Many hurdles to repatriate foreign nationals sex trafficked to India
MUMBAI: Women are increasingly being trafficked into India's sex industry from countries outside South Asia that do not have repatriation agreements, which leaves victims trapped in limbo for months after being rescued, officials said.
India has long been a destination for traffickers bringing women from neighbouring Bangladesh, which has a repatriation treaty, and Nepal, which works closely with Indian authorities on the issue.
But nations beyond South Asia - Uzbekistan and Thailand in particular - have emerged as source countries over the past three years, according to police, campaigners and government data.
"The (repatriation) process is streamlined for Bangladesh and Nepal. But now people are coming from other parts and we have no treaties with them," said Mahesh Bhagwat, police chief of Rachakonda district in the southern state of Telangana.
In 2016, there were 33 recorded cases of women trafficked from Bangladesh and 16 from Nepal, according to the government's annual Crime in India report.
In contrast, authorities in 2016 recorded 70 trafficking cases from Thailand and Uzbekistan, which were combined in the report.
Previous reports did not mention victim's nationalities. An official at the National Crime Records Bureau said Thailand and Uzbekistan were named because most of the recorded trafficking cases in 2016 originated in those two countries.
The number of trafficked foreign nationals recorded by authorities was lower in previous years, varying from 36 in 2010 to 13 in 2014.
Data is not yet available for 2017, but authorities said 40 Thai women were rescued from massage parlours acting as fronts for prostitution in Mumbai and Pune in the first half of last year alone.
Another 34 Thai women were were rescued later in 2017 from massage parlours and spas in the Telangana state capital of Hyderabad, Bhagwat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.
Bhagwat's team also rescued an Uzbek woman last year from the sex trade in Hyderabad, the state capital of Telangana. She committed suicide late last month, four months after her repatriation process began, he said.
The embassies of Uzbekistan and Thailand did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
After being informed that a victim of trafficking from their country has been rescued, embassy officials need to verify the person's identity and home address.
Campaigners say this can be difficult as victims sometimes provide false information, because they are afraid that traffickers may hurt them or their families.
"These girls are controlled by traffickers and they are coerced into saying many things. They are deeply indoctrinated," said Sunitha Krishan, co-founder of the anti-trafficking charity Prajwala.
Krishnan said the Uzbek woman who had been sheltering in one of Prajwala's facilities had been carrying forged Indian identity documents when she was rescued, and at first refused to say which country she was really from.
Krishnan urged more countries to make agreements with India to quickly repatriate those rescued from sex trafficking.
Her call may take on more urgency if traffickers continue to cast their nets wider than South Asia - which campaigners say is likely.
The massage parlour industry is booming and many customers prefer fair-skinned women from countries like Thailand and Uzbekistan, said Hasina Kharbhih, founder of the anti-trafficking group Impulse NGO Network.
"The demand for foreign girls is growing in India," she said.