Nothing to sell but their bodies

Everyone wants to stop people-trafficking. But in impoverished Nepal, the earnings of exiled workers

''Do you have people-trafficking in Britain?" Ambika Acharya asked. We were in Melamchi village in Sindhupalchowk, a district of eastern Nepal considered particularly vulnerable to trafficking of women and girls for prostitution. Neither of us knew it until the following day but, as she was posing the question, the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers was unfolding in Morecambe.

I answered Acharya's question with a story, published in the New Statesman last August, about Chinese labourers working on farms in Norfolk. They were bound to their gangmasters by the debts they had incurred for their illegal passage to England. If they failed to repay the debts in full, reprisals would be taken against their families back in China.

Acharya and the other members of Mank, Melamchi's anti- trafficking group, would have identified with almost every element of the Chinese migrant workers' tale, from the slave-labour conditions to the bondage of debt and the threat to families. The group campaigns in a region with a history of forced prostitution, one where, even a few decades ago, ruling families exercised droit de seigneur over local girls.

Today, instead, girls as young as ten are kidnapped and taken across the border to be sold to brothels in India. Often their families are complicit. Money may be paid to the family. The brothel will pay the trafficker. The girl will have to earn - with interest - the money the brothel paid for her before she receives anything herself. Sometimes girls who manage to escape report that even after several years the debt remained undischarged.

A common story is for a girl or young woman to be drugged and abducted to the brothels of Kathmandu, or over the Indian border to those of Delhi and Mumbai. Survivors speak of waking from a stupor to find themselves sold into prostitution.

Rita Tamang (a pseudonym she chose herself) tells a typical tale. Nine years ago, she was abducted and imprisoned for some months in a brothel in Mumbai.

"My family is Nepalese, but we went to live in Himachal Pradesh in India when I was five," Tamang tells me in a halting voice. "We ran out of money and moved to Nainital, where my father got work. There, one of his friends tried to convince me to go with him to work somewhere else. I was 17 and said no; I didn't want to leave my parents. Then this person gave me some sweets. I woke up in a brothel but I didn't know that's what it was. I asked the woman in charge what work I had to do: 'Is it washing clothes?' I asked.

"They told me I had to do this sex work, and threatened me with a knife. I wouldn't, so they moved me to another brothel and this time I did. I was there six months and then the Indian government raided us. I was taken by the police to a place called Chempur, which was like a jail. We were there, 150 of us in one room, for seven months, without beds, and no contact with outside. The Indians said they had asked the Nepal government to take us back but it wouldn't. Finally, some charities heard about us and we were split into seven different houses. Those in my house started the organisation Shakti Samuha [now a campaigning group for survivors, working with Oxfam] to help others like us."

Tamang, now free and married (unusually: there is great prejudice against women who have been trafficked), has never found her family. Wasn't she angry with her relatives for failing to protect her from the family "friend"? No, she was convinced that her father knew nothing of what happened.

Other women tell of being deceived by "manpower agencies" that promise lucrative domestic or factory jobs in the Gulf or Hong Kong. Yet others, though it can never be admitted, may find the prospect of working in India's squalid brothels more appealing than an impoverished future in Nepal's failed economy, where more than half the population lives below the poverty line and almost half is out of work for at least part of the year. Nepal spends three times as much each year trying to extinguish the eight-year Maoist insurgency as it spends on education, with the result that only 42 per cent of women and 62 per cent of men have any reading and writing skills.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000) distinguishes between those abducted - for example to work in Indian brothels, or children sold to embroidery sweatshops, circus owners and camel racers - and the self-chosen hardships of illegal immigrants. Unicef puts it thus: "The smuggling of migrants, while often undertaken in dangerous or degrading conditions, involves migrants who have consented to the smuggling. Trafficking victims, on the other hand, have either never consented or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive actions of the traffickers."

But the stories of those who are deceived into prostitution are barely distinguishable from stories of "consenting migrants" who are deceived into paying their passage to a country and a job, but find instead that they are bonded labour.

There are other reasons to be wary of watertight definitions. In Nepal, women's right to migrate in search of a better life has been severely curtailed by the conflation of trafficking and prostitution: the best-funded anti-trafficking charity in Nepal appears to hold that a woman (like a child) cannot consent to prostitution. Thus, any woman crossing the border may be expected to prove that she isn't being trafficked. I spoke to women applying for passports at the Sindhupalchowk district offices in Chautara. As well as requiring the permission of a parent or guardian, women, unlike men, are interviewed about their intentions and counselled about the dangers they might face. Well-meaning it may be, but the implication is that a woman with a passport must be in search of a brothel.

The conflation of prostitution with trafficking also infects major programmes in Nepal. The United States labour department funds the International Labour Organisation's anti-trafficking programme and will not allow the ILO to use the term "sex work", so Anders Lisborg, an expert on trafficking, chooses his words carefully. The framework of "search and rescue" and the belief that every cross-border bus contains kidnapped women and children destined for Indian brothels is hampering their work, he explains. "Women have a right to the same labour mobility as men. Trafficking is not often about taking someone by force from their village. The main contribution to trafficking is dysfunctional families; alcohol is also a huge problem. Our emphasis has to shift now from interception to prevention and protection."

The ILO is also wary of statistics on trafficking. It suggests that approximately 12,000 women and children are trafficked every year from Nepal but accepts that the figure could be higher. As India is the main destination, and shares a 1,747km open border with Nepal, it would be unrealistic to look for a precise figure.

Yet however one defines trafficking, the desperate and the naive all have to survive in the same shark-infested waters. Human trafficking attracts annual profits of between roughly $5bn and $7bn and is the third-biggest illegal trade after drug smuggling and gun-running. So it is hardly surprising that, like them, it operates with near-impunity. From Morecambe to Melamchi, the big guns behind the lucrative racket never get caught. Occasionally the middlemen do.

Around the world, remittances from migrant workers - both men and women, and certainly including earnings from prostitution - are the mainstay of economies that have been pauperised and abandoned by the rich world. Nepal's central bank reports receipts of $1bn a year from expatriate earnings, though official estimates necessarily do not include informal ways of repatriating money. Some Nepalese economists claim that the repatriation of earnings from non-resident Nepalis now contributes more foreign exchange to the economy than development aid, which itself contributes more than any local industry, including tourism.

We prefer not to look too closely at the despair that drives people to be insulted and exploited in foreign lands, nor at the dehumanising poverty that pushes women and children into the dangers of prostitution.

Instead, in Britain, we obsess about asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants. We rarely think about the migrant workers already here, their rights, our obligations. They occupy the time and space that we, the legitimate, don't use (the small hours, the backstreets, the hotel basements), but now and then an event such as Morecambe forces us to acknowledge the world we are shaping. We in Europe might like to believe we are having a civilised debate about how many lucky migrants will be allowed to catch crumbs from the rich man's table this year. Meanwhile, Morecambe has shown that we are home to some of the worst abuses from trafficking in human beings. The CIA estimates that in the US there are between 45,000 and 50,000 enslaved women and children, taken there under false pretences and forced to work as prostitutes or servants.

The answer to Acharya's question is: "Yes, we do have trafficking." But unlike poverty-stricken Nepal, we prefer not to do anything about it.