Does the fear of a child trafficking mafia in Kerala have any basis?

Missing children of Kerala Busting myths and rumoursImage for representation.
Delve Missing Persons Wednesday, May 02, 2018 - 14:36

There is a fear that grips Kerala, returning every once in a while. The possibility of a child kidnapping mafia rears its head every time something odd happens. Sometimes, it’s over black stickers on window panes of residents, sometimes, it’s strange markings with chalk.

After a recent resurgence of this fear, window glass merchants assured people that black stickers were pasted on glass to protect it from damage. However, even this explanation couldn’t calm the people, who immediately called the police.

And although the Kerala police and other authorities have ruled out the rumours surrounding these incidents, the fear perists: Is a mafia identifying vulnerable households, and marking them out to then abduct children?

TNM decided to find out by tracking the cases of missing children in Kerala. In the course of it, we found some heartbreaking and unsolved cases of children under the age of 10 who have been missing for several years. However, these cases seem to be the exception, not the rule.

Missing cases

“I can never forget that day,” says Azad Sheikh, recalling the day his seven-year-old son went missing. “I reached home, and asked my daughter where he was. She said he went out to a shop nearby. But he did not return,” Azad says.

This was in January 2015. Insadul, who was studying in Class 2 at Thengottu Government School in Kakkanad of Ernakulam district, has not been found in all these years. “On many occasions, we got information that he was seen in Bengaluru, Mumbai etc. But it was never him,” Azad says.

“In these three years, there hasn’t been a single day when his mother has not thought about him and cried,” the father adds.

The family hails from Muzaffarnagar in West Bengal, but Insadul was born and brought up in Kerala. “We came to Kerala 10 years ago. My son knows Malayalam very well, he even knew how to write in the language. He loved his school and friends,” Azad recalls.

The police inquiry in the case reached nowhere. Azad even went to his hometown in Bengal to search for his son and file a complaint.

Locals in Kakkanad even formed an action committee to search for Insadul. “Along with Insadul, a friend of Azad’s was also missing. The police were trying to find him, too, but they did not get any leads,” says Jaleel MA, a member of the action committee.

“Each phone call they receive is a ray of hope for this family, but so far, it has all ended in grief,” Jaleel says.

Another tragic missing case is that of Diya Fathima, who was 18 months old when she went missing in 2014. Diya was sitting on the veranda of her house in Iritty of Kannur district on an August day, when she suddenly disappeared.

“She was sitting there and drinking tea,” her mother, Fathimah recalls. “I just went inside for a few minutes, but when I returned, she was not there. The glass from which she was drinking was kept on top of the parapet – she could never have reached that height to keep the glass. She had just learned to walk, and she could not have gone out by herself,” Fathimah bursts out crying as she explains.

Initially, the police suspected that Diya might have fallen into a stream near the house, but they had nothing to substantiate their suspicion. Her parents, meanwhile, stress that she could never have been able to walk till the stream – the child was just learning to walk and she couldn’t have gone that far.

Later, in 2016, a CCTV footage from Angamaly of a woman and a child had raised suspicion: Was that Diya?

“The police did not show us the visuals,” says Diya’s father Suhail. “Later, when we approached the High Court seeking a proper inquiry into my daughter’s missing case, the court asked us about the visuals. That’s when we came to know of it. I have strong suspicion that it was Diya in the video. But the police were not able to find her,” Suhai says.

However, there are several other cases where children who go missing are found soon after. In March 2017, a newborn went missing from a hospital in Pathanamthitta, and the police were quick to act. They found the baby within a day, and arrested the kidnappers.

Does a child trafficking mafia exist in Kerala?

According to the Kerala Crime Records Bureau, 504 children were abducted or kidnapped in the state in the last three years. Most of them are in the age group of 13 to 18.

But as per data given by the police department, 1774 children went missing in Kerala in 2017, and of them, 1725 were rescued by the police. Forty nine could not be traced.

In the last five years, over 7,285 children have gone missing in the state, and the recovery rate has also been consistently high, the police say. In 88% of such cases, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the children were found. Between 2011 and 2018, the police say, they have not been able to trace 168 children who went missing.

Manoj Abraham, Inspector General (IG), Thiruvananthapuram range, tells TNM that there is no possibility of a begging or kidnapping mafia in Kerala. “We can assure you that there is no kidnapping mafia in the state. Children under the age of 10 go missing very rarely. There are a few cases of course, but these are exceptions. In most cases, minors who go missing are adolescents,” he says.

Neither the police nor any child protection agency has the age-wise data of missing children. But the IG says that Kerala has the highest recovery rate in the country because most of the children who go missing are in the age group of 14 to 18, and they leave home by themselves. “In missing cases, police are very quick to act. Since the kids are older, it is easy to find them. In some cases, they come back by themselves. In some states, the police or the family might not take adolescent missing cases seriously, but here it’s different,” the officer says.

In a majority of the cases, the reasons for the children going missing are love affairs, family issues, or pressure in education, he says.

Of the 179 kidnapping cases in 2017, the IG says, most are adolescents. “Girls who run away with lovers are also categorised here after parents file complaints. So we cannot actually go by these numbers,” he added.

“When this whole fear of child trafficking was spread in the state last month, there was this message spreading in social media groups that about 30 child kidnapping cases were registered in one month. We enquired about all of them in detail, and we found that 29 among them were fake cases. And in one case, there was suspicion of a kidnapping. So, these mafia stories are exaggerations,” says Thiruvananthapuram Child Protection Officer, KK Subair.

He also added that a lot of kids are being trafficked to Kerala from other states, and that they have sent back 172 children to their own states in the last few years.

Job Zachariah, chief of UNICEF State office for Tamil Nadu and Kerala, also rejects the possibility of a child trafficking mafia. He says that most of the missing cases in Kerala are where children run away themselves. “But it is also important that we stress more on non-recovered kids. Though the number is not big, for their families the loss is huge,” he says.

He also says that recovery depends on the immediate action within one hour of the child going missing. “It is the golden hour. Police should be informed and they should act immediately within an hour of the child going missing,” he says.

But for parents of children like Insadul and Diya, police don’t have any answers. The rape and murder of a 7-year-old in Kollam district in September 2017 also adds to the fear in the state. She was missing for a day and found dead in a plantation the next morning.

So while Kerala’s missing cases may not have a pattern, or a mafia behind them, that is no reason to stop demanding quick action and accountability from the police on every case of a missing child.

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