According to the Global Slavery Index, India has more than seven million victims of modern slavery. It is an alarmingly high number, even for a large country like India. The number of victims is increasing each year, while the conviction rate of perpetrators continues to be abysmally low. Nor are convictions the only issue. The cases of trafficking that enter the criminal justice system are just the tip of the iceberg. The natural outcome of all this is that trafficking is one of the lowest risk crimes, not just in India, but all over the world. Traffickers are not scared of being penalized for the brutality and violence they subject their victims to. In light of this reality, the Lok Sabha has recently passed a new Bill for countering human trafficking. Activists and non-governmental organizations are divided in their opinion on this new proposed law. There are several complaints about it.

ANTI-TRAFFICKING LAWS WERE ALREADY IN EXISTENCE

Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code defines trafficking and penalizes offenders. In addition, there exists the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), 1956, which deals with cases of sex trafficking, and Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, which deals with offences of forced labour. So yes, our criminal justice system has already acknowledged the issue. But none, except for certain provisions of the ITPA, provided any relief or rehabilitation to the victims of the offence. It is this which handicaps the criminal justice system’s efforts to secure convictions. With no witness/victim protection mechanism and no rehabilitation schemes, prosecutions suffer for lack of evidence. Laws against human trafficking need to be victim-centric rather than offender-centric.

The new Bill has been drafted with a victim- centric approach. The focus is on protection and rehabilitation of the victims, which is essential, and is missing from the current laws. We need to remember the gravity of the impact the traffickers have on the minds of their victims. For years, they have been made to believe that there is no getting away from the clutches of their exploiters. If they don’t develop Stockholm Syndrome—feelings of trust towards their exploiters—they are either absolutely terrified to tell the truth about what they have been subjected to, or have come to blame themselves for the wrongs done to them. The victims’ coping mechanisms make this offence a unique one in terms of dealing with it.

The Bill also calls for creation of specialized units within the criminal justice system. This is a proven method worldwide when it comes to increasing the efficiency of efforts to combat crimes like human trafficking.

THE RESCUE REHABILITATION MODEL VICTIMIZES VOLUNTARY SEX WORKERS

ITPA was a law that did not draw a fair distinction between sex-trafficking victims and voluntary sex workers. The new law focuses solely on the trafficked persons. It does not address the issue of prostitution if being done by adult women/men voluntarily. Would it overlap in practice? Yes, it might. But the answer is to sensitize law-enforcement officers to ensure the enforcement of the law in its true spirit.

Some activists have expressed concern that even for trafficking victims, the rescue and rehabilitation model has not been effective and infantilizes adults. This criticism seems to ignore a plethora of real-life successful stories of rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficking survivors. These criticisms base their logic on examples of rescued victims who have returned to sex work, therefore questioning the effectiveness of the model. The argument, however, seems to be completely based on examples of failed rehabilitation, which is exactly what the new Bill seeks to address. It does not encourage institutionalization of victims. Rather, it encourages reintegration, with provisions to ensure the protection of vulnerable survivors and that they are not re-trafficked. The new Bill has a robust framework in place to ensure the human agency of trafficking survivors is not snatched away; their dignity has been given prime importance.

TRAFFICKING IS A SOCIOECONOMIC PROBLEM, NOT A CRIMINAL ONE

Most crimes have their roots in socioeconomic problems. That does not mean they ought not to be criminalized. Prevention efforts have to be strengthened without any doubt. But let’s not forget that while poverty and unemployment make people vulnerable to being trafficked—and that needs to be addressed—it is ultimately traffickers who cause trafficking. They need to be made answerable for that. As already mentioned above, trafficking remains one of the lowest risk crimes to commit today, and that needs to be changed.

It is not a perfect law, but it certainly is a better law than before. A lot of the criticism levelled against the Bill seems to be based on certain misunderstandings. The Bill does not criminalize sex work, it does not encourage institutionalization, it does not make consensual migration for work illegal, and it does not infantilize women. Its efficiency will depend on its enforceability and training of law-enforcement officers. Human trafficking is an extremely serious offence, and its enormity calls for a stringent mechanism to counter it. Let’s hope these efforts are fruitful in winning at least some battles in this long war.

Tanima Kishore is a lawyer and special counsel with the Human Trafficking Institute, Uganda.

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