The next day, news arrived that the seven missing girls had been found across the border in Sitamarhi in the Indian state of Bihar, and were in the safe custody of the Indian police. Although the news relieved the children’s families, Bhangaha’s Mayor Sanjib Sah says it is impossible that the girls could have wandered across the border all by themselves, leaving room for an investigation of a human trafficking racket in operation along the porous Nepal-India border.
Earlier in January, the border city of Birgunj witnessed a similar incident. As the Post reported, two sixth-graders did not return home after their weekend tutorial classes. Family members, neighbours and the police looked everywhere for them; but there was no sign of the children anywhere. The boys had crossed the border and reached the Indian city of Patna, more than 200 km away, and after roaming around a bus park the next day, they sought help from the Indian police. The children were reunited with their family the next day.
Thousands of children, more girls than boys, go missing every year in Nepal. In the fiscal year 2017-18, 2,330 children—1,407 girls and 923 boys—went missing from different parts of the country. Cases of missing children in 2018-19 rose to 3,422, with 2,371 girls and 1,051 boys. Last fiscal year, 2,729 children—1,898 girls and 831 boys—went missing. Most of the children who go missing have been found, with an improved success rate of 81 percent last year; but it has not always been the case. Hundreds of children who are never found are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, leaving their families in pain and suffering.
According to government data, as many as 300 children go missing every month, and not a single day goes by without a report of missing children. Officials at the National Centre for Children at Risk say reports of at least four to five children of all age groups are filed daily, and reports spike during the festival season or when families go shopping. Worse, experts who work in combating human trafficking fear that the actual number could be higher since many cases are not even reported. But government officials counter that the actual number could be lower because they do not account for children who are reunited with their families.
The National Report on Trafficking in Persons estimates that some 5,000 children were trafficked in 2018-19. This is an alarming figure, which experts say shows a strong link between missing children and their higher probability of being trafficked. There has been commendable work by various agencies and the Nepal Police in the past decade to combat human trafficking, but as the aftermath of the Gorkha earthquakes showed, children are more vulnerable to human trafficking, sex trade, forced labour and other abuses.
It is imperative that the government urgently address human trafficking and take stronger steps to eliminate it; but without identifying and intervening in the root causes of what enables human trafficking rackets to thrive in Nepal, awareness campaigns and mitigation measures will only ever bring us so far.