About the Author: Atul Keshap is Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Nepali citizens are dependent on money sent in by expats and relatives abroad, and this dependence, combined with crippling poverty, instability, and other social ills, sometimes opens up vulnerabilities to migrant exploitation. Remittances make up approximately 20 percent of Nepal's GDP. Last week, I met with the non-governmental organization "Pourakhi" (translates roughly as "empowerment"), which is dedicated to helping overseas workers who were exploited by unscrupulous job placement agencies or their employers. This survivor-managed organization is doing a fantastic job, and the stories from the women were heartwrenching.
One of the survivors I met at Pourakhi told me her story. A smiling woman from rural Nepal, her demeanor quickly changed as she told me what had happened to her, and she started to choke up. "I worked hard as a housekeeper, but my employer wouldn't pay me my wages," she said. "They fed me bad food, threatened to call immigration on me, and locked me up so I wouldn't escape. I appealed to the manpower agency that sent me there, but they weren't interested in helping me. I escaped and went to the police. But instead of going to my employer, they locked me up."
Her husband died while she was in jail, and his family threatened to take her baby from her. She managed to return with her baby to Nepal, where she met the women of Pourakhi. As she related her experience, the other survivors of trafficking and migrant exploitation stared at the ground, clearly remembering their own horrific experiences that paralleled her story.
A shy 19-year-old young woman at Pourakhi (pictured above, with her face obscured for her safety) was so traumatized by her experience, she could not remember anything that happened. She was virtually catatonic when representatives of Pourakhi picked her up from the airport. The organization even had to help her re-learn how to eat her food. When the girl was 16, her parents helped her get a passport that falsified her age as 23, and sent her through a staffing company to work abroad for two years. Her passport showed stamps from two Gulf States, but she could tell me nothing about what had happened there.
Remittances are a powerful draw for impoverished Nepalis, but there are significant risks. Often, the employers are abusive, the work is essentially bonded labor, the staffing agencies are unscrupulous, and the women are trafficked into jobs they had no intention of taking, including in the sex industry. According to Pourakhi, Nepali families continue to sell their daughters to brokers for as low as USD 70. Even the women who work legitimate jobs in the Gulf States, the major destination for Nepali workers, face stigma when they return home. People assume that because the girls worked there, they must have been violated, and, as a result, are tainted.
I deeply respect and appreciate the courage these survivors showed in sharing their personal and traumatic experiences with me. I applaud the efforts of the many organizations in Nepal that, like Pourakhi, are providing critical emergency services to these women, and helping them reintegrate into their society while pursuing legal claims against the staffing companies who exploit them. Ambassador DeLisi and I had productive talks with Nepal's Home Minister and the Chief Secretary about this issue. I also learned a great deal about the complexities, challenges, and opportunities for progress in a discussion with five U.S. Government-supported NGOs in Nepal that have been fighting trafficking and migrant exploitation for years. Human trafficking is a disgusting business, and only a global response that addresses both the supply and demand can effectively slow this growing industry.