Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nepal earthquakes leave bitter legacy as children become quarry for traffickers

 Residents of Barkobot, in Sindhupalchowk district, Nepal, walk through the remains of their earthquake-devastated village. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

When the morning lessons are over in the low, colourful classrooms of the child transit centre in Sindhupalchowk, its 28 residents pass the time playing football and hopscotch, or chatting under the shade of trees.

In the rare moments when the laughter and shouting subside and the valley falls silent, some of the young boys reach up to clasp the hands of the older girls.

Among the latter is 13-year-old Pharbati. In May, a few weeks after the earthquake that killed her mother, a Chinese man arrived in her village with a proposition for her grandmother: how would she feel if he took Pharbati and her two younger brothers to Kathmandu to resume their education?

The children’s father had died some time before the earthquake struck, leaving their grandmother to make the decision. Perhaps feeling the stranger was the orphans’ best chance, she told the children to go.

Soon afterwards Pharbati and her two younger brothers were in a car with some Chinese men and a Nepalese driver, leaving their home district for the capital, a few hours’ drive away.

“My grandmother just ordered us to go,” she says. “I felt happy because I thought I was going to study in Kathmandu and I trusted the Chinese people.”

Once in Kathmandu, Pharbati was separated from her brothers and taken not to a school but to a hotel, where she stayed with a Chinese woman for four days before locals in the capital spotted her in the company of foreigners and called the government’s anti-trafficking hotline.

After a week in a rescue home in the city, Pharbati was brought to the transit centre in Sindhupalchowk, where she and her brothers have been ever since.

“I’m happy here but I miss my home and I want to go back,” she says. “But I can’t go back because my grandmother says there’s no money to support us.”


Pharbati is among the luckier ones. Although the children at the transit centre are now safe, fed, clothed and studying again, two of the girls were nearly tricked into going with traffickers by their father, and another was raped before she was rescued.

Their stories are testament to one of the quieter, but equally pernicious, legacies of the quake: the emotional and financial disintegration of some families.

With one or both parents dead and food and money scarce, some children are being taken to transit centres in the hope that they will fare better there. Others are simply cut loose by relatives and end up living on the streets, where they soon become quarry for the traffickers.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal at lunchtime on 25 April killed almost 9,000 people and left millions in need of aid. It was followed, 17 days later, by a 7.3 magnitude quake that disrupted the recovery operation and plunged the country back into panic.

As well as devastating entire towns and villages, the quakes brought fears of a surge in people trafficking in the poor, rural areas that were worst affected.

According to estimates, between 12,000 and 15,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal each year, with the majority ending up in Indian brothels. Many others are trafficked to orphanages in the capital that exist to snare the sympathies of well-intentioned foreigners and separate them from their money.

In Sindhupalchowk – a district long prone to the trafficking of women and children – the earthquake killed more than 4,000 people and completely destroyed at least 80,000 homes.

“In a less secure environment, such as after an earthquake, there is a risk that trafficking of children and women will increase,” says Radha Gurung, of Unicef Nepal.

“Specifically, children who have been separated from their families – either as a direct result of the earthquake, or because families feel they can no longer care for their children – are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.”

The problem, says Gurung, is that the numbers are hard to pin down. Data on trafficking was scarce before the earthquake, with many cases going unreported, and there is no comprehensive recording system in place.

Add to that the fact the government has stepped up its anti-trafficking efforts since the quake – using media campaigns and increased checkpoints on main roads and at the airport to tackle the problem – and it’s hard to know whether the number of people being trafficked has risen over the past six months, or whether the authorities are just getting better at finding them.

All Unicef can say for certain, according to Gurung, is that between April’s quake and the end of September, its partners intercepted 793 people who were at risk of trafficking at Nepal’s border with India. More than half of them – 455 – were women and girls.

Others, however, fear the numbers are on the rise.

Kumar Bhandari, World Vision’s child protection co-ordinator for Sindhupalchowk, says local authorities rescued 70 children at checkpoints between the first earthquake and the end of September. The total number of children rescued from trafficking in Sindhupalchowk last year was 30.

“The number of children being trafficked has increased,” he says. “The 70 children who were rescued at checkpoints were trafficked for different purposes. Some were taken for child labour, some for sexual abuse.”

Although World Vision has been working to help children deal with the psycho-social problems caused by the quake through the provision of child-friendly spaces and temporary learning centres, some are so traumatised that the charity refers them to specialists.

One of those charged with protecting the most vulnerable victims is Bal Krishna Basnet, whose office in Chautara, the administrative capital of Sindhupalchowk, sits close to a a football pitch that is still home to a huddle of aid agency tents.

