An inconvenient truth

An inconvenient truth

Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao raised a storm a few days ago by claiming that there are three lakh illegal Bangladeshis in Karnataka, but what is shocking is his admission that most of them are victims of human trafficking. In the absence of any government survey, Rao has come under criticism for quoting a random number based on unverified sources. But, in the process, he has also raised several pertinent humanitarian, ethical and legal questions. Nonetheless, such statements are bound to create a fear psychosis among the large migrant workforce, given the increasing trend to brand anybody from West Bengal, Assam and other North-Eastern states as illegal Bangladeshis. Bengaluru is heavily dependent on migrant labour from other states and it would be imprudent to forget how the city came to a virtual standstill some years ago after a mass exodus of workers from the North-East due to fear-mongering.

Rao’s statement now shifts the focus from the ongoing debate on illegal migrants to human trafficking, which is a serious offence. The United Nations defines human trafficking as a crime that exploits women, children and men for numerous purposes, including forced labour and sex. Worldwide, 35% of those trafficked for forced labour are female. Rao, who described the Bangladeshi workers as “legions of unnamed, unheard and unregarded souls who toil for 12-14 hours a day for very low wages,” also admits that human traffickers, builders and contractors are reaping huge profits from this racket. The human rights of these workers who live under substandard conditions is violated regularly, as according to the commissioner a large number of teenage girls are being sexually exploited and have no idea of how to report these crimes, while child abuse which is common, often goes unnoticed.

Guidelines laid down by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stipulate that states have a responsibility under international law to assist and protect trafficked persons, while prosecuting traffickers. Trafficked persons are not to be detained, charged or prosecuted for the illegality of their entry into the country. The onus is on states to ensure that they are protected from further exploitation and harm and have access to adequate physical and psychological care. Children who are victims of trafficking are to be identified as such. Trafficked persons are to be offered legal alternatives to repatriation, and safe return to their home country, voluntarily to the extent possible, is to be guaranteed. Rao’s statement must wake the Narendra Modi government to the true nature of the problem. The question is, how will it strike a balance between keeping its populist promise of sending back illegal migrants and, at the same time, safeguarding the rights of trafficked persons. Or, does the government even care?

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