By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in India in 2016, a rise of nearly 25 percent from the previous year, government data released on Thursday showed.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development told parliament that 19,223 women and children were trafficked last year against 15,448 in 2015, with the highest number of victims recorded in the eastern state of West Bengal.
Police officials attributed the rise to increased public awareness of trafficking-related crimes and more police training.
"It's difficult to claim these crimes are rising dramatically," said a senior Delhi police official, who declined to be named.
"I think more victims are coming forward and reporting because of more information about trafficking," the official said. "Government and civil society groups are doing campaigns and people are also seeing more cases being reported in the media."
The official said the actual figure could be much higher as many victims were still not registering cases with the police, largely because they did not know the law or feared traffickers.
South Asia, with India at its centre, is one of the fastest-growing regions for human trafficking in the world.
Thousands of people – largely poor, rural women and children – are lured to India's towns and cities each year by traffickers who promise good jobs, but sell them into modern day slavery.
Some end up as domestic workers, or forced to work in small industries such as textile workshops, farming or are even pushed into brothels where they are sexually exploited.
In many cases, they are not paid or are held in debt bondage. Some go missing, and their families cannot trace them.
The 2016 data from the National Crime Records Bureau showed that almost equal numbers of women and children were trafficked.
Figures showed there were 9,104 trafficked children last year -- a 27 percent increase from the previous year. The number of women trafficked rose by 22 percent to 10,119 in 2016.
India's West Bengal state - which shares a porous border with poorer neigbours Bangladesh and Nepal and is a known human trafficking hub for that reason - registered more than one-third of the total number of victims in 2016.
The desert state of Rajasthan recorded the second highest number of trafficked children in 2016, while the western state of Maharashtra, where India's business capital Mumbai is located, showed the second highest number of trafficked women. (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)