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Trafficking in children

Print edition : Oct 04, 1997

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The detention of groups of children from Bangladesh in Bangalore and Chennai has led to investigations into a criminal network involved in sending small children to the Gulf, many to be used in camel races.

CAMEL racing is a popular sport in the desert states of West Asia. In some places, however, the sport takes a cruel form: in place of trained camel riders, young boys are used. The boys, often between three and eight years and light in weight, are strapped to the camels; the animals are then whipped to set them running, and the terrified cries of the children spur the animals on. The child-jockeys are brought, often illegally, from impoverished countries by unscrupulous agents.

In September, 54 Bangladeshi children who were to be flown out to the United Arab Emirates, apparently to serve as jockeys in camel racing, were rescued: 16 in Bangalore on September 12 (see box) and 38 near Chennai on September 15. The children were accompanied by 50 adults, who had each reportedly paid agents up to 60,000 Bangladesh takas for a job in Dubai; they were apparently given a 50 per cent discount on the fee for taking the children along as their wards.

Eleven 'couples' with 23 children; five single women with 11 children; three single men with three children; two single men; and one child without an accompanying adult formed the contingent rescued from Thameen Ansari dargah at Kovalam, near Mamallapuram, about 60 km from Chennai. Barring a few who were accompanied by their own children, the others were given charge of the children by agents in Bangladesh or in India. All 32 adults are illiterate; they are agricultural workers or have done odd jobs for living. Except Mujibur, who owned a grocery store and also worked part-time with a travel company, the rest earned less than 1,500 takas a month.

A first information report (FIR) filed by the Kelambakkam police station, under which the dargah comes, described the persons rescued from Kovalam as victims and named Abdul Mannan, a suspected agent, as an accused. Abdul Mannan was arrested on September 17 from I.S. Lodge in Chennai, where the victims had earlier been housed. According to Deputy Inspector-General of Police Nanjil Kumaran, Abdul Mannan has been charged under Sections 120(B) (conspiracy) and 363 (kidnapping) of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 10 of the Foreigners Act and remanded to judicial custody. Kancheepuram Magistrate M. Vijayalakshmi placed the rescued in the custody of Udavum Karangal, an organisation which provides shelter to orphans and destitutes.

According to Inspector S. Thiagarajan, who is investigating the case, the only offence of those rescued was that they were travelling without valid documents. According to him, only 19 had passports (three were subsequently recovered from Abdul Mannan). According to those rescued, the passports of the others were with Bablu and Shiraz, two agents arrested in Bangalore. (Asked what action would be taken against those who were travelling without valid documents, Chief Immigration Officer in Chennai Aziz Bangra said he had "no comments to make".)

Nanjil Kumaran does not foresee any problem in repatriating those rescued, though it could take some time because repatriation involves two governments. According to him, the Tamil Nadu Government has informed the Union Government, which, in turn, has informed the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi.

The case indicates the existence of an organised racket exporting 'families' and children from Bangladesh to Dubai. Each of the 104 persons (70 detained in Chennai and 34 in Bangalore) came from different villages and had a local agent. According to the persons rescued, they left their villages separately and crossed the border and entered Siliguri, Malda or Calcutta after changing several buses. Then with or without the 'made-up' families they reached Chennai from Calcutta after changing trains about five times. No one knew the places they passed through, but at every stop they were met by an agent - some not even known to them - who put them in another train or accompanied them for a part of the journey.

One of the persons rescued said, "For taking along the children, our agents gave us a 50 per cent concession on the travel and visa fee." But some women, like Parabin, Komalla and Khurshida Banu, were not told that they had to travel as a made-up family until they reached Siliguri, Malda or Calcutta. Some, like Halima, were told about their 'family' only in Chennai. A family, they were told, was essential to get the visa to Dubai.

While most paid 60,000 takas to the agents, some who could not pay up in full were asked to pay 30,000 takas in advance, the rest payable in Dubai. To raise these sums, most of them sold what little they had. They had heard from friends and others who had come back from the Gulf that a person can earn 8,000-10,000 takas a month or that their children would be well taken care of, even if they were to ride camels.

