KAKDWIP, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the handsome young man came courting her, Sunetra could not believe her luck.
Born into a desperately poor family in India’s southern Sundarbans region – one of the parts of the world hardest hit by climate change – the lanky 18-year-old had few prospects. A flood the previous year had destroyed her home and left her family struggling financially.
A new start was what she needed, and her out-of-town suitor’s offer of marriage seemed ideal. He was content to wed without her family providing a dowry, and the pair quickly eloped.
But soon after their marriage, on a visit to Hyderabad, her new husband locked her in an apartment, in preparation for handing her to sex traffickers from Dubai. It quickly became apparent that the marriage had been a ruse.
“I had lost my face having ran away from my family, trusting this man,” she said, weeping at the betrayal of her “husband,” who she had believed was an insurance agent in Baruipur, a town about 30 km from Kolkata.
Sunetra is just one of more than 5,000 people who went missing in 2012 from the state of West Bengal, where the Sundarbans sits on a low, shifting delta where South Asia’s great rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, crime records show.
The forested islands of the Sundarbans are increasingly considered a trafficking hotspot as climate change impacts – such as worsening cyclones, sea level rise and loss of land to erosion and saltwater – mean worsening poverty and living conditions, and more desperation.
National Crime Records Bureau data for West Bengal show a 600 percent spike in reports of “missing persons” between 2002 and 2013. In 2002, 831 people disappeared; by 2013 it was 4,573. Over a decade, 30,690 adult and children were reported missing, a figure local non-governmental organisations working with trafficking victims consider an underestimate.
“Many parents, particularly those of young women, just don’t report it to the police. They are too stigmatised or consider it a fait accompli,” said Subhankar Goldar, who runs Haldarchawk Chetna Welfare Society, a non-governmental organisation based in Kakdwip that says it has rescued more than 100 trafficked children since 2007 with the help of police.
In the scheme’s normal form, visiting young men “trap these young women with promises of marriage and make it a formal affair with the family. Once married, they move to Calcutta or any other city where the man claims to have work,” Goldar said.
After a girl is handed to forced into prostitution, the “husband” may come back to target a different area in the Sundarbans or even return to the village and blame the girl for running away, stigmatising and shaming the family so family members do not approach police, Goldar said.
Sometimes, the “husbands” also display naked photos of the women on their mobile phones to substantiate their claims of the women’s low morals, he said.
Sunetra admits her parents were suspicious of her fiancé, as “this man did not ask for a dowry.” But a friend of hers had married a similar out-of-town suitor a few years ago and “I envied her,” she admitted.
“I thought something like this could never happen to me. So when it appeared that I could also go to the city and live happily, I did not hesitate,” she said.
Her fiancé, she said, had always treated her well, even taking her to Baruipur to show her his rented apartment, and the neighbourhood.
But the growing pressures on her family also played a role in her eagerness to accept the proposal, she admitted.
“Poverty and the constant battering of nature become too much to bear,” she said.
Bankim Hazra, chairman of Sundarban Development Board and a member of the state legislative assembly, says the lure of city life plays a role in young people falling into the hands of traffickers.
“They are very easily misled by traffickers and agents lurking around, who promise a fantastic life in the cities, the kind that the mainstream media project,” he said.
But Goldar says traffickers are also getting cleverer in finding ways to exploit the increasing vulnerability of normally quite cautious people.
“Previously, they were just traffickers and women avoided them,” he said. “Now traffickers are employing young, good-looking men from the region itself who have better credibility to formally marry a girl,” he said.
Boys as well as girls increasingly fall victim to traffickers, said Hazra, the Sundarbans legislator.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that in 2002, 63 men and boys disappeared in West Bengal; in 2011, the number rose to 1,705, though it has since fallen to 741 in 2013, the last year for which records are available.
Most of the young boys, Hazra said, end up working in hazardous industries or in the sex trade.
Only a negligible fraction of girls or boys trafficked are ever rescued, Goldar said. “No one hears about them after a few years. No one cares really,” he said.
Sunetra, however, was lucky. While locked up in Hyderabad, she managed to make contact with Chhidam, a 13-year-old boy who was also scheduled to be sent to Dubai as an unpaid labourer, after having been lured to the city with the promise of work.
Chhidam got in touch with Goldar’s organisation, seeking help.
“When this boy called us, he just quickly said we must rescue them. But the families hadn’t lodged a police complaint and we could not move on our own,” Goldar said.
“Thankfully, we could locate this woman’s family through a contact. (They) needed a lot of counselling before they filed a missing report with the police, because they were convinced that their daughter was happily married to this young, good-looking, rich guy,” he said.
Eventually a joint team of local police and members of the Kadkwip child welfare group traveled to Hyderabad and rescued both young people. Local police were helpful, and managed to distract the trafficking agent while a team crept into the well-guarded building.
“We did not quite raid the place, but helped the girl escape and get to the police,” Goldar said.
Such rescues, however, can be expensive in terms of the resources needed for travel, translators and coordination with local police, Goldar said.
Other young people, and their families, have not been as fortunate.
“I will wait,” murmurs Maya, the mother of Parul, an 18-year-old girl from Kusumtala village in Mousuni, who got married and moved away in 2008. She was in contact briefly, but since then there’s been a deafening silence, her parents say.
Reporting by Aditya Ghosh; editing by Laurie Goering