RED ALERT ON human trafficking | Sunday Observer

RED ALERT ON human trafficking

Disentombing the cases of Sri Lankans getting tangled and falling victim to organized human trafficking rings is a highly frustrating endeavour, as we learnt firsthand, recently.

The issue remains well hidden below the surface and what you see is the tip of the iceberg, a senior state official who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Observer.

The Sunday Observer obtained access to the records of the CID and other state agencies overseeing counter human trafficking action and discovered a number of cases originating from different countries such as, the Maldives and Thailand that indeed sufficed to give a clear picture on how bad the situation is and also the heart wrenching plight of the victims, especially, those who ultimately end up as sex slaves.

The first detected case of a Lankan trafficked to Thailand for sex trade was reported recently. Brought to light late last year, this might indicate the prevalence of a vicious trade according to the Thai police.

We shall call her Nimmi (not the true name). Nimmi is the eldest and the only daughter of her family of three siblings. She has two younger brothers. Just 20 years of age, she was not free as any other girl of her age. Burdened by family issues, she found work at a Garment factory close to her house in Gampaha.

After sometime she moves on to work at a tea factory, where she is befriended by a middle aged woman. Young and unsuspecting, Nimmi invites the woman and her husband to her family house. Soon the couple become frequent visitors to her house. They help Nimmi’s financially burdened family with small gifts and win their confidence.

Somewhere in October last year, the husband and wife visit her house with a “proposal in goodwill”. Only they knew that it was a well conceived plan to entrap the girl. She would know later that this plan would turn her entire life upside down.

They ‘reveal’ that the couple planned to go to Dubai but the wife could not make the trip. Hence Nimmi could use the extra ticket if she so wished to visit Dubai. She did not have to think twice, the strangers by then having become part of her family. The girl agreed to accompany the man to Dubai, as the trip was just four days. She got her mother’s approval as well.

The day before the departure date, she spends the night at the couple’s house since the flight was around 6 am the following morning. At the airport another man, a stranger, joins them. Yet, she was too fond of the man she was travelling with to suspect any wrongdoing.

They leave Colombo on a Thai airways flight to arrive at the Svarnabhumi airport a few hours later. The three sit together during the flight to Bangkok. She had no way of knowing that her destination had switched to Thailand from Dubai since the man had obtained the visa for her.

She only paid for the passport, obtained through the one day service. The man and another woman who claimed to be his sister accompanied Nimmi to the Passport Office.

Upon arrival the three take a taxi to a Sri Lankan Motel in Pattaya, a coastal resort city about 100 km from the capital, Bangkok. It is a fact she came to know later. A Sri Lankan man, Raj (not the real name), met the two men and the girl from Sri Lanka at the motel. Later Nimmi is arranged lunch there.

The human traffickers were too impatient to use Nimmi as their latest money spinner. Around the same night she was asked to entertain an unknown man. Earlier, Raj escorted her to a hotel where she tried to comprehend what was happening around her. A potential client signed a book produced by Raj to make the transaction official. She was asked to service three men that night. When the reality finally dawned on her, it was too late.

From that day on, her life became a living hell. She was expected to service not less than 10 men a day. Her handlers would keep a close watch over her while she flag potential clients off the road. She would be either taken to the Lankan restaurant or to a different hotel to entertain these men. The handlers would also solicit customers online and an exclusive online profile was created with her nude pictures for this purpose.

Nimmi realized she had no time for tears. Her handlers would beat her and threaten to kill her if she fell short of the target or refuse to perform to the requirements of her clients.

In public places she did not attempt to escape, for fear of her life. Another reason was that she did not have her passport to return home. It was seized by the husband of the couple whom she trusted to make the visit. The Sri Lankan handlers told Nimmi that they have bribed the Thai police and even if she managed to reach them and report her story she will be put behind bars or returned to them. She was shocked to learn that the wife of the couple also knew the plan to send her to Pattaya as a street sex worker. The woman threatened her on the phone not to speak to the police as they have spent a lot of money to take her to Bangkok for this specific reason.

After living a miserable life as a street sex worker for over a month, Nimmi finally decided to gather up courage and speak to a woman who appeared to be of Indian origin, on the road. Fortunately, the woman took the girl to the nearest police station.

Later, she became the crown witness of a case initiated by the Thai police against a human trafficking ring operated by Sri Lankans. Nimmi , spent her next days at the Kredtrakarn shelter, assisting the Thai authorities to gather up evidence for the case and treating her infections. They arrested the two Sri Lankan men who enslaved the girl, the husband and his friend from the motel. Later her belongings including the passport was recovered from the motel and returned to her. The two men are now serving sentences in Thailand.

A similar case of an underage girl was reported in 2014. The girl was taken to the Maldives on a tourist visa by Sri Lankan men. She was arrested by the Maldivian police and returned to the country through the Lankan mission in Male prompting a CID investigation. The CID had identified five suspects and the case has been referred to the Attorney General’s Department for prosecution.

Despite these gruesome cases, the trafficking of Lankans still remains a mystery to the law enforcement officials here.

The officials from the CID, Immigration Department and the Foreign Employment Bureau said establishing a trafficking case was not easy.

None said they had any evidence of organized rings operating from Sri Lanka.

Yet, Sri Lanka was on the watch list of the US government for human trafficking in 2016. In its latest report -2017 Trafficking in Persons Report - the US State Department upgraded Sri Lanka to tier 2 for the efforts the country made in 2016, to counter the menace.

To merit this upgrade the Government set up Anti trafficking units at the CID, (Anti Human Investigation bureau), the SLBFE (Counter human Trafficking Unit) and the Immigration Department last year.

The Government ratified the Protocol to Prevent and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) on June 15, 2015.

In addition, the Justice Ministry Secretary is chairing a Task Force which has state agencies and NGOs like the IOM taking part in regular discussions on measures to counter the issue.

The last meeting of the Task Force was held on Thursday (Nov 30). The Justice Ministry Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, Consular division heads, the UN division heads, Immigration officials, Foreign Employment Officials and representatives from the Attorney General, Customs, Navy and Police attended the discussions on Thursday.

The ILO spokesperson said the trafficking of humans worldwide happens mainly in smaller groups to avoid suspicion. Based on the numbers, most Sri Lankans are trafficked to Arab States, Malaysia and Singapore.

It says, Sri Lanka could also be a transit point due to open emigration policies. To address this issue the Immigration and Emigration policy is currently being revised with the assistance of the IOM.

According to Thai police the case of Nimmi highlights a much larger issue, or at least the onset of a serious trend of trafficking in Sri Lankans to Thailand. The 2017 US report on Trafficking reveals women being trafficked to the Maldives, Malaysia and Singapore for sex work.

“This will not be the last such case,” the Thai police has warned the Sri Lankan side, pointing out how crucial it is to mete out maximum punishment to suspects who are based in Sri Lanka.

Other than the two Lankans serving jail terms in Thailand, none of those who aided and abetted the crime here have been arrested or penalized so far.