MUMBAI, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six Bangladeshi women rescued from four years of forced prostitution in India were stuck in limbo on Thursday as coronavirus prevented their long-awaited return home.
Their ordeal, following years of enforced prostitution, prompted calls for a relaxation in tangled bureaucracy so trafficking victims can head home to their families.
“Coronavirus has only added to the whole process of repatriation,” said Tariqul Islam of Justice and Care, a charity that reintegrates victims in Bangladesh.
“If India and Bangladesh had a standard operating procedure for repatriation, these girls would have been home within six months,” Islam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The six women were tricked into leaving their hometown of Jessore in neighbouring Bangladesh four years ago, then forced to work in Mumbai’s thriving red-light district.
They were rescued from a brothel 10 months ago, and were due to travel on March 26 when the virus halted free movement. The charity said any plans for a March homecoming were now off.
Four people in India have died since coronavirus first hit China, spreading worldwide and killing some 219,000 people.
The women, aged 25 to 30, have travel permits that expire at the end of March, and India has suspended all trains and bus services to Bangladesh to April 15.
The Bangladesh Deputy High Commission office in Mumbai said there were no pending applications for travel permits. Should a travel permit expire before restrictions are lifted, another application can be made, the official said.
Roopa was among the six left in limbo, her ordeal in the sex trade compounded first by bureaucracy and now by coronavirus.
As countries close borders to tackle the epidemic, anti-trafficking campaigners are calling for travel permits such as hers to remain valid once the restrictions end.
Living in a shelter, Roopa said she was devastated by the fresh delay and was desperate to see her family.
“If this hadn’t happened, I would have met my daughter next week. She is seven now. I really don’t know what she likes,” said Roopa, who used her first name to protect her identify.
“I speak to my mother back home, but my daughter stopped talking to me two months ago as she thought I was always lying to her about returning home,” the 25-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Roopa was initially promised a servant’s job in India, like thousands of Bangladeshis trafficked to India each year, many of whom are sold into prostitution or domestic servitude.
Travel permits to Bangladesh are valid for three months and survivors also need a certificate from local government, among many time-consuming procedures in the repatriation process.
In the last eight years, Bangladesh has brought home about 1,750 trafficking survivors from India, predominantly female.
"The girls were happy they were going back home. They had informed their families. This will be an emotional setback for them if the wait stretches," said Triveni Acharya, founder of Rescue Foundation that repatriates sex trafficking victims. (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)