Five weeks ago in a raid conducted at a hotel in Nagpur, Anti Human Trafficking Unit rescued a 16-year-old mute girl. The girl was reportedly from Manipur and was lured into the sex trade on the pretext of a job in a spa. It was the desperation of the 16-year-old girl that led her to express her ordeal to a client, who in turn then alerted the authorities. She was rescued along with five other girls and an investigation led to the unearthing of a multi-state sex racket network.
In Gurugram, Rose (name changed) a girl from Manipur has been working at a massage parlor at one of the prominent shopping malls for several months. On account of the conflict in Manipur, several of her friends, desperate to get out of Manipur, contacted her for a placement in the massage parlor where she was working or any other spa. They needed a job and sustainability. She placed some of her friends at the massage parlors in that mall and in other parts of Delhi through references. On the being questioned whether the massage parlor therapists performed more than just massage therapies. She retorted, “We do what we can do to survive. It is not what we want to do. We have to provide for our families.” When questioned about how she landed up in the spa. She chose not to reveal.
When questioning Rose about the conflict in Manipur, she expressed, that poverty is a reality in the tribal belt of Manipur. First the slump due to COVID-19 and now the ethnic conflict in the state, we have no future in Manipur, we are being driven out because we belong to a particular ethnicity, and because of our poor education jobs are scarce. So it is easier to train as a massage therapist. There is a lot of demand for girls from North-East. We do what we can to survive and the money is good.
In its new report Crossing the Line: Geopolitics and Criminality at the India-Myanmar border, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime highlights the entrenched nature of trafficking in persons in Manipur. It focuses on the border town of Moreh, where informal trade has become the main source of income and which is now a transit point for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Women and under-aged girls from Manipur were trafficked to other provinces of India as well as to countries in Southeast Asia, to work in the sex trade.
A spa owner in Goa in a conversation on condition of anonymity with a member of the GC Intelligence Network revealed that he has employed 45 girls from Manipur, 12 girls belong to the Naga community and 33 belong to the Kuki community. He further revealed that he has details of at least 100 more girls from the Kuki community from Manipur who have reached Goa and are staying with friends and have approached him for a job in the spa industry. According to him, he estimates that since the conflict over 500 girls would have come to Goa in search of a job. On average, he opines, 8-10 girls are reaching the tourist state every week. While this spa owner is known to have a clean track record, there have been cases in Goa where massage parlors have been raided in the recent past and victims have been from the Northeast, Manipur included. There is no denying the snare staring at the vulnerable young girls from Manipur trying to live through the conflict or escape from it.
Rekha (name changed) is a girl working at a Spa in GK 2. She is from Manipur. She came to Delhi a few years ago and has worked at different spas in the capital. She told us that, there have been many requests from her friends and people in contact with her from Manipur for jobs in Delhi in the months following the break of violence in Manipur. Many believe that she is working in a professional spa as a massage therapist, while that she is working as a massage therapist is true, her job does have shades of grey, which she accepts and even complies too. Her reasoning is simple, my family depends on me and it is my responsibility to support my family. However, she has not been very helpful to her friends from Manipur because she does not want them to know about the reality of her job and does not want them to have the same fate as hers. When she was also asked how she landed her job in Delhi, she did not reveal much but hinted at a recruiting agent known to her friends.
Eva is a young girl who left Manipur during the conflict. She contacted her friends in Mumbai and got herself a job at a spa in Bandra suburbs. Her view is that the conflict only gave her more reason to leave Manipur. “There is no economic activity in Manipur and now with the conflict, the situation will get worse. People will run short of basic food supplies. I do not want to be embroiled in the conflict. I found an avenue to get out and I took it, I don’t regret it. When questioned about the nature of her job, she replied rather sternly, “I work in a spa and I see it as a job. We get some strange characters sometimes and we deal with it. Most times, I am enjoying my job. I have to earn. If I get a better job, I will quit. But no until now I have not had to do any work with shades of grey.” When questioned about how she landed her job in Mumbai. She replied I asked my friends and got introduced to the spa owner.
In the past, poverty compelled the tribal women in Manipur to enter into the flesh trade against their desires, culture, and religious faith. Now poverty, coupled with the uncertainty of a future in Manipur and the threat to their lives due to the ethnic conflict between Meitei and Kuki is making young women from Manipur vulnerable to dubious recruiting agents who will eventually lead them to the flesh trade. The trafficking of tribal girls from Manipur and other North-Eastern states is reportedly widespread across India and now with rising demand in Southeast Asian capitals and Middle-East, young girls are being trafficked out of India too with human traffickers hoping to make a fortune.
It is a harsh truth that trafficking syndicates make use of the desperate socio-economic situation of their victims and lure them in with false promises of work or education. Some trafficking networks operate disguised as labor recruitment agencies; however, in the majority of the cases, the traffickers are well-known to the victims or their caretakers as neighbors, friends, and even family members. The main destination points for human trafficking victims from Manipur are the Indian metro cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai as well as other big cities in India and the popular tourist location of Goa.
Poverty and social grievances, discrimination, and violence against certain parts of society, make the people of Manipur explore migration as a way to achieve a better quality of life, irrespective of the risks that migration can bear. The recent conflict in Manipur coupled with its unprecedented violence between the ethnic communities and the rise in violence against women.
The ongoing ethnic conflict and its violence will lead to more displacement of people from their villages in Manipur. Not everyone who lives in Manipur is fraught with the danger of being lured into being a victim of human trafficking. Currently, thousands of young men and women from Manipur are looking for brighter prospects in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Goa. Not all of them are going to end up in a shady massage parlor or in prostitution; many will go out the find jobs in hospitality, tourism, BPOs, and several other different sectors across India or even jobs abroad but there is no denying that the conflict can push many vulnerable young women and men into sex trade in India and internationally.