Ugandan Woman’s Escape From Sex Racket In Delhi Exposes Ongoing Human Trafficking From Africa

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2021 which was to be tabled in this year's Monsoon session of the Lok Sabha remains yet to be passed. It is aimed at countering and preventing human trafficking, and ensuring prosecution of offenders.

Human Trafficking
Image used for Representational purposes (Image: PTI)

New Delhi: Cases of transregional trafficking from African countries like Uganda and Nigeria are emerging in India’s capital Delhi, non-governmental organisations working against human trafficking have said. Yet, Delhi Police officials do not support the statement, the prime reason being, there isn’t data to back it.

But this year itself, according to one FIR accessed and case information by rescuers and a human rights lawyer, we could find at least five African women rescued from trafficking and forced prostitution. The most recent case was of a Ugandan woman who fled her captors and was rescued on August 11.

Along with the sexual exploitation, there were other commonalities in the cases. All the women trafficked were promised jobs in the city. Once they reached India, their passports were taken by the trafficker. And they were informed of the alleged debt they had raked up – charges incurred during documentation and travel – which would have to be paid off by sex work.

India Ahead contacted Deputy Head of Mission at Uganda High Commission in Delhi, Margaret Kyogire, whose response is awaited.

Slow Police Action

In the latest case, India Ahead spoke to the survivor, *Rachel, a little over a week after she had escaped from her captors. She says she still spends sleepless nights, crying.

Nirmala B Walter from Manobal NGO, who rescues victims of human trafficking, was instrumental in saving *Rachel. She says that during one of the discussions on the plan for rescue, *Rachel had told her, “I don’t want to die in India…”

But how did 25-year-old *Rachel reach India? The journey began from her home in Uganda, where she was contacted by an old friend from high school, telling her about a job opportunity of working at a store in Delhi. “I was excited to change my life and support my family,” she says.

The high school friend, who according to *Rachel is based in Qatar, got her in touch with a woman named Jennifer, a fellow Ugandan. Jennifer then went on to get her a passport and false papers required for a visa.

Eventually, *Rachel reached Delhi on July 17 this year, and was met by Jennifer who took her to Uttam Nagar. There, she tells us, her passport was taken. “She (Jennifer) told me I would have to sleep with men, and pay back Rs 6 lakh. She took my photos and then put my phone number (a Delhi sim card) and address on several apps,” she said. These included messaging service platform WhatsApp and dating apps like “Hi5, Badoo, Mingle”.

Her friend, *Rachel says, would have been in on the plan and possibly does the same work in Qatar. “When I contacted her after reaching, she mocked me and asked me to do as I was told.”

Two days later she was taken to Greater Noida and left with Natasha, also a Ugandan. Any resistance was met with threats. *Rachel says Natasha saw to it that her phone was kept on and available for 23 hours a day, allowing just an hour’s rest and one meal a day. The men all came to the Greater Noida flat, any money made, directly went to Natasha.

*Rachel eventually managed to get in touch with some people back home who then contacted an NGO in India which finally came to the notice of Nirmala. After much discussion, on August 11 *Rachel found a client who was ready to pay a big amount to meet her at a hotel in Safdarjung enclave.

The two captors were happy with the money they would make and allowed her out – the first time for *Rachel since reaching India. She met with Nirmala and her team, who took her straight to the Safdarjung Police station to file a first information report (FIR) against the traffickers.

India Ahead’s effort to get information on this case through the DCP of South West district and ACP did not yield any results.

The rescue team says police officers present at the station were reluctant to file an FIR. Till now, according to the rescuers, no FIR has been lodged. It wasn’t until a couple hours after midnight on August 12 that the Delhi police decided to leave for Greater Noida police station.

While the flat was raided and *Rachel’s passport recovered, Natasha who was present at the time was let off. No action has yet been taken against Jennifer who lives in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar – address to her home was provided by the survivor.

DCP, Crime Branch, Vichitra Veer says the case in question is not with the Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) of Crime Branch as of now.

A study by Sanjog and Tafteesh – anti-trafficking organisations – on the status of AHTUs in India (2010-2019) says in Delhi “somehow” the units “have very low caseloads, in spite of reports of human trafficking around Delhi, with the exact cause requiring further research.”

The report does go on to give one positive that “the functioning of AHTUs in New Delhi was opined to be efficient and well-Investigated for the cases they have with them”.

An FIR And Three Rescues

An FIR from January this year registered at Tilak Nagar police station speaks of crimes committed against a Nigerian woman, Sienna*, who was “forced into prostitution, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and wrongfully confiding me by taking away my passport.” (sic)

But she was not the only one, her rescue which happened after she contacted an NGO, which then contacted the police, also saw the rescue of two more women.

The FIR says Sienna connected with a woman called Joy Okah through her brother over WhatsApp. She reached Delhi on September 18, 2021, after a promise of “a creative job”. “However, after reaching India, she didn’t get me any job but forced me into prostitution. I resisted and pleaded with her to let me go back to Nigeria because I didn’t come to India for prostitution. She threatened me with death,” the FIR reads, adding she was also told the police would take her to jail.

The trafficker then is alleged to have taken her passport and demand 4.2 million in Nigerian Naira, equivalent to over Rs 7.94 lakh.

