, in Singapore, Thailand or China. The offer is irresistible for both the parents and girls: 500 Singapore dollars or ₹25,000 a month. “Owing to AFSPA, the prevailing armed conflict and mass displacement, sources of income are limited,” points out Hechin Haokip, secretary, Centre for Women and Girls in the hill districts of Chandel and Tengnoupal.

As a rule, the first six-seven months’ salary is kept by the agents and the girls are promised full salary thereafter. The network usually involves three sets of agents – one in India, the other in Myanmar and the last in the destination country.

On the day of travel, the girls are either picked up from home or they spend the previous night in the local agent’s house. They are transported in a private vehicle to the border in the wee hours of the morning. The Myanmar agent or his representative picks the girls from the border and drops them at the headquarters in Yangon.

The Indo-Myanmar border near Manipur. On the Indian side is the market town of Moreh and across the border is Tamu. It is easy to cross over, both through the official entry-exit points and through the porous border. People travel across throughout the day, and the girls evoke no suspicion when they taken to Myanmar. ( Sarika Malhotra )

Girls from Mizoram are usually taken through Zokhawthar village in the Champhai district on the Indo-Myanmar border, near the Rih Dil lake. On the Myanmar side, the Khawmawi village is accessible via a bridge built over the Harhva river. Girls from Manipur are usually taken via Moreh, a small market town, to Tamu in Myanmar. The most common way of crossing the border is by simply walking across or on a two-wheeler. The constant flow of people from both sides through the day, both via the official entry-exit point and through the porous border, ensures that no one gets suspicious. There are thriving markets on both sides of the border and a visa-free movement regime (FMR) facilitates free movement of people from the two countries within 16 km of the border.

After crossing the Indian border, the girls’ mobile phones and Indian documents – or Aadhaar card – are taken away by the agents, says Florence Haokip, chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Churachandpur. “After reaching Yangon, the girls are divided in two groups: ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly.’ The ‘ugly’ ones are trained for house jobs and the ‘beautiful’ girls are trained to work in spas and beauty salons. Though we do not get exact information on exploitation, the very fact the girls are divided into ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful,’ is indicative enough,” says Haokip.

The girls are then kept in a dormitory and trained not just for their respective jobs, but also in the language of the destination country. They are taught how to say five things in Burmese: their new name, age, mother’s and father’s names, address, along with what they do and why they are going to Singapore or Thailand. This is so that they can answer questions put to them by officials when their Myanmarese passports are being made and also during immigration from Myanmar to the destination country. The duration of the training in Yangon depends on how quickly the girls are able to pick up Burmese.

One of the Manipuri girls who was rescued from Yangon in 2017, at home with her mother. The promise of a job as a housemaid or in a salon in Southeast Asia or the Gulf, with the prospect of a good salary, is tempting for the girls and their families, since most of them are not very well off. ( Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO )

The girls who were rescued from Yangon in 2017 said that they slept in a big hall on the floor. “ The agent gave us some money for toiletries. If we needed anything, we had to request the dormitory staff to bring it for us,” one of them said.

Once the girls reach the destination country, their Myanmarese passports are taken away by the agent. Only those who are very lucky make their way back home through the same agents. While returning, the Myanmarese passport is taken back by the agent when the girl lands in Myanmar. She is dropped to the Indian border and escorted home by the Indian agent.

Agents of fear

It is a well-oiled system, says L Pishak Singh, secretary, New Life Foundation, Manipur: “The conviction rate is very low. Some victims of trafficking also go on to become agents.” One such is Esther Lalpianmawii, the main accused in the 2017 case in Manipur in which eight girls were rescued. Esther worked in Singapore between 2012-2014 and started recruiting girls from the district after returning home. The officer investigating the case said, “She would get ₹25,000-30,000 and more for scouting and dropping girls to the border. The co-agent who would scout for girls from the interiors would get ₹4,000 per girl. The commission is more for ‘beautiful’ girls. At least 40 girls were sent to South-East Asia through her.”

The agents convince parents that they are from a government-recognised agency, says Hasina Kharbhih, chairperson of Impulse NGO Network. “But most of them are not. Agencies have to pay a huge fee, running into lakhs, for government recognition, and most of them want to save this money. So there is no accountability and the girls are trapped,” she says.

The government is aware of the problem. Rakesh Shrivastava, secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development, admits that cross-border trafficking is becoming a big problem in the north-east.

A few blocks away from the Bawms lives Tina, who worked in Singapore for four years, in stints of two years each. She says Mercy’s death gave her a terrible shock. Tina was 19 when she travelled through the same agents, in the same way for the first time. “I still want to work in Singapore, but on an Indian passport. But even if I want to get things corrected, I can’t. My thumbprint is already registered with the Singapore authorities and the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, under the Myanmar passport. And I am scared if something happens to me or the agent, I will not be able to return home ever.”

(Names, family names and addresses of some victims have been changed to protect their identity)

On 28 July 2017, Helen (name changed) left Churachandpur, in Manipur, to work in Singapore as a housemaid. The offer was tempting. More so since her family lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a rented house. The agent had approached her five times with the offer, and finally Helen had said yes. On the day she left, Helen was picked up from her house by the agent in a private van. She was asked to carry her Aadhaar card with her.

After entering Moreh, a village in Manipur which is near the Indo-Myanmar border, the agent hired an auto till the border. Helen walked across the border, to where the Myanmar contact was waiting on the other side. They took an auto to reach Tamu and then boarded a bus for Yangon. When Helen was asked by the Myanmar agent to hand over her Aadhaar card, she became suspicious, but had no option but to comply.

When Helen (name changed) was trapped in Yangon, en route to Singapore, she was able to secretly call the police superintendent’s office in Manipur in 2017 and get herself and seven other girls rescued. She hadn’t been afraid when she left home, but she was petrified when her Aadhaar card was taken away and she discovered she would be given a new identity. ( Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO )

On reaching Yangon, Helen was taken to a dormitory which had 50 girls, seven of whom were from the Churachandpur district. Helen was asked to hand over her mobile phone. “I put the phone on silent and hid it in my toothbrush bag. My bag and I were thoroughly checked, but they did not find the phone.”

Helen recalls that staying in Yangon was like being under house arrest. “Our day began at 5am. Breakfast was at 7am, followed by housekeeping class. We were not allowed to rest or sleep during the day and could hardly interact with each other. A language class for two hours was a must, an hour-long Burmese class, and one hour of Thai or English. We were not allowed to even go close to the window, let alone step out of the gate. Television was allowed only on Sundays. The doors were always locked.”

During the Burmese language training session, Helen understood that the purpose of their learning Burmese was so that a Myanmarese passport could be made for them. “I was not comfortable with the idea. My name, parents’ names, home address…they would change everything. I had not been scared when I left for the job. But when I came to know that my name and parents’ names were being changed, I was very scared. I knew that this was not right. But all the girls were going through the same process. And nobody knew what
to do.

“In the little conversation that I had with the others, we all wished that there was a way to contact someone back home,” says Helen. “I had a phone, but no sim card. The Indian sim card did not work in Yangon. One of the Indian girls who was leaving for Singapore gave me a sim card which she had got from an earlier batch of girls. I hid it and waited for the right time.”

Helen searched for the contact number of the Churachandpur superintendent office’s and on September 8, WhatsApped photos and the location to the SP’s office from the washroom. After her alert, a task force was set up, involving the Manipur Home Department, superintendent of police, Churachandpur, and the embassy of India, Yangon. Eight Manipuri girls were rescued and sent back to India on 29 September.

First Published: Mar 10, 2018 18:47 IST