Use digital technology to fight cross-border trafficking in South Asia

It is in India’s interest that a functional digital cross-border collaboration platform exists between India, Nepal and Bangladesh to facilitate safe and early repatriation of victims of cross border trafficking.

One of the teams of children against trafficking holding a meeting in the village in Sandeshkhali, South 24 parganas in February 2017. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT PHOTO)

The migration and trafficking of tens of thousands of children and women from Bangladesh and Nepal into India has long been a serious concern. Even though the three countries are signatories to international conventions and bound by domestic laws to combat trafficking, the problem persists. While prevention and rescue are crucial in the battle against one of the most heinous crimes against humanity with significant social and economic undertones, it is the repatriation of rescued victims that has emerged as the biggest challenge. For most of the rescued victims, relocation to their country of origin is the ultimate rehabilitation.

The current process of the repatriation from India to Bangladesh is complicated and time-consuming. It includes several state and non-state actors and a multitude of processes and approvals. As per the Government of India’s standard operating procedure (SOP), the process of the repatriation from India to Bangladesh should take about 21 weeks but in actual terms it is much more. Following the visit of the Indian prime minister to Bangladesh, a rescue, repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration taskforce has been set up between the two countries to oversee and coordinate the process of repatriation. However, greater attention is required to strengthen the institution’s response.

The repatriation process between India and Nepal is comparatively less complicated but it does not follow a systematic approach. There is no scope of tracking a case hence it is very difficult to follow up and expedite the process. Moreover, it is not regulated by an SOP or directive and remains a subjective process whose efficiency is contingent upon the stakeholders involved.

Then there are challenges in the implementation of existing anti-trafficking activities. For example, prevention and combating activities are scattered and lack effective implementation. There is no concept of notifications to flag delays, no centralised space to store documents, no transparency in the progress of a case and no database of vulnerable communities and households. To compound the problem, the interaction between multiple actors involved in repatriation on both sides of the border are driven by personal efforts and traditional modes of communication such as phones, emails and hard copies. This often leads to delays, and in many cases, duplication of effort and waste of precious resources. On numerous occasions, there have been avoidable delays in completing formalities, as a result of which rescued victims were made to stay in shelter homes for months and even years. Continuity in care and services is also affected since there is no provision to share records of survivors across the borders. The above gaps and challenges renders the return of survivors to their home country an inefficient and complex process.

To overcome these challenges, countries need to adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach that enhances barriers and prevents trafficking, addresses vulnerability and improves existing anti-trafficking operations. In recent years, countries have started to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) based mechanisms, but these require to be scaled up. In India, for example, the National Informatics Centre (NIC) entrusted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) has developed a national portal called ‘TrackChild’ that is engaged in the rescue of missing children but only in a domestic trafficking context. Then there are other portals like ‘Khoya Paya’ (lost and found), an initiative by the Ministry of Home Affairs, to address trafficking and ‘ChildLine (1098)’ that provides emergency response and long-term care to children at risk. The latter is highly resource-dependent and requires setting up of several booths at multiple locations followed by a rehabilitation plan with the concerned authorities. It is for this reason that a functional digital cross-border collaboration platform between the three countries is the need of the hour.

According to a system requirement need assessment study conducted by NGOs, it is imperative, first, to create a technology-based collaboration through a Repatriation Information Management System (RIMS) in order to bring all anti-trafficking stakeholders together for better coordination of efforts throughout the continuum of trafficking, i.e. prevention, protection, trafficking, transit, rescue, repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration. In order to develop such a system, there is a need for an integrated online and real-time platform that can update and maintain vulnerable community databases, track trafficked survivors, facilitate awareness campaigns, promote capacity building training, home verification and support protection and prevention initiatives to address re-trafficking.

Second, the 1098 helpline number should be synchronised across the three countries to become a dedicated child helpline number. This would increase its visibility and recall across the region and aid prompt, preventive and proactive action.

Third, a centralised online-based repatriation case management system should be developed, which can facilitate and reduce time consumed in the repatriation process.

Last, a unified system should be created to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors through a service provider database or directory that can coordinate the responsibility of different stakeholders, follow up on the status of trafficking survivors and maintain records of repatriated victims.

The fundamental principle of such a platform is not to compete with the work of the state or non-state actors, but rather, to ensure the system runs efficiently. Trafficking must be addressed smartly if not eliminated completely, hence it is vital that governments adopt modern, dynamic, accessible and scalable tools to address this critical issue together.

- By Bhagyashri Dengle, Executive Director, Plan India

Published in The Hindustan Times