At the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, we assume that the incidences of child trafficking may take a halt, as there was limited movement due to frequent lockdowns and the traffickers would not take any chance of being trapped.
Similar assumptions were made in the year 2016 when there was a ban on high currency notes in India.
But we were quite mistaken in making such calculations. For instance, if we talk about demonetization in India, in the year 2015, 221 cases of child trafficking were reported, which made a noticeable increase of 340 in the year 2016.
However, there was an insignificant decline of 330 incidences of child trafficking in the year 2017 (Source NCRB). And these are just the reported cases. Human trafficking being a hidden crime often goes unnoticed.
Why we are talking about demonetization and its relation with human trafficking, especially in the context of children is for a simple reason, i.e., trafficking is an organized crime and the traffickers knows how to route their criminal business of human trafficking in to legitimate businesses by laundering money derived from the illicit business of trafficking. As a result they are never at loss. The demonetization may have hindered their criminal business, but not stopped.
Similar assumptions of decline in cases of child trafficking because of COVID 19 pandemic related lockdown in the year 2020 and 2021 stood false. The nationwide lockdown forced the marginalized at the verge extreme hunger.
The economically disadvantaged sections of the society were pushed in to extreme vulnerable situations. As a result, many of the penniless population were forced to send their children with traffickers to earn bread for the family.
Why children only? Because children are the first priority of the traffickers as they are good source for cheap labor, who could be forced to work for long hours for less food and money.
During the pandemic when the transport was limited the traffickers took advantage of private buses and trains meant for migrant workers. A news article was published on 26th July, 2021 by Hindustan Times citing data of Bachpan Bachao Andolan stated that around 9,000 children were rescued from trafficking between April 2020 and June 2021.
The news article also cited a warning by the Union Home Ministry and the child right activists about a possible upsurge in cases of child trafficking after the country start emerging from the national lockdown.
In another news shared by Aljazeera.com, dated 2nd September, 2021, it has been admitted by Shri Rameswar Teli, Minister of State for Labor and Employment in Parliament that in the year 2020-2021 around 58,289 children were rescued from child labor, a sharp increase from 54,894 in the year 2019-20, 50,284 children in 2018-19 and 47,635 in 2017-2018.
The apprehensions made by the Government of India and the Civil Society Organisations were right. Because the employers who faced financial losses during the pandemic started looking for cheap labor in the form of child labor to compensate their losses.
It is a known fact, that when the whole nation has started living with the ‘new normal’ and bridging the losses incurred during the pandemic, the vulnerability of the marginalized towards trafficking was increased manifold.
Firstly, the economic crisis has pushed underprivileged families to sell their children to the traffickers for sexual or non-sexual exploitative purposes, and secondly, the children who are left orphaned or single parent because of COVID-19 pandemic became the easy target of the traffickers.
Many news were seen on social media for adoption of children who were left orphaned because of COVID-19 pandemic. These are some of many incidences which are the direct result of any kind of disaster, whether natural or man-made.
The deprived has gone through the sufferings of the past when the COVID-19 pandemic started and when the nationwide lockdown drained their earnings, and when many of them lost their lives while going back to their villages. These miseries still howls them.
With the uncertainty whether the COVID-19 will ever end or not has left a void in the lives of these underprivileged section of the society. They are still living under the constant fear of revisiting the same experiences. That is why they have started building their broken lives by one or the other way, and the traffickers are ready to grab this kind of opportunity.
The Government of India has realized that there is need to address the vulnerabilities associated with pandemic or any other kind of disaster which has the tendency to increase incidences of trafficking, especially trafficking of children.
It has launched various financial assistance schemes for the orphaned children such as PM CARES for Children Scheme to support children who have lost both the parents or legal guardian or adoptive parents or surviving parent to COVID-19 pandemic, etc. But there is much more needs to be done. These are the efforts that may pacify or compensate the loss.
What is needed is to red flag the source areas of trafficking and the potential victims of trafficking, and the government should put efforts in maintaining a database of COVID 19 affected children, whether orphan or single parent.
Secondly, it is extremely necessary to strengthen the law enforcement intelligence to break nexus of traffickers, bust trafficking networks, and to provide for stringent punishment for the employers who look for child laborers for profiteering their businesses.
A constant watch on the unregulated or informal sector including supply chain in the formal businesses is much needed at this moment. This is how any kind of slavery or exploitation emerging from disasters could be addressed.
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