We contacted DCP West, where the case pertains to, but have not received a response. ACP, Sub Division Tilak Nagar, told India Ahead that while he was aware of the case of Nigerian woman rescued from human trafficking, he was not aware of the case development. He did however say that there were “2-3 cases in this regard”. On being asked further whether incidents have taken place after January, he said he didn’t know and to speak to the SHO. We could however not reach the SHO.

Many of those working against human trafficking informed us that several such cases can be found in the West district area. We also got in touch with DCP Dwarka Harsha Vardhan, who said he was not aware of such cases in his district.

Larger Network

*Naveen, who works with an anti-trafficking organisation in Delhi, says they were given a lead by women rescued from an earlier case, about 10-15 Kenyan women in the Vikaspuri area.

But the verification of the case and if it is a matter of forced prostitution as alleged, takes time, with police unwilling to take action until the veracity of the claims are checked. “We have told the Rohini AHTU who have asked us to carry out the verification,” Naveen tells us.

A senior official in the Delhi Police points to the recent Supreme Court order on sex workers where it upheld sex work as a profession. The apex court also said the police should not interfere or take any criminal action when an adult engages in consensual sex work.

In such a case, the police official, who did not wish to be named, says “sometimes we come across information, but we are unable to pin point as to who the actual driver of the racket is…sometimes we do come across such activities, and take action, but sometimes we are unable to substantiate such an illegal activity taking place”.

And while police work together with NGOs, *Naveen says “It is very difficult to work with the police and AHTU…we have to always approach the senior police officers to get any work done.”

He also says that if several women are involved, the police may take action “as it would be covered by the media”, but when it’s just one lone woman, getting police to react is difficult.

In the cases of African nationals, he has investigated, and helped in rescue, he found the traffickers have one thumb rule – to bring in adults. Their modus operandi is always the promise of a job.

“Traffickers have network in gulf countries, the West and Asia. The African countries women are mostly brought from are Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.”

In recent rescues in Delhi, from February, 16 women from Uzbekistan were rescued by the Delhi Crime branch. The DCP tells India Ahead that six persons have till now been arrested in those cases so far.

During the raid the police also found passports of women who were not present at the spot.

Traffickers exploit millions of people within India, and transnational and cross border trafficking is not new. Traffickers have over the years, especially fraudulently, recruited women from Nepal and Bangladesh to India for sex trafficking.

No Trust In The Process

Hem Raj, a lawyer working on anti-human trafficking cases says that survivors many times refused to lodge a complaint. Threat from their traffickers of repercussions, including in their home country, shows the criminals’ cross-country reach.

Raj gives an example of a woman from Cameroon, rescued in January of this year. The 23-year-old, had been approached with a job offer back at home, to come to Delhi and work in an African restaurant here. And exactly like the other cases the trafficker managed the passport application, the visa, and in this case procured documents to get a visa for medical treatment.

“The moment she landed a boy who picked her up and brought her to Vikaspuri and put her in a room with another girl from Kenya. The woman’s passport was then taken, from her. The Kenyan girl present then told her she was also duped and trafficked.”

But she could not escape. Raj says the threats scare the victims into believing that there is no way out. “She was told they had a nexus with the police, threatened with the fact that she had no passport in her possession, essentially making her an illegal. It was after 3-4 days of being locked in that room and beaten up by the trafficker, threatened further that she was forced into the sex work. Engage with 3-4 customers in a day, sometimes in groups, and all African men.”

The Cameroonian managed to escape with the help of a customer she had gotten close to. “She took shelter with the man and he informed a group who then informed an NGO and then they approached me. Yet, when I spoke with her, she refused to file an FIR.”

“The sad thing is that despite the exploitation and the horrible treatment meted out to them, they are so scared to lodge a complaint,” Raj says. In her case, the fact that her visa had expired, made the threats that her traffickers had made more substantial in the survivor’s mind.

“In 2019, we had rescued many girls from Kenya. None of them wanted to lodge a complaint because they did not want to deal with the process. Second, they are scared of the traffickers because they have a strong power in the source country so they are scared of the repercussions,” says Raj, describing just how traffickers keep a hold on their victims.

The US State Department report from 2021, on ‘Trafficking in Persons’ said the government of India, achieved fewer convictions, and the acquittal rate for traffickers remained high at 73 per cent.

Further, it says, “Many victims waited years to receive central-government mandated compensation, and often state and district legal offices did not proactively request the compensation or assist victims in filing applications. Some foreign trafficking victims remained in state-run shelters for years due to lengthy or non-existent repatriation processes.”

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2021 which was to be tabled in this year’s Monsoon session of the Lok Sabha remains yet to be passed. It is aimed at countering and preventing human trafficking, and ensuring prosecution of offenders.

A previous version of the Bill from 2018 was passed in the Lok Sabha but was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha, and the Bill lapsed in 2019, due to the general elections.

The Bill says that “the Agency” which here means the National Investigation Agency shall take necessary steps to ensure legal aid and assistance, legal representation and all other support required to a foreign national who is trafficked into India, for their expeditious return to his country of origin in such manner as may be prescribed.

(*Names of survivors have been changed to protect their identity.)