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28 Apr 2018

Traffickers and their myriad traps

US consul-general Craig Hall speaks at the anti-trafficking conclave at the American Center on Friday
Chandreyee Ghose, TT,  Apr 28, 2018, Calcutta: Traffickers are getting savvy - they are lurking in WhatsApp groups, behind Tinder profiles and on social media, mapping vulnerable targets. Some of their targets are girls as young as 10.

The growing menace of online trafficking was discussed on the first day of the Seventh Anti-Trafficking in Persons Conclave, which started at the American Center on Friday. Co-hosted by the US consulate general, Calcutta, and Delhi-based NGO Shakti Vahini, the conclave brought together activists, policy-makers and community leaders, who discussed various issues and suggested solutions.

The rising incidence of online trafficking, bullying and sexual harassment is a case in point.

"Traffickers have entered our children's bedroom. As parents sleep, a child may be unknowingly chatting with a potential threat. Most kids have access to smartphones. We have had cases of victims in their pre-teens," said Ravi Kant, the founder of Shakti Vahini. He highlighted a rising trend of rape videos being circulated and a rising number of young girls being unknowingly exploited by online traffickers.

Girls, and even boys, in Siliguri and the Sunderbans are believed to be the most vulnerable.

"Most child pornography videos are uploaded from Siliguri, often outsourced by international crime networks. We need to have digital monitoring cells in each district," Kant said.

Participating academics, lawyers and activists stressed the need for police to be more aware about cyber crime and how to handle it.
The speakers called for extensive awareness campaign in schools, colleges and hostels.

Social activist Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of NGO network Impulse, spoke how young people are being targetted through dating sites such as Tinder and even some travel sites.

"So many youngsters want to travel the world. They often sign up for short-term jobs, offered online, hoping to earn money on the way.

"Some of these offers are traps in disguise and before one even realises she has already given her consent to be an escort," she said, adding that in the last five years there had been almost a 15 per cent increase in online trafficking.

The biggest danger comes from unmonitored Whatsapp groups, experts pointed out. "NGOs have mushroomed and many of them try to rescue girls through WhatsApp groups. Traffickers often lurk in these unauthorised and unmonitored groups where profiles of victims and their details are being shared. This makes them more vulnerable," Kharbhih warned.

How traffickers map the profile of targets online and hook "emotionally fragile" people through their posts on social media was also discussed.

"We need to be more equipped as society to tackle the growing number of online crime," Kant said, as trends in Bengal and its neighbouring states were being discussed.

There were also discussions on cross-border trafficking, related laws, victim repatriation, community initiatives and rehabilitation through dance therapy.

The evening ended with the screening of documentary Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer and with performance storytelling.

"In the last seven years we have seen great examples of collaboration where civil society organisations have worked hand-in-hand with local government and law enforcement in combating trafficking. The United States and India are working together to end all forms of human trafficking," US consul-general Craig Hall said at the inauguration.

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