Human Trafficking in Nepal

During my time studying abroad in Nepal, I witnessed the realities of many things I have already learned in the classroom at Auburn. The most impactful to me being human trafficking. I’ve always known Southeast Asia is one of the regions most prone to human trafficking, but I had no idea I would see it on such an obvious scale. While in Nepal, I saw it manifest in different forms and I met several people who are affected by this epidemic. I want to share the few instances I encountered human trafficking so others can be more informed on this issue as well.

A few days after arriving in Kathmandu, I was taken on a Justice Tour provided by a local adventure company. On this tour, I learned about ways sex trafficking exists and continues to thrive in Kathmandu. In Kathmandu’s red-light district, the city’s largest bus station serves as the biggest transportation hub for victims. Here girls are brought from the villages to be bussed to other countries, primarily India, and are also brought to Kathmandu from surrounding countries. They stay in the guest houses in this area until they are transported and are often chained and detained in their days of waiting.

Around Kathmandu, there are many dance bars where girls work and customers (usually men) come to pay for services. The dance bars are concentrated in the red-light district; however they are also scattered across the city and come alive at night. There are also certain restaurants that provide customers with the opportunity to order similar services from their waitresses and are also common in the red-light district.

The most obvious brothels in Kathmandu advertise themselves as spas, offering ordinary spa services such as massages, manicures, and hair treatments. In Thamel, the tourist area, these “spas” are everywhere. You can’t walk down a street and miss the multiple “spas” vacating the higher floors of buildings. I remember walking down a street in Thamel and looking up and seeing girls standing at the windows looking down at me. Making eye contact with these girls made this epidemic come to life for me — this wasn’t just something I learned in the classroom anymore.

I met two friends, a girl and boy, who were briefly visiting Kathmandu and they did not know about these “spas” and decided to enter one. As soon as they walked up the stairs and entered the room, they knew this place was not a spa. They said that girls were sitting along couches and instantly flocked over to the boy and asked him what he wanted. My friends quickly left and tried a different spa, only to have the same experience.

Sex trafficking is heavily concentrated in Kathmandu, but many of the girls often come from villages throughout the country. Through the adventure company, I was able to trek to some of these villages for a week and see how trafficking impacts these areas. And to my surprise, these villages were way more affected than I expected. I visited one village where there wasn’t a single girl between the ages of seven and thirty. Every single girl had been sold. The second village looked very similar. One of our guides grew up in this village and he explained how all the girls he grew up with are now gone, and that this cycle has been occurring for generations in these areas.

I read a book this summer that vividly explains the story of how one girl from a Nepali village gets trafficked to India. It is called Sold by Patricia McCormick. It describes how girls are often tricked into thinking they’re working in Kathmandu as maids to send money home to their families when in reality they are sold to a brothel leader, with a slim chance of ever returning home. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in what trafficking looks like in Southeast Asia and what occurs inside Indian brothels.

Sex trafficking isn’t the only type of trafficking that exists in Nepal. Labor trafficking is another huge problem for young and middle-aged boys. The book The Girl from Kathmandu by Cam Simpson explains in detail the true story of young Nepali men hired to work in Jordan, but ending up in Iraq where ISIS forces capture and kill them on live television. Many boys in Nepal travel to foreign countries for work to provide for their families and are often hired for physical labor on major projects. They might work for years just to repay their debts and live in extremely unfavorable conditions. Sometimes they are forced to forfeit their passports to their employers.

I also knew labor trafficking was a big problem in Southeast Asia, but had no idea of the magnitude until I learned firsthand how many people it affected. On my trip, I heard from several Nepalis about many of their friends and family being sent specifically to Qatar and Dubai to work. One day I was in a taxi and my taxi driver spoke that he had worked in Dubai when he was younger. But because he could speak Nepali, Arabic, and English, he received special favor from his employer and was able to return home sooner.

The adventure company’s director shared statistics about many of these men who work abroad. Most are sent to the Middle East and some end up dying from the working conditions. He said around seven Nepali men die each week. The skyscrapers and beautiful structures of many of the affluent Middle Eastern cities are built by Nepali men. The World Cup stadium for Qatar 2020 will be built by them as well, he says. After reading The Girl from Kathmandu and learning more about labor trafficking, I am much more aware of the corruption happening in the Middle East. It’s hard to think about how some of the richest cities in the world are built from the hands of desperate young Asian men for cents a day.

Although Nepal’s unemployment rate online appears low, Nepali’s themselves will tell you that around 40% of Nepal’s population is unemployed. Because of this many boys are forced to work abroad in order to provide for their families. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Kathmandu’s airport where this actually hit me. I happened to be sitting in front of the gate to Dubai and observed the people who lined up during the boarding call. Over half of this flight were Nepali middle aged boys and young men all holding their passport in one hand and giant work documents in the other. I observed each of their faces as I could tell they were anxious about wherever they were about to go. Some seemed excited, as if they thought a great opportunity was ahead of them. Others looked worried and sad, as if they knew what was ahead. It was so heartbreaking watching this line of Nepali men scan their boarding passes and walk through the doors. I happened to be flying through Qatar, so I observed the passengers on my plane as well. Although my plane didn’t seem to have as many obvious young men, I knew for certain that some were on my flight.

A final encounter I had with human trafficking occurred in Pokhara, Nepal during my third week in Nepal — in the form of child trafficking. Pokhara is the biggest tourist city in Nepal and also has many similarities to Kathmandu’s red-light district. One night I was walking to a restaurant and stepped away from my group for a moment. A young Nepali boy, around age five, walks up to me and asks for money. I tell him ‘no’ but linger around to watch where he goes next. He runs back into a dark corner of the street to meet a white man with long dreadlocks. This man begins to stroke the boy’s hair and shoulders and walks with him until the boy runs to ask someone else for money. I knew in my heart that something was very wrong and that this boy was being used by this foreign man. After eating dinner, I walk through the same spot and the same young boy is laying on the ground in tattered clothes and shivering, asking for people to lay down donations. I knew the dreaded man was nearby but I could not spot him.

Although my experiences with human trafficking in Nepal seems lengthy, I know I only saw the surface of what actually occurs in this country. I’ve learned that human trafficking is a very, very real issue — an epidemic that exists in many forms and is rampant in poor Southeast Asian countries like Nepal. And one where millions of people have no way of being helped out. But I’ve also learned that there is power in being educated on this issue. I’ve met several organizations in Nepal who are working to combat this issue every day and who are educating Nepali’s on what to look out for. There are very passionate people in this country giving their lives for this cause. However, there are still so many people around the world who do not know what is actually happening in these places or on what scale. Hopefully, by hearing my experience, others will be spurred on to educate themselves further on this issue.