Transit at Gojadanga

Migrants from Bangladesh are often unaware that they are being trafficked, and are sometimes sold into prostitution or forced labour. Indian laws barely penalise traffickers.

Updated - September 22, 2016 06:56 pm IST

Published - September 13, 2016 12:43 am IST

“The key reasons for illegal migration include job opportunities, medical treatment and visits to families on the Indian side of the border.” Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

“The key reasons for illegal migration include job opportunities, medical treatment and visits to families on the Indian side of the border.” Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

It had stopped raining when I reached the Gojadanga Border Security Force (BSF) border observation point (BOP) at night along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district. A robust figure, handcuffed and accompanied by two border personnel, emerged from the dense haze and walked towards the BOP.

It was Mohammad Ehsan (name changed), a Bangladeshi national, who was apprehended by BSF personnel late in the evening for crossing the border. He had fake documents which had been prepared by a tout from Bangladesh. Ehsan told me that he was from Satkhira district in Bangladesh and had entered Gojadanga with help from the same tout, to seek medical treatment for his chronic back pain. He didn’t seem ill going by his inconsistent statements and robust appearance.

Migrant smuggling from Bangladesh is a critical issue along the Gojadanga border. Article 3 of the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, defines migrant smuggling as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national”.

Gojadanga is an obscure zero line village and shares the border with Bhomra village in Satkhira district of Bangladesh. Gojadanga is manned by the BSF while the Bhomra border is looked after by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). A BSF official said, “The Indo-Bangladesh land border along the Gojadanga village, which stretches 3 km, is completely unfenced, with habitation up to zero line on both sides of the border. This makes it extremely vulnerable to illegal migration from Bangladesh.” The key reasons for illegal migration include job opportunities, medical treatment and visits to families on the Indian side of the border.

When I tried to probe further on trafficking in persons, drugs, cattle and fake currency, he asserted, “Hardly any cases of human trafficking have been detected in the past few years.”

He continued, “a few years back, cattle smuggling was rampant along the border. However, due to the efforts of the current government, it has drastically reduced. And trafficking in drugs and fake currency is not an issue along the Gojadanga border.”

But a local source told me that smuggling of Phensedyl cough syrup does take place from India to Bangladesh.

Dynamics behind trafficking

As far as human trafficking is concerned, it is extremely difficult for the BSF to detect it along the border. First, the illegal migrant who was apprehended by the BSF can remain in its custody for not more than 24 hours. Thereafter, the migrant is usually sent to the police station from where the case proceeds. Second, migrants from Bangladesh are often unaware that they are being trafficked. They may cross the border with help from a tout who promises them job opportunities in India and on entering West Bengal or other parts of India from West Bengal, he sells them into prostitution or forced labour. Here it may become difficult for the BSF to make a distinction between migrant smuggling and human trafficking. A State official told me that there have also been cases where BSF personnel have been complicit in helping Bangladeshis cross the border.

Once the Bangladeshi victim of trafficking and the migrant smuggler or trafficker are apprehended by border personnel, they are most often sent to the police station. They are usually charged under the Foreigners Act, 1946, for illegally entering India. The act states that if an offender is a foreigner, he/she should be punished under this act and deported. The cross-national touts/migrant smugglers are set free after a sentence of few months. However, the victim is mostly sent to a shelter home in West Bengal till the time the he or she can be repatriated to Bangladesh.

Indian laws barely penalise traffickers adequately. The trafficker can be charged under Section 366B of the Indian Penal Code, which states that importation of a girl below the age of 21 years is a punishable offence. However, this provision is rarely implemented since police officers are usually unaware of it.

Vulnerable stretch

Gojadanga is divided into Uttarpada and Dakshinpada. While Dakshinpada’s population is entirely Hindu, Uttarpada is Muslim-dominated. Large-scale poverty and unemployment in the village has driven some of its residents to engage in murky and illegal activities. A local said, “Due to poverty some villagers have made migrant smuggling their profession.”

A State official added, “The touts of Bangladesh and India are part of a larger network. They have made bases in the bordering villages taking advantage of a similar cultural, religious and linguistic character.” Moreover, “some panchayat members are directly or indirectly involved in migrant smuggling; some of them are ex-smugglers and ex-touts.”

According to a BSF official, “Fencing along the Gojadanga border may help reduce illegal migration and other illegal activities; work towards building the fence along the border is ongoing.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes, “Migrant smuggling affects countries of origin, transit and destination”. Thus, it “requires the collaborative response of all” and strong multi-agency cooperation. It further requires a multi-dimensional and comprehensive response, which focusses on addressing the socioeconomic root causes of irregular migration, and the prosecution of those who commit smuggling-related crimes.

Meha Dixit has taught at Kashmir University and worked with Amnesty International.

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