washingtonpost.com

Child traffickers prey on Indian tsunami victims

BC-QUAKE-INDIA-TRAFFICKING (PICTURE)

Child traffickers prey on Indian tsunami victims

By Y.P. Rajesh

VELANKANNI, India, March 27 (Reuters) - Bhagyaraj has stopped waiting for authorities to help rebuild his utensil kiosk that was washed away by the Indian Ocean tsunami three months ago.

Instead, the hawker in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu now waits for a middleman who has promised to get his 14-year-old daughter a job as a maid in a house in the big city after another daughter, 16, was taken away similarly this month.

"I can't feed them here. The relief is irregular and there is no sign of any help to rebuild my shop," said the 46-year-old man, who lost two other daughters to the giant waves. "At least they will be fed regularly in the city."

Bhagyaraj is not the only tsunami survivor in the area sending away his children to ease his burden.

Arul Mani, a community activist, reels out of instances of many more children who have been sent away from Bhagyaraj's relief camp in the town of Velankanni.

"Two other girls, 13 and 14, have gone to work as maids, one 14-year boy has gone to a stone quarry, three boys were taken to work in Bangalore, two went to aluminium factories," he said.

Relief volunteers say a few dozen children from villages in Nagapattinam, India's worst tsunami-hit district, have been lured by labour contractors to work not just as domestic help but also at garment factories, stone quarries and utensil manufacturers.

Although trafficking in children and the use of child labour is known to be widely prevalent in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where Nagapattinam is located, the district had been largely immune to the problem.

The district's lucrative fishing industry gave financial comfort to rural communities to educate their children and not send them away to work, the volunteers say.

But the tsunami has changed that.

"I am afraid we are on the verge of an explosion in child trafficking and child labour in Nagapattinam," said R. Somasundaram, chairman of the Avvai Village Welfare Society, a local voluntary group coordinating relief and rehabilitation for over a dozen global agencies.

U.S. WARNING

With authorities busy providing relief, labour contractors descended even on relief camps and lured children away.

"Lots of people came looking to employ us. I went to work in a garment factory with six others where we dyed clothes," said Gunashekar, 15, who lives in a camp in Nagapattinam. "We missed our families and came back after 10 days."

Trafficking in children and child labour is illegal in India. But it has flourished nevertheless.

Although exact figures are not available, experts say hundreds of thousands of children are employed in manufacturing fireworks, matchsticks, gem and diamond cutting, carpet knotting, tanneries and stone quarries, among others.

The alarm in Nagapattinam comes as the United States warned India this month that it could face economic sanctions for not doing enough to stop trafficking of women and children, Indian newspaper reports said last week.

Washington is expected to decide in June whether it should impose sanctions and vote against loans to India from global financial institutions under the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the reports said.

While fishermen were most hurt by the tsunami and received aid swiftly, non-fishing communities were not high on the priority list for relief and have been pushed to the wall, Somasundaram said.

"These people are practically starved," he said. "They say they are sending their children to work for a few months now but once they are gone there is no coming back."

REUTERS Reut00:19 03-27-05


© 2005 The Washington Post Company