As Nepal staggers back to its feet after a devastating earthquake and a massive aftershock, a leading humanitarian group says the impoverished nation is at great risk to be exploited by human traffickers.
Why is the threat higher at a moment like this? Experts say when the government is in crisis mode, people with sinister intentions smell opportunity.
“First of all, the human traffickers are already there. Second, the social safety nets and the fabric of the state – legal protections and rule of law protections – which had existed prior to the earthquake, weak as they may be, have been weakened even further by the devastation and confusion caused by the earthquake. It’s in these situations, the risk is considerably increased,” said Anti-Slavery International Director Dr. Aidan McQuade.
As McQuade intimated, Nepal is already a fertile area for traffickers.
“We already know there has been a considerable reality of trafficking from Nepal, so our concern is that this will be used as an opportunity for unscrupulous people to exploit even more impoverished ones,” said McQuade.
“There are many people who are using the hope and the expectation that people have of a better life as a means to exploit them. You can only imagine, now that the country has been so much more devastated by these earthquakes that people are going to be even more desperate to look for better options by which they can help their families,” said McQuade.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the problem is that the vast majority of Nepalese men, women and children know they are taking a huge gamble by responding to the promise of good jobs in other countries.
“The people who are being trafficked and exploited aren’t stupid. They’re desperate,” said McQuade, who relayed the story of a young man he met that he encapsulates the attitude of many people trying to escape poverty.
“One person that we met a few years ago who was preparing to go to the (Persian) Gulf to work said, ‘I know this is a choice between the frying pan and the fire. None of us know which is which. We know that we can live in abject poverty here in Nepal or we can risk going overseas and maybe finding decent work.’ And some people do find decent work,” said McQuade.
For those who aren’t so fortunate and wind up as servant laborers, McQuade says many men and women from South Asia end up in the Middle East. He says men are in high demand right now.
“Many of your listeners will have read reports of forced labor of South Asian men in Qatar and in other Gulf States, many of them in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. There’s tens of thousands of those South Asian men or Nepalese who have gone to the Middle East in search of decent work in order to help their families,” said McQuade.
The outcome isn’t much different for females. Forced labor in the Arabian Peninsula is often their fate as well.
“Tens of thousands of Nepalese women and girls have been trafficked for domestic work, again in hope of decent work for themselves so they can help their families, but oftentimes finding themselves in situations of domestic servitude or worse again in situations of sexual exploitation across South Asia,” said McQuade.
In the western world, a quick internet search can provide a great deal of information on the legitimacy of a prospective employer. That’s not an option in Nepal.
“For ordinary Nepalese who are seeking work, it’s very difficult. You can seek advice about who is a good agent and who is not a good agent. But it’s still very much a lottery about whether you get good advice or, even if you have got good advice, whether it remains good advice when you travel yourself,” said McQuade.
The persistent poverty in Nepal and other parts of the world makes it difficult to rein in human traffickers very effectively. However, McQuade says there are some concrete steps that could do a lot of good.
“There’s considerable need for reform of the international labor market. There needs to be considerably more thought about how we can facilitate safe migration of people looking for decent work. Western countries should think about assisting poorer countries to do this,” said McQuade, who advocates embassies opening up offices to assist impoverished people looking for work in their countries.
He also wants greater regulation of the recruiting businesses that target people in places like Nepal and more investigations of those suspected of being unscrupulous.
Being lured into a life of forced labor is bleak enough. McQuade says trying to escape from many countries, especially those in the Middle East, can be virtually impossible.
“If you end up in one of the Gulf States for example, one of the great difficulties is that you will be subject to what is called a Kafala system, which is a system encoded in the law of many of the Gulf States, which means that you cannot either leave or change employment within that country – for example Qatar – or even leave the country without the say-so of your employer,” said McQuade.
Virtually every Arab state enforces Kafala, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
McQuade says the inability of South Asian laborers to go home to check on their loved ones has been especially stressful.
“Across the Gulf, there are tens of thousands of men and also women working in domestic work and other sectors whose families have been effected by the earthquake and are begging to be able to go home to see if their family are alive and well or who has been killed and injured and help them reconstruct. They are not being allowed to leave,” said McQuade.