Once in Chennai, they were put up at I.S. Lodge at Periamet, a business centre in the heart of the city. According to Mujibur, who reached the lodge on September 7 along with his 10-year-old brother Sagar (who had apparently come to see Mujibur off at Dhaka but was persuaded to join him by the agent, Feroze), every floor of the lodge was virtually a "Bangladeshi basti" (settlement). This, Mujibur told Frontline, made him nervous, as he had not been told that he would be travelling with such a big group. He had been under the impression that he was to be sent by himself to Dubai. Seeing four floors of Bangladeshis, some of whom had been there for six months, made him suspect that something was wrong. His suspicion intensified when he found that they were being locked in.

He conveyed his fears to the others on September 10 and tried to mobilise them saying, "We have given money to go to Dubai, but things are suspicious here. Let us get the protection of the law. Let us go out and try to get help". Some agreed. But, according to Mujibur, Abdul Mannan asked him to keep quiet.

On September 11, Bablu and Shiraz, said to be the key agents, told the group that the first batch of 34 (16 children and 18 adults) would be taken to Dubai via Bangalore. The others, they said, would have to wait with Abdul Mannan for their travel documents and tickets. On September 12, the 34 were detained at Bangalore airport while trying to board a flight to Sharjah, and Shiraz and Bablu were arrested. On hearing the news of the arrests, Abdul Mannan sent the remaining 70 persons to the dargah at Kovalam on September 14. If questioned, he told them, they were to say that they had come from West Bengal to visit the 700-year-old dargah.

The group did not arouse any suspicion at Kovalam because groups making a pilgrimage to the dargah was not uncommon.

The next day Abdul Mannan came to the dargah with a couple of chulhas, some rice and vegetables and left immediately. The group spent the next day also at the dargah. That evening, one of them went out of the dargah and tried to speak to some students of a local school. Suspecting him to be a child-lifter, some local people beat him up. And, as news of the group spread, a mob reached the dargah and beat up the Bangladeshi men. They were handed over to the police which started questioning them, with help from Bangladeshi students of an engineering college nearby. As they were of a different nationality, and since there were women and children, the police, on instructions from Nanjil Kumaran, lodged them all at Balaji Ladies Hostel in Kelambakkam. Local people provided them with food and clothing.

During questioning, there were frequent references to Abdul Mannan. The police saw him to be a key person in the matter and picked him up from I.S. Lodge. Some of the Bangladeshis this correspondent met thought that Abdul Mannan was also a victim; he had told them that he paid 30,000 takas to an agent. According to Komalla, Abdul Mannan was the most articulate among them and acted as their spokesman. The rescued Bangladeshis spoke well of the Chennai police, who declared them victims and placed them all in the custody of Udavum Karangal.

At Udavum Karangal, the victims seemed to be comfortable, but were still afraid of being jailed. Many of them cried. One of them, Hussain, said, "We do not want to go to Dubai - please send us home." Some others seemed to be ashamed to go back because, as Komalla said, "not only were we cheated but we also had to pretend to be someone else's wife or husband."

Did they know about camel racing? Some did. Khurshida Banu, for instance, had been told by her agent in her village that children taken for the sport would be looked after well and be provided with good food and good clothes; and when they reached a certain height, they would be taught how to ride camels. Their impression was that once the children learnt to ride well, they could earn crores of takas.

The plight of the children is heart-rending. They seem to be still in shock with people asking them questions they hardly understand; they answered the questions in whispers. Most did not even know where they were from. After a lot of coaxing, one of them said, with tears rolling down his cheeks, "I want to go back to ma."

Aabir, 7, said he was from Sherpur, but he did not know where he was going. His father had come to see him off at Dhaka. Abul, the man who brought him here, had promised him chocolates. Aabir is now very scared as Abul is not to be seen. He held my hand and whispered to me: "Please write to my parents to take me home."

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