The recent case of an alleged trafficking of three Bhutanese women by a Sri Lankan agent after colluding with a Bhutanese woman raises a lot of questions on the gradual, and yet emerging issue of human trafficking in Bhutan.
The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC), with the procedural assistance from the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi, repatriated the three Bhutanese women who have been rescued by the Mumbai Police last week, and entrusted them to their respective guardians upon arriving back to the country.
The girls, in their statement to the Royal Bhutan Police and The Bhutanese, said that they have been lured into the prospect of going to Kurdistan in Iraq by a woman named Tandin Wangmo for jobs in “nail spa” and not in “men’s spa” as reported earlier in an Indian Daily. The police in Mumbai also confirmed as men’s spa when the paper got in touch with one of the inspectors last week. “There has been a miscommunication between us and the police. We definitely said nail spa and even demonstrated by showing our nails to make it clearer, but it was somehow reflected as men’s spa,” said Zangmo, one of the women who has been rescued.
The women told The Bhutanese that before travelling to New Delhi, Tandin Wangmo had promised them jobs as housemaids which would require them to do mostly laundry, but upon reaching New Delhi, she said that there were no vacancies as housemaids in Iraq, and they would have to work in a nail spa in Kurdistan instead. The women were promised a monthly pay package of USD 400-450.
The supposed license holder of an overseas employment agency in Bhutan, Tandin Wangmo was introduced to Zangmo by Seldon, who is Zangmo’s cousin. “I got in touch with Seldon and she said she is working in Iraq, and she further tempted me to come there as well. I asked the process and she told me about Tandin Wangmo, who also got her a job in Iraq,” said Zangmo.
After that, Tandin Wangmo and Zangmo were in touch through the social media, and they decided to meet in person to discuss further on travelling to Iraq. “We met and she said that I only have to pay Nu 3000 to process visa and passport. She also said that I would have to refund Nu 50,000 to her after I start earning once in Iraq, which she explained would be for the logistics and travelling expenses. When my mother and I asked if we can have a legal contract to guarantee that she’ll guide and provide me with a job upon reaching Kurdistan, Tandin Wangmo said that I would then have to pay her Nu 50,000 in cash before departing for Iraq- which I couldn’t afford. So we trusted her and complied with whatever she asked us to do.”
According to them, one of the three women couldn’t afford the Nu 3000 fees, which Tandin Wangmo paid as her sponsor.
Zangmo then shared to her cousin and a friend about such opportunities in Iraq and the three of them, with support from Tandin Wangmo reached New Delhi by train. After several days in New Delhi, the three women had been introduced to a Sri Lankan man (Mohiuddin Fayaz), who is said to own a travel agency. He was known to the women as just ‘Sir.’
The woman agent informed them that there were some complications in processing their visas, and thus, their stay in New Delhi had to be prolonged. “Prior to leaving for Mumbai, Tandin Wangmo informed us that she might not be able to chaperone us till Iraq as promised, and said that everything would be taken care by ‘Sir’ as he is her marketing partner. She reasoned out that there was some problem with her visa. Now, as I try to gather bits and pieces, I remember her stepmother visiting us at the hotel, and although I did not pay much heed to their conversation, I overheard them discussing on managing fake passports, and since I knew nothing, I didn’t find anything suspicious then,” said one of the victims.
The Sri Lankan man flew three of them to Mumbai enroute to Sri Lanka and Iraq on 12 June. “Tandin Wangmo strictly instructed us to tell that we are going to Sri Lanka as tourists for 14 days and asked us not to utter a word about going to Iraq if and when enquired by any of the officials. She said the authorities become suspicious by the mention of Iraq and their law doesn’t permit people to work there,” said Zangmo.
However, at the immigration counter in Mumbai airport, the Sri Lankan man got through the security checks and the officials asked the three women where they were headed. “We said we are going to Sri Lanka on a tourist visa, but the officials got into the specifics and asked us where exactly in Sri Lanka. We were dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say. That made the authorities very suspicious and enquired who is accompanying us. We were asked to call up the Sri Lankan man and police started enquiring him. He said that we are the relatives of his friend and that he had been asked to guide us till Sri Lanka.
“The man was arrested after he was also found to possess a fake passport, and we were kept under the protection of Mumbai police who treated us very well. “When we enquired about our ‘Sir’, the police said that we shouldn’t be bothered about a person who has been plotting to sell us all along,” said Zangmo.
The case is now under investigation by the Investigation Bureau (IB), Royal Bhutan Police and they are in search of Tandin Wangmo who is still at large. One of the officials from the IB said that they called up Tandin Wangmo and when they asked her to report to the police, she kept talking over the phone and said that she was on her way and would reach shortly. However, her phone was switched off by the time police could track her. Her last location showed around the bordering town of Phuntsholing.
According to the women, they said that Tandin Wangmo is a young woman, herself, at just 21 years old and that she has been working in Iraq for more than two years as a marketing officer in an agency, and is also said to have recruited many people to work in Europe, Kuwait, and Qatar including Bhutanese. The women also said that the Mumbai police was able to extract a very long list of people sent to those countries by Tandin and the Sri Lankan man after further interrogation.
Of the three women, two completed their 10th grade in 2014 while the other one is a higher secondary graduate. Prior to their decision to leave for Iraq, one of the girls was working in a hospitality industry and the other two were unemployed.
Upon enquiry, the women admitted to have heard of few brutal stories concerning the jobs overseas, especially as housemaids recruited through unlicensed and unregistered agencies. But they said that didn’t deter them because they trusted a relative like Seldon and Tandin Wangmo without any hesitation or doubt. “We now feel that my cousin, Seldon and Tandin Wangmo must have colluded to lure us into going to Iraq,” said Zangmo.
The Director of NCWC, Kunzang Lhamu, said human trafficking is an emerging issue in Bhutan and needs immediate attention from the relevant stakeholders to address the issue. “There is a need for an effective and efficient institutional mechanism to resolve such issue, and all the relevant stakeholders must come together to find a way forward. The cases on cross-border trafficking needs to be given priority by building stronger connections with the other countries to ensure easy tracking of the criminals,” said the Director. She said that the NCWC already has plans to incorporate sensitization on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) at schools, and especially try to target the vulnerable sections of the society those of who mostly reside in the rural areas.
Meanwhile, Tandin Wangmo’s intention of trying to send the girls to Kurdistan will only be known after tracking her down.