Why Migrants Need More Protection Against Trafficking Amid COVID 

Addressing trafficking requires mitigating damaging aspects of development like development-induced-displacement.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
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Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, famously said “traffickers fish in the stream of migration”. Facing the challenges of dislocation from community and family support, combined with an absence of legal status and socio-economic protection in destination cities and countries, migrant workers are routinely exploited by employers and traffickers.

As newer reports linking COVID-19 and the possible increase in human trafficking in India emerge, it is more urgent than ever to revisit the anti-trafficking response systems existing in our country.

The current migrant crisis has exposed the limitations and perils of combating migrant vulnerability and human trafficking, primarily as law-and-order issues (‘raid-rescue-rehabilitation’ model).

Trafficking cuts across a number of development issues like poverty, economic disparity, gender inequality, social inclusion, and challenges of implementing law and achieving justice.

Thus, addressing trafficking requires mitigating the damaging aspects of development like development-induced-displacement of people and their sustainable livelihoods (acquisition of farming land for development of a factory, for instance), wide economic disparity and feminisation of poverty. Attempts to prevent human trafficking of migrants – who have been rendered more vulnerable than ever by the COVID pandemic – require the coming together of not only a robust anti-trafficking response system, but also governmental and non-governmental development practitioners.

Snapshot
  • As newer reports linking COVID-19 and the possible increase in human trafficking in India emerge, it is more urgent than ever to revisit the anti-trafficking response systems existing in our country.
  • Addressing trafficking requires mitigating the damaging aspects of development like development-induced-displacement of people and their sustainable livelihoods.
  • Grassroots-level NGOs and CBOs are the first responders in source villages and as migrants go back to their villages and face poverty and hunger, these grassroots organisations need more support in terms of resources and funds.
  • It is important that these organisations are included in the decision-making systems.

Identifying Vulnerability

A few of the various preventive measures through which migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking can be reduced are listed below:

  • Identifying vulnerability at origin: The push factors forcing jobless and poor workers to migrate and seek livelihood options outside their places of origin must be carefully listed and addressed at the most basic level of administration. Region-specific indicators of vulnerability need to be developed and/ or referred to arrive at specific areas of concern. These may include identifying and addressing vulnerability indicators like poverty; gender; social and cultural exclusion; educational status; political instability, disaster and conflict; age (children); movement under duress; and demand.

While addressing such vulnerability factors-in source regions, government enacted livelihood policies must be careful that they should dedicatedly and carefully address the local issues of social exclusion that have systemically kept some communities out of the benefits from traditional sources of livelihoods. It is also important that government’s policies do not increase the existing vulnerabilities of migrants. It is particularly seen in some anti-trafficking measures which end up criminalising some communities as they seek their traditional livelihoods (sex workers, for instance).

Why Children Are Dropping Out Of Online Lessons & School

  • Focus on education: As schools close and classes take a virtual route, more and more children are finding it difficult to access education due to an absence of smart phones and laptops at their homes. Girls, in particular, tend to be absent from their virtual classes due to restrictions by their families (on accessing mobiles phones). As poverty increases among households, children will find it difficult to continue schooling and may have to drop out and share the economic burden of their families. This calls for a revamping of digital infrastructure, especially at the disadvantaged household and village-level. The education department should also ensure that once the schools reopen, they prepare a list of children who have dropped out. Local NGOs working on education may be called to contact such dropouts and counsel the families on the dangers of child labour and also connect them with the required services available.
  • Strengthening rural livelihoods through MGNREGS: Being one of the biggest sources of livelihood activities for rural landless labourers, it has been providing work to an average of 50-60 million households every year. Considering the reach of the scheme, it is advisable that the scheme is linked with other industries that will allow for increased employment through backward and forward linkages. Also, considering that labourers don’t get paid for months and get much less number of days of work than they are entitled to, panchayat, block and district-level periodic monitoring and evaluation must be essential.

Is There A Legal Framework?

  • Legal Framework: Despite the existence of Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, it is rather surprising that the government was caught unaware of the extent and conditions of migrant workers in the country. The Act aims at preventing the exploitation of inter-state migrants by contractors, and entitles them to insurance in case of accident or death at workplace, access to health care as well as prescribed minimum wages by requiring all establishments hiring inter-state migrants to be registered, and contractors who recruit such workmen be licensed. However, migrants are largely unaware of this act with almost no state having implemented this Act properly. It is therefore advised that agencies like District Legal Services Authorities and labour department are engaged in increasing awareness about the Act through panchayat so that labourers’ rights are protected on migration. Under the Act, some states have already provided for panchayats to register people migrating out of the village and it is suggested that if it is done, identifying and assisting migrants in need will be possible.

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 also fails to address many aspects of labour exploitation and seems to be unaware of the changing forms of labour exploitation in the present context of globalisation. The lapsed bill needs to be amended as per the recommendations from the experts and passed urgently.

Strengthen Social Security & Grassroots Organisation

  • Strengthening child protection mechanisms at ground level: Integrated Child Protection Scheme, District Child Protection Units, Special Juvenile Police Units, and Village Child Protection Committees are some agencies responsible for protecting children at village, block and district levels. All of these face challenges of funds and resources from the government and as more and more children come back to villages, there is a need to strengthen these agencies with speedy disposal of funds.
  • Strengthen grassroots organisations: Grassroots-level NGOs and CBOs are the first responders in source villages and as migrants go back to their villages and face poverty and hunger, these grassroots organisations need more support in terms of resources and funds. It is important that these organisations are included in the decision-making systems,and that their particular concerns arising from immediate challenges are heard and addressed.
  • Strengthening social security: Migrants are falling through the gaps in the existing social security net. While the impact of 'Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan' announced by the Prime Minister of India to provide income support to returnee migrant labourers is yet to be seen, what can be done in the interim is to strengthen the existing social security measures available in the country for the poor. Their loopholes and ways to mitigate them are already recorded by development researchers. Reactionary announcements regarding expanding the scope of PDS, Jan Dhan Yojana, PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, PM kisan Yojana, Deen Dayal National Livelihood Mission, among others can help poor migrants cope with a sudden loss of income if these schemes are implemented with careful processes and noble intentions.

(Dr Neha Nimble is a Pune-based independent researcher, working on a study on impact of COVID-19 on female domestic workers. After completing my PhD from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, I worked as a part of the institute’s National Research Study on Human Trafficking in India. My research and interest areas include gender, intersectionality, livelihoods and human trafficking. She can be contacted on at: nehanimble87@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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