NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and children who have survived deadly floods in India could now be at risk of being sold as brides or into domestic and sex work by traffickers preying on vulnerable families, aid agencies say.
The floods and landslides, triggered by heavier than normal monsoon rains more than two weeks ago, have killed more than 580 people in Uttarakhand, a popular Hindu pilgrimage destination. At least 3,000 people remain missing.
Aid workers and government officials, struggling to negotiate roads blocked by landslides to get to remote mountain villages, say tens of thousands of people have been hit by the disaster.
In the worst-hit districts of Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi, homes, crops and livestock have been washed away by the deluge and hundreds of roads, bridges and buildings are in need of reconstruction.
"People have lost everything. Their homes and livelihoods have been ruined. Many people who were earning incomes from the religious tourism industry such as in the hotels, shops, restaurants and as porters, will have no jobs now," Debrabrat Patra, Action Aid's regional manager, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Badrinath, part of the disaster zone.
"Trafficking of young girls happens here due to poverty, and families are often coerced into accepting money from traffickers who marry their daughters to older men in other states, rather than pay a large dowry for them. After the floods, this is likely to worsen as people are poorer and more desperate."
South Asia, with India at its centre, is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Over 150,000 people are known to be trafficked within South Asia every year, but the trade is conducted underground and the real number is likely to be much higher.
Thousands of young girls are trafficked in India alone, including many from Nepal and Bangladesh, and sold into forced marriage, bonded work as a prostitute or as a maid or paid for their organs.
Save the Children India said that children - both boys and girls - were most at risk.
"In these kinds of emergencies, children are the most vulnerable and trafficking is a serious issue. Children can easily be exploited in the hopelessness, poverty and chaos that follow a disaster," said Save the Children's Devendra Tak, adding that it was essential to create "child-friendly spaces".
"Their homes are destroyed, their schools are either damaged or being used as relief camps. They have nowhere to go. They need to be in a safe, protected environment."