The National Council’s social and cultural affairs committee yesterday reported that although the law enforcement agencies had documented only 11 human trafficking cases between 2007 and 2018, there were increasing reports of Bhutanese being allegedly trafficked abroad as well as within the country.
Eight cases were prosecuted, two were returned by the Office of Attorney General (OAG), and one is still under investigation by the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP).
The committee’s chair, Kesang Chuki Dorjee, reported that the committee’s year-long review confirmed that various forms of human trafficking were prevalent within and outside the country.
“But women and girls still tend to be more vulnerable,” the committee stated. “Bhutan is no exception to the risk of this heinous crime.”
The House will deliberate on the recommendations of the committee.
Definition of human trafficking, the committee stated, was comprehensive and in line with the UN Protocol in The Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) of 2011.
It added that despite having a clear definition of human trafficking, the case in the Bumthang court recently was dismissed and instead charged the perpetrator under the Immigration Act. The case involved illegal transportation and negligence of an eight-year-old child from India. NCWC and OAG had charged the woman for human trafficking of a child and torture.
Reported cases of human trafficking
The first case of trafficking in person (TIP) was reported in 2007, where a non-Bhutanese 16-year-old girl was brought to Thimphu, but the Crime Head changed the TIP charge to illegal immigration. The defendant was convicted for three years and was made to pay Nu 3,000 as minimum wage for a month’s work.
In 2010, a man lured a 15-year-old girl to India but she was rescued from Rinchending checkpoint after a complaint was lodged in Thimphu. The suspect was convicted for three years.
Again, in 2010, a 14-year-old girl went missing from the clock tower. She was abducted and trafficked by a family acquaintance and taken first to India, then to Nepal as a domestic helper. The suspect was charge-sheeted for five years.
In 2011, a boy was discovered in Gomtu and was the boy was returned to his family.
In the same year, two men and three women were taken from Trashigang to Pemagatshel. They were subjected to forced labour and sexual harassment. The suspect was convicted for three years and one month.
In 2016, two Bhutanese women were lured into working in Malaysia and Singapore. However, they were being sent to work in the sex industry. The suspect was charge-sheeted for attempted TIP and convicted for two years.
Again, in the same year, in Gelephu, a man was charge-sheeted for attempted TIP and cheating 19 people of Nu 736,500 to attend a Woodstock festival in the US. The crime head changed to larceny by deception at the drungkhag court. The case is now at High Court.
In 2017, a woman suspect in collaboration with Omega Manpower Company based in Nigeria sent nine Bhutanese women to Iraq. Three women were repatriated from Nepal.
The case was dropped by OAG since there was no use of threat, force, or deception while recruiting or transporting women to work as housemaids. The suspect was charged under the Labour Act and paid Nu 33,750 to labour ministry.
In 2018, immigration officials at the Mumbai airport intercepted three Bhutanese women. A Sri Lankan man with an Indian passport was escorting them. However, the OAG returned the case since the charge sheet was incomplete as some of the suspects were in Delhi. One of the suspects was arrested in Thimphu, but released after OAG returned the case.
Again, also in 2018, a 9-year-old child was brought from India via Gelephu. However, court dismissed child trafficking charges and fined the woman for illegal transportation of a foreigner, negligence of the child after she suffered grave injuries while living with the accused.
The accused was fined Nu 9,900 in accordance with the Immigration Act and also fined Nu 1,80,000 for neglecting child’s health. The case is in the High Court.
Given the increasing report of human trafficking cases, the Royal Bhutan Police initiated a sensitisation programme for 456 men and 1,048 women travelling overseas.
Based on records with RBP, the committee reported that a total of 573 adults and children were reported as missing persons from 2017 to 2019. Out of the total missing persons, 262 were found; 275 persons are still missing.
The committee reported that the concerns raised by the stakeholders included the proliferation of massage parlours, especially in border towns like Phuntsholing and other growing towns.
“Business establishments such as drayangs and massage parlours are now becoming synonymous with sexual services. The employees both national and foreign continue to be at risk of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation,” the committee noted.
It reported that prostitution, although illegal, was prevalent and practised in an organised manner. Some budget hotels and taxi operators are also reportedly facilitating the requests of clients looking for companionship.
Citing a media report, the committee reported that there were anywhere between 400-500 sex workers in Bhutan in 2017.
“Bhutan’s reputation of being a high-end tourist destination could change and become known as a sex tourism destination if left unchecked. The Guides Association of Bhutan also said that there was a growing demand for female guides by tourists,” noted the report. Male guides have also known to be popular for women groups and some have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.
The committee reported that over the past few months, the Royal Bhutan Police received more than 70 messages on social media from Bhutanese women in Middle Eastern countries requesting for repatriation assistance. Media reports suggest close to 200 women could be working as maids in Iraq.
Stakeholders in bordering towns acknowledged that foreign child workers were working in tailoring stores, restaurants and automobile workshops in Bhutan.