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Why should the media cover human trafficking? 

A year before the pandemic broke out, at a shelter run by an NGO in Chennai, I met two young Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, who were being trafficked through Chennai to Malaysia. All that the young girls knew is that they were being sent to Malaysia to “marry” grooms of their parents’ choice though the girls themselves were not keen on it. “My sister got married to a man in Malaysia seven years ago. I have not seen her since then but she talks to us on the phone,” said one of them. 

Both young women were from a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, their families having fled from Myanmar a few years ago, seeking refuge in Bangladesh. Alert immigration officials in Chennai airport rescued the young girls and the two men with them were arrested. The girls were produced before Child Welfare Committee, and then handed over to Madras Christian Council of Social Service (MCCSS), which has been working to repatriate Bangladeshi girls and women under the Ujjawala scheme funded by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, New Delhi, which aims to prevent human trafficking. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of July 31, 2019, over 7,42,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, 2017. Many agencies have been working to help the displaced people. Fortify Rights, a non-profit human rights organization based in southeast Asia, has been tracking Rohingya people on the move from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many Rohingya refugees are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation during their journeys. The organization has also documented some cases of Rohingya women being sold into marriages in Malaysia.   

Authorities struggled with the red tape involved in repatriating them as they were refugees. While the plight of these trafficked women made it to page one of an English daily, the fact is that it is often these event-based, “newsworthy” stories that are highlighted in the media. Newspapers need a strong news angle, so stories are done when arrests are made.  But there is a strong need for sustained, investigative and evidence-based coverage of the issue as human trafficking is a complex issue, and the news stories only touch the tip of the iceberg. Sustained coverage of cases or issues also puts pressure on law enforcement agencies, politicians and the government to take action as it keeps the issue alive in the public domain. 

Human trafficking, which UNODC describes as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit”, remains one of the most organized crimes.  In India, it remains one of the most significant human rights issues. 

According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), 2,834, 2,914 and 2,222 children were trafficked in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. Over 4,700 people were trafficked in 2020, of which 1,377 were minor boys and 845 were minor girls. 

Media can play a huge role by not just creating awareness about the issue, molding public opinion and mobilizing public support and involvement to help prevent and combat trafficking but also by influencing policymakers.

Though people are aware that human trafficking exists, not many know how it works, or how it can be prevented. Most of the information they gather about the issue is from media – newspapers, TV, or now, online news portals and even social media. 

Investigative, evidence-based reporting will help highlight the issue and also help law enforcement agencies and government officials take necessary action. 

Investigative journalism brings to light the seriousness of the problem and makes the public aware of the gravity of the issue and the need to address it. It also makes responders respond, putting pressure on police and government officials to swing into action, which can lead to more arrests, and rescue of trafficked persons. 

A lack of evidence is often the reason why survivors don’t get justice and many traffickers walk away scot-free. Evidence-based reporting helps support legal proceedings and comes to the aid of law enforcement agencies as it strengthens their cases when they approach the judiciary. This can result in more convictions. 

For this, journalists need to be equipped with the tools to dig deeper into the issue and also be sensitized on how to cover it. Newsrooms often demand data but these are not easy to come by as statistics related to human trafficking are often not readily available, are often not comprehensive and do not reflect the ground reality. This is because not all cases of human trafficking are reported, and few survivors come forward to share their stories. Also, activists, NGOs, law enforcement agencies and government officials need to work together and there should be a centralized database. 

The impact of how the media can urge people to take action was best seen in the case of the young Rohingya girls being trafficked to Malaysia. Their story caught the attention of a Chennai-based celebrity running a charitable foundation. While the government authorities dealt with the formalities, the Good Samaritan sponsored new clothes for them and their families as well as their travel back home. While it seems like a happy ending, activists keep their fingers crossed – will their impoverished families arrange for another “marriage”? If yes, will lady luck remain on the side of the girls? Only time will tell. 


By Priya M Menon, Senior Journalism Advisor, South Asia, Journalism Centre on Global Trafficking, TWG Client