As the district child rights officer, Basnet has been busy since the quake.

“We’ve established three checkpoints on the way to Kathmandu and we’ve launched media and leaflet campaigns,” he says.

“We are telling people about the dangers of traffickers and letting them know that their children can be used and exploited for prostitution and organ theft. We tell them that they need to be careful and ring us if they see suspicious people.”

By his reckoning, another 25 trafficked children have been rescued elsewhere across the area, bringing the total to about 100. But whatever the numbers, Basnet insists he is doing what he can.

“Not every case will be a success, but I will always try for the best result. The outcome is dependent on the court, but if I can stop one child being trafficked, that’s a result for me.”

Safalta Bhandari, a slight but confident 17-year-old from Sindhupalchowk, is taking matters into her own hands.

From Radio Sindhu’s makeshift studio in a tent overlooking the hilly streets of Chautara, the young journalist broadcasts a weekly call to arms.

Bhandari, who dropped her schoolbooks and ran out of her house just before it collapsed during the first earthquake, feels the authorities need to do more to tackle trafficking.

“The rate of child trafficking in Sindhupalchowk is very high compared with other districts, and the government must stop it,” she says.

“When families become poorer, the chances of child trafficking are higher, so the government needs to act and the traffickers have to be punished strictly.”

Despite the rubble that still litters its outskirts and the white tents of the World Food Programme camp perched on a hillside, Chautara is slowly returning to normal.

The town’s taller buildings, which had moved from their shallow foundations during the quakes and settled at menacing angles in the following weeks, have been torn down; dogs and children play in its streets during the day and men gather in its shops to drink and talk at night.

In the valleys across Sindhupalchowk, though, shelter remains a temporary affair. Bricks and concrete lumps disgorged by the tremors weigh down the corrugated metal roofs of shacks and brightly coloured tarpaulins still dot the terraces of acid-green rice plants that climb the steep hills.

As they wait for the promised government help to materialise, some communities have cleared their own villages using NGO cash-for-work programmes that encourage people and families to stay together rather than migrate to the capital in search of jobs.

Others are taking more original approaches, setting up impromptu tollbooths and charging all vehicles – even those belonging to aid agencies – to use their roads. The levy, they claim, will go on reconstruction.

In Kathmandu, evidence of the quake is disappearing fast. The hundreds of homeless families who camped out at Tundikhel, a military parade ground in the centre of the city, have moved on. The military transport planes and helicopters have disappeared from the apron of Tribhuvan airport, their grey hulks replaced with white of commercial airliners. And off-duty US marines no longer haunt the bar of the Kathmandu Radisson.

How long it will take Nepal to rebuild is harder to gauge. In June, the country’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, vowed that the government would “leave no stone unturned in ensuring that the support reaches the intended beneficiaries”. But four months on, it has yet to spend any of the $4.1bn (£2.7bn) promised by foreign governments and donor agencies for reconstruction.

The weeks following the quakes have brought monsoon rains, crippling fuel shortages, protests against Nepal’s controversial and long-awaited new constitution, and even a new prime minister. What they have not brought is a swift reconstruction programme.

Professor Govind Raj Pokharel, the CEO-designate of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), estimates, a little wearily, that the rebuilding effort is at least two months behind schedule.

“Because of not having proper attention from political parties and the bureaucracies, real reconstruction in the field is not happening,” he says.

“Due to the focus on constitution drafting and the political issue management and also government bureaucracies thinking that the reconstruction process will not really start until after the monsoon and the festival [period], things are being delayed.”

Pokharel does see some signs of action, though: new schools and hospitals are being planned and structural codes revised to ensure that the buildings of the future will be better able to withstand seismic shocks than their ruined predecessors.

“This is the right time to become more resilient by integrating many norms and standards and rules and regulations so that whatever physical infrastructures are built, they will have aspects of earthquake resilience,” he says.

But six months on and in the absence of both reconstruction and the promised government funds to help build or rebuild homes, Nepal remains stranded in a post-quake limbo.

For Pharbati and her brothers, too, the uncertainty lingers. As they wait to learn when, or if, they will return home, Pharbati studies, tends to her siblings and dreams of a future as a teacher – a future that feels, for the moment at least, just as precarious as her present.

In the meantime, Pharbati will see what her grandmother says and carry on doing what she can to fill the void left by the mother’s death six months ago.

“I love my brothers and I look after them by washing their clothes and doing their dishes,” she says. “I feel like my family is here now.”

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