Magazine article New Internationalist

Crocodile Smiles and Con Tricks

Magazine article New Internationalist

Crocodile Smiles and Con Tricks

Article excerpt

In Nepal's remote mountain villages, an insidious force has for two decades been destroying young lives and tearing families apart. The devastation visited on these villages is no natural disaster, but one of human making. It usually comes in the guise of a well-dressed man carrying a briefcase and the promise of education and a new life for the children. But these children's new realities are far from the dreams their parents held for them: behind the traffickers' crocodile smiles lies a life of sexual slavery, forced labour, or destitution as a commodity in the huge orphanage industry.

Chhetra was nine or ten when he was taken from his village to a children's institution in the capital, Kathmandu: 'I was taken from my village to get a better education. When I reached the house where I would stay, I saw many children there. At first I thought it was not bad, but after one month, it was getting worse and worse. There was not enough food or clothing for the children. After a while, the food finished and we had to go to the street to beg.'

Supply chain

Child trafficking has been a scourge in Nepal since armed conflict between Maoist insurgents and the state began in 1996. To save their boys from conscription by Maoist rebels, families paid to have them taken to what they were told were safe homes in Kathmandu. Instead, children were presented as orphans, often being forced to live in squalour to arouse sympathy and donations from tourists.

But the lucrative orphan industry didn't stop when the war, which cost about 16,000 lives, ended in 2006. International organizations heard that the groups of children dumped by traffickers outside Kathmandu checkpoints were orphans, and sent in volunteers to place them in homes. With foreign donations flooding in, the traffickers simply adapted their business model at the supply end of the chain.

'Ninety per cent of the time it's rural children being taken to urban areas,' Jack Hogan, former communications director at non-government organization umbrella Foundation, says. 'They're taken from isolated communities. Traffickers go where there are no schools or health posts, where there are no opportunities for kids. They approach the parents and say they'll take their children to school in Kathmandu for a small fee, and promise they'll be educated and earn money.'

Traffickers know exactly how to exploit the desperate poverty that leads parents to accept the false lifelines they're offered. The promise that their child could become a doctor is enough to convince many that sending their child away is the best course of action.

When parents lose contact with their children, few can afford to travel to Nepal's five major tourist districts, which house 82 per cent of institutions, to track them down. 'These are not areas of need, they are [tourist] districts,' says Martin Punaks, country director of child protection NGO Next Generation Nepal (NGN). 'Is that a coincidence? We think not. That's how the orphanage business works in Nepal - and it is a business.'

Krish was seven when he was trafficked to Kathmandu and its fraudulent Little Princes Children's Home, but was one of the lucky ones to be found by his mother. Krish, now a recipient of an NGN scholarship, has helped reintegrate other trafficked children. 'Poverty has become one of the major causes for many of the immoral and illegal acts prevalent in our society,' he said. 'Poverty creates such critical circumstances that one tolerates being far away from a loved one.'

Fuelling the industry

There are now 700 registered and an unknown number of unregistered institutions housing more than 15,000 children in Nepal. About 85 per cent are believed to have at least one living parent.

'The vast majority of children in homes don't need to be there. That's a fact,' says Punaks.

Traffickers are equally adept at exploiting foreigners' sympathies for substantial profits. The people working in Nepal's child protection agencies are often motivated by their past complicity in the orphanage industry. …

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