"Do you have people-trafficking in Britain?" Ambika Acharya asked. We were in Melamchi village in Sindhupalchowk, a district of eastern Nepal considered particularly vulnerable to trafficking of women and girls for prostitution. Neither of us knew it until the following day but, as she was posing the question, the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers was unfolding in Morecambe.
I answered Acharya's question with a story, published in the New Statesman last August, about Chinese labourers working on farms in Norfolk. They were bound to their gangmasters by the debts they had incurred for their illegal passage to England. If they failed to repay the debts in full, reprisals would be taken against their families back in China.
Acharya and the other members of Mank, Melamchi's anti-trafficking group, would have identified with almost every element of the Chinese migrant workers' tale, from the slave-labour conditions to the bondage of debt and the threat to families. The group campaigns in a region with a history offorced prostitution, one where, even a few decades ago, ruling families exercised droit de seigneur over local girls.
Today, instead, girls as young as ten are kidnapped and taken across the border to be sold to brothels in India. Often their families are complicit. Money may be paid to the family. The brothel will pay the trafficker. The girl will have to earn--with interest--the money the brothel paid for her before she receives anything herself. Sometimes girls who manage to escape report that even after several years the debt remained undischarged.
A common story is for a girl or young woman to be drugged and abducted to the brothels of Kathmandu, or over the Indian border to those of Delhi and Mumbai. Survivors speak of waking from a stupor to find themselves sold into prostitution.
Rita Tamang (a pseudonym she chose herself) tells a typical tale. Nine years ago, she was abducted and imprisoned for some months in a brothel in Mumbai.
"My family is Nepalese, but we went to live in Himachal Pradesh in India when I was five," Tamang tells me in a halting voice. "We ran out of money and moved to Nainital, where my father got work. There, one of his friends tried to convince me to go with him to work somewhere else. I was 17 and said no; I didn't want to leave my parents. Then this person gave me some sweets. I woke up in a brothel but I didn't know that's what it was. I asked the woman in charge what work I had to do: 'Is it washing clothes?' I asked.
"They told me I had to do this sex work, and threatened me with a knife. I wouldn't, so they moved me to another brothel and this time I did. I was there six months and then the Indian government raided us. I was taken by the police to a place called Chempur, which was like a jail. We were there, 150 of us in one room, for seven months, without beds, and no contact with outside. The Indians said they had asked the Nepal government to take us back but it wouldn't. Finally, some charities heard about us and we were split into seven different houses. Those in my house started the organisation Shakti Samuha [now a campaigning group for survivors, working with Oxfam] to help others like us."
Tamang, now free and married (unusually: there is great prejudice against women who have been trafficked), has never found her family. Wasn't she angry with her relatives for failing to protect her from the family "friend"? No, she was convinced that her father knew nothing of what happened.
Other women tell of being deceived by "manpower agencies" that promise lucrative domestic or factory jobs in the Gulf or Hong Kong. Yet others, though it can never be admitted, may find the prospect of working in India's squalid brothels more appealing than an impoverished future in Nepal's failed economy, where more than half the population lives below the poverty line and almost half is out of work for at least part of the year. …