Labor Migration: A Gender-Neutral Lens to Human Trafficking
July 12, 2017
The issue of human trafficking took center stage in the global development discourse with the release of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report on June 27, 2017. The report assesses the progress made by countries worldwide to combat human trafficking and grades them into three tier ratings. Nepal has once again been placed in tier two for the fifth consecutive year—a worthy achievement, particularly for a country plagued with political instability, natural disasters, and low economic growth.
The latest TIP report recognized the positive interventions made by Nepal, including the government’s increasing efforts through a rise in both the number of trafficking investigations and victims identified, and by increasing its budget to provide victim care services to female victims of violence, including trafficking victims.
Just two weeks before the State Department released its report, the government of Nepal launched its own annual National Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, with technical support from The Asia Foundation. For the last five years, the Foundation’s USAID-funded Combating Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) program has been a critical player in working closely with the government to improve systems, policies, and procedures to combat trafficking. Nepal’s national TIP report, now in its fifth year, for the first time provides validated government data on the progress and challenges that the country faces in combatting trafficking. Crucially, the report has also set into motion a process that promotes transparency and accountability surrounding the deepening crisis of human trafficking.
This year, the Nepal TIP report reflected a more comprehensive assessment of different initiatives underway by both state and non-state actors to combat TIP. As the State Department report indicates, the government doubled its budget to provide services for female survivors of gender-based violence and TIP. The government also intensified its efforts to provide pre-departure training to women migrant workers, offering training to 17,269 aspiring women migrants in 2015-1016, along with comprehensive information on climate, socio-cultural norms, and basic legal services available in different destination countries. The government report also recognized the critical role that Nepal’s foreign mission can play in facilitating rescue and repatriation of TIP victims, and increased the amount allocated for victim support and repatriation to Nepal’s foreign missions in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kuwait, Qatar, and South Korea.
However, the report remained silent on the lack of support services and resources available for the thousands of male survivors of TIP, despite acknowledgment that both men and women are falling prey to new forms of trafficking, such as organ trafficking and trafficking for labor. Nepal has seen a 10-fold increase in the number of migrant workers leaving the country to work abroad. An average of 1,500-1,700 people leave the country daily through formal channels as labor migrants, of which approximately 95 percent are men. Today, nearly 3.5 million Nepalis—out of a total population of 27 million—are working and living abroad. These migrants face tremendous challenges throughout their journeys, as they struggle to understand the complex process of migration and its many pitfalls, and to survive the often hazardous conditions they face while working so far from home. Unfortunately, there is no official data that documents the percentage of migrant workers who end up in a trafficked situation after going through formal channels. A proxy indicator would be the number of cases filed in the Department of Foreign Employments and the Foreign Employment Tribunal against recruiting agents and manpower companies for fraud and deception (discussed further down).
Despite many positive steps, the progress in strengthening policy and legal frameworks to enhance the protection of victims and prosecution of traffickers remains weak and limited. For instance, Nepal has yet to ratify the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol of 2000, which makes it more arduous to align national laws with established international victim-centric norms and procedures. Civil society has been strongly advocating for aligning the Human Trafficking and Transportation Control Act (HTTCA) with the Foreign Employment Act to ensure that human trafficking taking place in the guise of foreign employment can be tried under the HTTCA as a criminal offence. Additionally, coherence between the two acts is necessary to establish an expanded common understanding and definition of trafficking so that new and emerging forms of trafficking can be tried under the rightful legal provision. Though the government has taken steps to ratify the UN TIP Protocol, the progress on the alignment of different legal provisions has been slow.
The limitations in the legal and policy frameworks also impact our ability to understand and apply norms and systems to address new and emerging forms of human trafficking. The latest report data reveals that 212 cases of TIP affecting 352 people were lodged with the Nepal Police, and that, not surprisingly, 99.5 percent of the affected population were women and girls. There is no doubt that the existing gender inequalities in the community make women and girls more vulnerable to exploitation, human trafficking, and gender-based violence as certain social and cultural norms undermine their access to information, education, and economic resources. But this visibly gendered nature of the crime needs to be examined more deeply, especially in the context of Nepal.
The Government of Nepal’s Labor Migration for Employment Status Report for 2014-2015 states that “the cases of migrants suffering from abuse, exploitation, and financial distress are frequent and impinge upon their rights and well-being.” The Department of Foreign Employment received 2,679 complaints against individuals and companies related to fraud and malpractice in the labor migration processes, the majority of them filed by men. If examined closely, many of these cases could be legally categorized as TIP and tried under the anti-trafficking legal provisions. However, male survivors usually do not want to be labelled as trafficked victims due to the social stigma attached to it. As a result, instead of filing a trafficking case, they prefer to file a case under the Foreign Employment Act, which is perceived to be a less complicated redressal mechanism that provides quick access to financial compensation from the government and/or the manpower agent for the trauma they have faced, without having to face the social stigma attached to human trafficking. It is important to unpack these cases and examine the applicability of the definition of human trafficking to the exploitation and abuse faced by men and boys in their journeys to better their socio-economic status.
If we are to address new and emerging forms of trafficking more effectively, then we must look at the process of the modern day “people’s movement” through a gender-neutral lens, so that we can identify other, more prevalent forms of abuse and exploitation which are not necessarily sexual in nature, that qualify as human trafficking. There is an urgent need to bring about a wider engagement with all stakeholders to expand the discourse on TIP to be more cognizant of this less visible but widespread form of exploitation taking place in the name of labor migration. It is time to build on the substantive investment we have all made to combat TIP, and expand the definitional and operational ambit of anti-trafficking efforts to create safeguards that support human mobility and strengthen human security.
Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal and Nischala Arjal is a program assistant there. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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