Inflated figures hurt the real work of rescuing children from slavery

by Lt Col Philip Holmes, CEO of ChoraChori
Monday, 18 April 2016 14:06 GMT

In this file October 21, 2015 photo, a girl looks out from a window as people (unseen) gather near the temple for the sacrificial ceremony of a buffalo during the "Dashain", Hinduism's biggest religious festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I’ve been working on an ambitious Business Plan. Over the next 10 years my charity, ChoraChori, will be working with its Nepalese and Indian partner NGOs to reduce child trafficking across the border between the two countries. The basic tenet of the Plan is that the best – and most measurable – way of reducing trafficking is by finding the traffickers and putting them in prison. This not only neutralises them (for up to 20 years in accordance with Nepal’s very strict anti-trafficking legislation) but serves to deter others. Key to this is the need to rescue their victims, protect and support them to give evidence against the traffickers.

I can present this approach with some authority. Between 2004 and 2011, I headed a programme in Nepal that aimed to close down the trafficking of Nepalese children to become performers inside Indian circuses. The children in fact became slaves and were subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. During that time we and our NGO partners collaborated with the Indian and Nepalese authorities to rescue children by raiding the circuses themselves.

We freed around 350 children with a similar number released voluntarily by the circuses wishing to avoid our attention and the associated negative publicity. In parallel we tracked down the traffickers in Nepal and put all 18 of them behind bars. In April 2011, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that children could no longer be used as performers but this very welcome development was merely putting the seal of sustainability on our work. For by then, we were finding hardly any Nepalese children on our circus raids. The trafficking route had been closed at both ends with both procurement and demand drying up.

When my mentor reviewed my Business Plan he commented that the number of children we proposed to rescue in future was very low. He felt I should be increasing the number by a factor of 10 to provide what would appear to be a better Return on Investment (ROI). I replied that the figure was about right, given the need to run the programme properly. Rescue, challenging as it can be, is in many ways the easy bit. For with rescue comes the moral and practical requirement to provide for the children’s rehabilitation and long-term needs. These may be psychological – nearly all the children we brought back from the circuses had some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – or material.

Often children could not be returned to the dysfunctional domestic settings that were central to their being trafficked in the first place. In addition to providing shelter, survivors also need education and training to prepare for adult life and be reintegrated into society. All of these requirements involve a long term commitment and if children and young people aren’t to be re-trafficked these challenges have to be met. This keeps the numbers that can be managed from within finite resources quite low. That is unavoidable.

I have been appalled in the past by how some organisations claim to rescue thousands, and tens of thousands. There is often no independent verification of these inflated figures and the definition of “rescue” can vary. I once met a lad at a “rehabilitation centre” in India who was herding goats when the NGO swooped on him and claimed him as a prize. He became another statistic that no doubt allowed that organisation to continue to lever grants from donors who are mesmerised by headlines and potential ROI. Therein lies the obscenity. It is these predatory organisations that hoover up the available funds while the honest ones have to scrabble around, work hard and look elsewhere. That’s why I ran the Paris Marathon earlier this month, raising £7,500 in the process but still only a fraction of what we need.

Happily I was able to reassure my mentor that the Plan still offered a good ROI. Assuming 50 traffickers are imprisoned over the next 10 years and that each would have trafficked (a modest) 20 children per year, over the average sentence of 10 years in prison this equates to 10,000 children who are not trafficked through their incarceration. The deterrence factor, while unquantifiable, would add further to this total.

For me, that’s worth the money and let’s hope for the sake of Nepal’s children we can find the funds we need.

Lt Col Philip Holmes resigned from a successful career in the British Army following the death of his first wife in 1999, setting up a charity for Nepalese children in her memory. He is now the CEO of ChoraChori which fights the trafficking of Nepalese children into India.