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Rise in human trafficking reveals poverty of our response to Nepal earthquake

The Guardian - 6 May 2015 - Opportunists are pouncing on the chaos in Nepal to force vulnerable people into slavery. It’s not a new problem – but one we urgently need to address

Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Caesar came back to my mind yesterday when I read reports of how the earthquake that has devastated Nepal has led human traffickers to increase their efforts to enslave vulnerable young women for forced labour and sexual exploitation across South Asia: “Domestic fury and fierce civil strife/ Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;/ Blood and destruction shall be so in use/ And dreadful objects so familiar/ That mothers shall but smile when they behold/ Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war.”




Antony’s speech presents a set of horrors that will become familiar to anyone trying to mitigate the effects of a humanitarian disaster. As Shakespeare would have well understood, the rape and enslavement of the vulnerable have been a commonplace throughout history when such disasters strike. Disasters, by their very nature, rip apart the fabric of the state, decimating social safety nets and diminishing the rule of law in the havoc that ensues. At the same time, ordinary people who have been caught up in the catastrophe are impoverished and have fewer options to mitigate their situations than they had before the onset of the emergency.

Huge disasters are still affording opportunists the chance to traffic and enslave vulnerable people. In the Bosnian war, some UN peacekeepers themselves indulged in trafficking vulnerable women and girls for the purposes of rape and sexual exploitation. In the 2010 Haitian earthquake, press reports raised concerns of child trafficking from that disaster in the form of illegal adoptions to, perhaps, well-meaning families in the northern hemisphere, as well as internal trafficking of children into domestic slavery.

A similar risk exists in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. Those who have previously been discriminated against and socially excluded, such as Dalits or those affected by the bonded labour that still exists in Nepal, will be particularly vulnerable to enslavement. Most of the trafficking that occurs in the aftermath of war and natural disasters is not an aberration, but a continuation of things which have been going on before and which are now even less constrained because of the confusion and destruction the disaster has brought. Children are press-ganged into military and paramilitary units, sometimes being forced to kill their own families to blood them for the atrocities to come. The machinations of Boko Haram and Islamic State have routinised the rape and sexual slavery of girls and women in a way that has changed little since the days of the Roman legions.

Sometimes, the enslavement of people impoverished by an emergency is portrayed as an act of charity, for example giving a child “a roof over their head” as a domestic slave; or the hope of already poor people for a better life is used against them with the promise of decent work abroad. As Pete Pattisson’s investigations into the trafficking of young Nepalese men to the Gulf states showed, the people who take up these promises of decent work are not naive, they are desperate. As one young man said, “We know these choices are between the frying pan and the fire. We just don’t know which is which.”

Even in the absence of war, with its constant threat of insecurity from often very fluid battlefields, disaster response is an exhausting and distressing profession. It is primarily not so much about saving lives as reducing the number who will die, while trying to patch together the rudiments of communities. Nevertheless, if that was not a sufficiently titanic challenge, the focus of humanitarian response must be somewhat broader. Effective responses must be alive to the additional risks brought by the chaos of an emergency, including those related to slavery and trafficking. In particular the imperatives of child protection are accentuated, and considerable thought must be given to their care and schooling, especially for those who have been orphaned.

International donors should fund capacity to address these needs, supplementing properly sensitised teams of public-health engineers and logisticians with child-protection specialists and police, who can provide a more holistic humanitarian response that takes account of the social and environmental risks that disasters bring. Even at the earliest of stages there should be an emphasis on building government capacity, with both physical and social reconstruction to ensure its sustainability. Humanitarian responders should work with local NGOs, such as Anti-Slavery International’s partner INSEC, to ensure that even if they are new to the country they have a proper grasp of the political complexities and social sensitivities.

The struggle to end poverty, even in the trauma of a disaster, is not simply a technical challenge. It is a political and human rights one, too. Great efforts must be made to construct human rights protections for ordinary people alongside the physical infrastructure that has been destroyed. Without clear recognition of this, in particular by donors and the major humanitarian NGOS, the problems brought by humanitarian disasters can never be solved.

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