On Christmas night, 25 years ago, over 280 persons died in the icy waters of the Sicilian coast when their boat broke up in the Mediterranean. This gruesome incident has come to be known as the Malta Boat Tragedy. As many as 170 of those who perished that night were Indians, mainly from Punjab. They were part of a group of over 500 persons, from different countries, who were brought by human traffickers to Alexandria in Egypt with the object of smuggling them into Italy. A week after the tragedy, Sicilian fishermen began to catch human remains in their fishing nets but decided to remain silent out of fear that their occupation may be adversely impacted. One of them, however, could not overlook what had happened and informed an Italian journalist who brought the horrendous incident to public attention.
There is a need for greater vigilance on the activities of human traffickers, especially in areas from where such migration traditionally occurs.
In 1997, the CBI began investigations in the matter and registered a case against 27 persons, some of whom have died by now. The case was taken to court. After 25 years, it has not made sufficient progress and the human traffickers in India who were responsible to take the victims, to what was ultimately their death, have escaped justice. At the same time, the families of the victims have had to endure the pain of the long wait, one with no end in sight. It is unlikely that their suffering will end anytime soon, for such is the state of the Indian criminal justice system.
As much as this tragedy is heart wrenching, what is chilling is that thousands of men and women from Punjab and elsewhere in India continue to fall prey to human traffickers, spend large sums of money, risk life and limb, to become part of what is euphemistically known as ‘irregular migration’ to foreign lands, principally to Europe and the US, but also to Southeast Asia. Social and economic factors and dreams of the good life abroad are drivers for the youth. Waiting to exploit them are the traffickers who are often part of organised criminal networks with tentacles spreading across countries. The government attempts to control this illegal ‘trade’, but its efforts have met with only partial success.
Irregular migration is not confined to India. It takes place from other countries of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. The motivations and drivers are the same. Since the Malta tragedy, numerous boats carrying irregular migrants have sank in voyages from the North African coast to Southern Europe. The UN estimates that 1,600 people have died or gone missing while attempting the crossing this year itself. The deadliest year was 2015 when 5,000 are believed to have perished in attempted Mediterranean crossings.
While irregular migration is bad enough, what is worse is the other and more vicious forms of trafficking, where those who are trafficked are mercilessly exploited. These forms of exploitation include forcing women and girls into the sex industry and coercing men and women into forced labour. Ghady Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes, which is the main UN organisation with the mandate to assist member states to combat drugs and transnational crimes, including human trafficking, noted in the organisation’s 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons: ‘Although found in every country and every region, trafficking in persons remains a hidden crime, with perpetrators operating in the dark corners of the Internet and the underbelly of the global economy to entrap victims for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation.’
The situation is worse in underdeveloped countries than in the advanced world, for poverty makes it far easier to entrap what for human traffickers are only prey. This is particularly so for children used for labour. The UNODC reports notes: ‘In Sub-Saharan Africa, children have been trafficked to work in plantations, in mines and quarries, on farms, as vendors in markets and on the streets. In South Asia, children as young as 12 have been trafficked to work in brick kilns, hotels and garment industry and agriculture. Child trafficking for forced labour has also been reported on South American plantations.’ What the report states about South Asia is visible in Indian cities and also in the rural area. The sad fact though is that it hardly registers on our consciousness, leave alone our individual or collective conscience. This is notwithstanding the fine work being done by some NGOs in seeking to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked children.
Conflicts lead to an increase in phenomena associated with child trafficking. This is illustrated by current reports that the extreme economic distress in Afghanistan because of famine and a collapsing economy consequent to the Taliban takeover is leading some of the poor to sell their infant and young children. These children are ruthlessly exploited for forced labour and sex, sometimes with the connivance of the police. What is true of the approaches of the law enforcement personnel in Afghanistan towards child trafficking is equally true of their counterparts in many parts of the world towards trafficked young women who are pushed into prostitution.
The economic ravages brought about by Covid-19 are expected to increase irregular migration. The UNODC report opines: ‘As with previous economic crisis, the sharp increase in unemployment rates brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to lead to trafficking in persons….’ The organisation believes that job-seekers from the most adversely impacted countries will be willing to take greater risks to get to the advanced countries and those which are witnessing faster recovery rates. This will make traffickers more active. There is therefore need for greater vigilance by the authorities on the activities of traffickers, especially in areas from where irregular migration traditionally occurs.