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March 23, 2009
Hundreds of children left vulnerable after devastating floods in eastern India are being trafficked to work as bricklayers, domestic servants and even sold as brides, aid agencies say.
Monsoon rains and burst dams in August last year unleashed major flooding in South Asia, killing about 1,500 people, mostly in India but also in Nepal.
The Indian state of Bihar bore the brunt of the devastation - 5 million people were affected and about 1.5 million had to be evacuated. At least 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of farmland was destroyed.
Aid workers say in the aftermath of the disaster - Bihar's worst floods in recent years -there has been a spurt in human trafficking from the region as traffickers prey on vulnerable children.
"The floods left behind so much devastation, landless farmers had to go out of the area to find work as their livelihoods were destroyed," said Thomas Chandy, head of Save the Children India.
"As a result, the women and children have been left behind in the villages where 'middle men' or 'agents' come and talk to the mothers and lure their children away with the promise of employment, a good salary and a better future."
But the reality is very different when the children, who are mostly between seven and 14-years-old, are brought to India's urban centres, say aid workers.
Most end up as domestic workers or bricklayers or are employed in roadside restaurants or small textile units embroidering expensive fabrics.
Many girls are sent to work in brothels or sold as brides in regions such as Punjab and Haryana where sex ratios are skewed in favour of men due to the practice of female feticide and infanticide.
"The children are basically in bonded labour - forced to work very long hours, with little food and no proper rest," said Kailash Satyarthi of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). "Many are physically and sexually abused and few are paid."
A 2007 study by Save the Children India and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found 70 to 80 percent of trafficked boys and girls under 14 are physically or sexually abused - or both.
South Asia is the second largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
About 150,000 people are known to be trafficked every year in South Asia, UNODC officals say. But they believe the actual numbers are likely to be much higher as the trade is underground.
SCARS OF ABUSE
Far from his home in the flood-ravaged village of Saupal in Bihar's Madhipura district, 13-year-old Santosh Kumar plays football at a children's home on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Rescued from a small store in Delhi by child rights' workers, the solemn-faced young boy recounts his journey after floods devastated his home.
"We always had trouble putting food on the table, but we lost everything in the floods," he said.
"My father had no work, my mother was sick, our cattle died and when the agent came, my parents thought sending me to work would help feed my younger sisters."
Santosh was sold to the owner of a small shop in Delhi where he worked from 9am to midnight every day. He slept on the floor and said he was given meagre amounts of rice and lentils twice a day.
His employer forced him to carry heavy stock and threw large metal weights at him if he was too slow or dropped items, he said, pulling up his trousers to reveal scars.
MORE DISASTERS, MORE TRAFFICKING
Experts say post-disaster human trafficking has become common in the region as increasing man-made conflicts and natural disasters leave the already poor even more vulnerable.
They say the breakdown of social institutions in devastated areas creates difficulties in securing food and humanitarian supplies, leaving women and children vulnerable to kidnapping, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
"We first noticed this happening after the tsunami in 2004. Now, during and after natural disasters like floods and droughts, we are seeing more and more trafficking cases," Satyarthi said.
"Traffickers are good at seizing every opportunity to find new sources of bonded labour and with natural disasters becoming more and more frequent, they really have hit the big bonanza."
Activists are calling for a special emergency mechanism to prevent trafficking in disaster areas and want anti-human trafficking measures to become part of post-disaster reconstruction undertaken by donors and host countries.
Child rights experts are concerned that adoption requests after a disaster may not be properly checked out, leaving children prey to traffickers and paedophiles.
"After the tsunami, there was a freeze on adoptions as there were so many people who wanted to adopt orphaned children - this should be compulsory after every major disaster," said Deepika Naruka, research analyst for UNODC in South Asia.
Activists also suggest providing training for aid workers involved in post-disaster relief efforts so that they can sensitise communities about traffickers taking advantage of their vulnerability, as well as creating safe areas for women and children.