Last year, Zainab Begum, a resident of Kalapathar in Hyderabad, made news for she had a harrowing story to tell. Sent to Saudi Arabia with a promise that she would just have to look after a family of four, Zainab was in for a shock. Once there, she was ordered to take care of a family of eight adults and 10 children. When she asked for her salary, she was told that she would be hung from a tree.
Assaulted, tortured and even ‘sold’ to another household there, Zainab attempted to take her own life out of desperation. TNM had reported that even then, she was given no treatment, and made to work as soon as she recovered a little. While she was able to come back home nearly a year later with the help of Embassy officials and a Bangladeshi national, her narrative echoes across a number of Muslim women in Hyderabad’s Old City.
It is not uncommon to come across cases of illegal and fake travel agents trafficking women from Hyderabad to the Gulf countries. The trajectory is similar: a Muslim family in need, decides to send a family member (a woman in most cases) to a Gulf country on the promise that she will have a comfortable life, decent working conditions, and a (questionably) handsome salary.
However, once she reaches the foreign country, the rosy dreams come crashing down. The woman is stripped of her documents, mode of communication, exploited, harassed and/or assaulted. The lucky ones are able to get help and come back home.
The problem is not a new one. So, why does it persist? Why is it that even when victims or their families give details of their offending agents, they walk free, and continue their trafficking racket with impunity?
What are the police doing?
Amjed Ullah Khan of Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT) deals with such cases of trafficking on a daily basis. In his experience, getting a complaint filed is a big deal, and an FIR can take even longer - if at all it is filed by the police that is. “There was a case at Sadar Ghat police station where it took over 2.5 months to issue an FIR against the agent,” he says. “Without the FIR, neither the embassy nor the Ministry of External Affairs can take any action.”
In most cases, even if agents are booked, it is under section 420 of IPC (cheating), instead of human trafficking, which is a non-bailable offence.
To address this, last year, the then Home Minister Nayini Narasimha Reddy and NRI Affairs Minister KT Rama Rao had held a coordination meeting and assured that agents will be taken to task, mandating that they be arrested under the Preventive Detention (PD) Act. The ministers also said that special teams would be formed, and that agents must register themselves with the government if they wish to continue operations.
However, despite the mandate to book agents under the PD Act, it is not really done, Amjed alleges.
Moreover, police often dilly dally, saying that the complaint needs to be filed in the police station under whose jurisdiction the agent operates. “But the agents are smart – they have no office, they operate in one area, pick the family from another, and seal the deal in another. What’s more, everything is done orally. There is no paper trail except the travel documents,” Amjed says. “The problems are there right at the beginning. Since there is no FIR, there is no arrest, and subsequently, no follow up either.”
Jameela Nishat of Shaheen Women’s Resource and Welfare Association has been working to expose the ‘child bride’ sex racket in Telangana. She alleges that many of these agents actually provide financial assistance to political parties at the time of campaigns and polls, which is why parties shield them. Further, the agents are often prominent people in the community or enjoy their support, which gives them more power and influence.
“If the police want to crack down on these agents, they can be rounded up within 24 hours,” Amjed says. “But there is political pressure on the police to not do anything. There is a nexus between politicians and agents who mutually gain from keeping the racket active. The few police officials who want to do something are either silenced or transferred.”
However, a senior police official in Hyderabad, who has worked on trafficking cases in the city denies these claims. “There is no political pressure. The police, in fact, are doing everything that they can. The people’s expectations will always be higher and different. But we are apprehending agents, even holding them under the PD Act. One problem is that we are not supposed to arrest people for offences that have maximum penalty of seven years or less, as per Supreme Court orders,” he says.
The senior official did admit however that there is a lack of willingness among police to crack down on such cases. “If they are willing, then a police official can go to a politician and convince them also,” he says.
Misplaced focus on small fish
While India has over 1,200 registered recruiting agents, these agents often delegate sub-agents in smaller towns and rural areas. Many of them turn rogue and start entrapping people in need with promises of lucrative jobs abroad. While there is a chain of sub-agents and middlemen, the final decision is made by the registered agent only.
Activists on ground, who have been working with victims’ families say that even in the cases where the police does take action against an agent, he or she tends to be the local sub-agent. Jameela explains, “It’s the small fish that get caught. Usually no one climbs up the chain and bigger rogue agents continue functioning.”
A problem that plagues the Muslim community
A majority of the cases that come to light from the city involve victims from the Muslim communities in Old Hyderabad.
“These communities in Hyderabad are not very well off. And they get into debt traps after they take loans from loan sharks. They are never able to pay off the interest, so they are on the lookout for ways to earn quick money,” Jameela observes, “Once I asked an auto driver, who was a sub-agent, why he was doing this knowing that it’s wrong. He told me that no matter how hard he works as an auto driver, he only will get a maximum of Rs 30,000 a month. He gets that amount for finalising one marriage with a sheikh. He said why should he slog for days when he can earn more by doing this.”
The situation is so desperate sometimes, that women are willing to go abroad to work even if they have seen someone in their neighbourhood suffer the repercussions. In one case, Amjed recounts, he got the body of a woman who went to one of the Gulf countries on a khadama (domestic help) visa, and was abused so badly that she died. “The entire neighbourhood was there when we got the body back. And yet, the woman who was her neighbour decided to go when an agent approached her with a lucrative job offer,” he recounts.
These communities are also extremely patriarchal and conservative, Jameela points out. “So, for many of them, selling their daughters in the name of marriage multiple times becomes a norm. It’s like a parallel economy. The women are mostly unskilled. There is no real initiative to train these women in a vocation. If they are financially independent, in whatever small way, they’d be less likely to go to a foreign land,” she says.
Further, there seems to be little help from the government to help these communities, and even survivors when they return. For instance, Iliyas Begum, a woman who was also trafficked to Saudi Arabia, has been unable to walk after her kafeel’s son allegedly pushed her off the second floor, breaking her legs. Speaking to TNM last year, she said that it’s been three years that she’s been unable to walk. “What have the people there given me? I got nothing and instead came back with two broken legs. Even the government here has not helped me,” she had said.
Women also get trapped because they are trafficked by someone they trust, many times a relative, Jameela points out. “They think, it won’t happen with me because the person helping me out is known to me or my family. But once you are in an alien land, none of those things can help,” she says.
What is the government doing?
Meanwhile, former Telangana Minorities Commission Chairman and TRS minister Abid Rasool Khan told TNM that the government was taking stringent action against fake travel agents. He mentioned that there were two special cells looking into labour exploitation and sexual exploitation of girls in the name of marriage respectively. Interestingly, these cells have been around for at least two years.
He further claimed that the number of cases where poor people were being cheated by fake agents were "very less" now - in contrast to what the activists on ground say. In fact, Amjed says he receives about 15 such cases a day, a majority of them khadama.
Khan also denied allegations of a nexus between fake agents and politicians. "What sort of nexus would be there anyway? There is no such thing. And if any leader is found to be colluding with the agents, we will take the strictest action against them," Khan said.