COLUMN: From Coquitlam to Kailali: migrants & trafficking

My journey from Kathmandu to Kailali begins with Tika. My landlady dips her finger into a pile of red powder and touches it to my forehand. A bit of local flora is tucked behind my ear and she offers me three coins. I drop them into a metal jug filled with water beside a lit candle.

I don’t claim to understand the nuances of the ritual but the objective is clear: luck and protection.

I have left dusty, chaotic Kathmandu for the western Terai region. Located close to India’s open border, the Terai is rife with migrant exploitation and human trafficking.

How are human trafficking and migration connected? Trafficking can occur within the process of legal or illegal migration. A migrant may willingly accept work in a new city or country, only to be trafficked into an exploitative situation they are unable to control. Another migrant might move to a new location in search of work. Without the safety of a social network, they are targeted by traffickers who capitalize on the migrant’s isolation and vulnerability.

If a migrant is abused or deprived of wages, does that mean that they are a victim of human trafficking? Not necessarily. While both exploitation and human trafficking come down to the violation of a person’s fundamental rights, human trafficking is distinct in that the trafficked person, by coercion or force, is unable to leave the exploitative situation.

Previously, organizations focused primarily on trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. The message to girls and young women was: “Stay home, where it’s safe.” But depriving women of the right to mobility not only reinforces patriarchal norms but also devalues personal choice and freedom.

As a Canadian intern with Human Rights Internet, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, my focus is on human rights. How can human trafficking be prevented within a human rights framework? One approach is to disseminate information on safe migration.

Does this strategy work? According to the Women Development Officer of Kailali, while safe migration strategies can help decrease the risk of exploitation and trafficking to migrants, those who are the most vulnerable are unlikely to take the time to obtain the permits and documents necessary for legal migration, or to investigate the companies and countries where they hope to work.

Factors that increase vulnerability for women include extreme poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, caste- and gender-based discrimination, and domestic violence. This points to the need for a holistic approach that addresses sustainable livelihoods, human rights, education and gender equality as well as safe migration.

The need for an integrated approach was further enforced when I spoke with a Nepali woman who had previously migrated to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for employment as a domestic worker. Although she initially migrated willingly, her employer, who continually sexually harassed her, refused to pay her and held her against her will.

She returned home to Nepal two years ago and now endures domestic violence. (In addition, her son has accused her of witchcraft, a severe allegation in the western Terai, where “witches” are subjected to physical violence, even murder.)

When I asked her if she had attempted to exact criminal justice on the employers who exploited her, she explained (through a translator): “I did not try. Within my community, I have been tortured so much. How can I get justice for not getting paid in a foreign country?”

B.C. receives a high influx of immigrants each year; unfortunately, it is also a destination point for human trafficking. One reason I am especially proud to be from the Metro Vancouver is that we strive to provide new immigrants with the information, services and support they need as newcomers. If we can expand these support systems to target trafficked persons and persons at risk of being trafficked, we have the potential to tackle some of the conditions that make migrants everywhere vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

Tanya Lee, 26, grew up in Coquitlam, where she attended Hillcrest middle school and Centennial secondary, and where her family still lives. She’s contributing a column to The Tri-City News about her work with a human rights NGO and maintaining a blog at goneadventurin.wordpress.com



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