KOLKATA, INDIA – After more than 40 hours of waiting and two failed attempts, IJM helped police rescue 14 young women from sex trafficking in a roadside brothel, where they had been trapped in squalor and violence.
This week is Durga Puja in India, a Hindu festival that is widely celebrated in the state of West Bengal. City populations swell as people venture in for the holiday. Traffic grinds to a halt as carnival rides and families dressed in their best fill the streets. Extra police are called in for crowd control. It’s like Carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And as travelers flock to the city, red-light areas are busier than ever.
Uncovering the Violence
One port city about three hours outside Kolkata has a residential area where men know to go to buy cheap sex. These brothels often front as hotels, though some are housed in dilapidated buildings that resemble a shed more than anything. The brothel operators run their businesses here as if they are above the law.
IJM discovered girls trapped in one of these shack-like brothels along a busy highway, and they mobilized police to take action. Although most police officers were busy with Durga Puja duties, a unit was deployed to lead the operation.
Twice, the Brothel Was Empty
The rescue team showed up at the brothel on Friday, September 26. The streets were eerily quiet. Somehow, the brothel managers had found out about the planned anti-trafficking operation and cleared out all of the girls and women. In fact, every brothel within a four-mile radius was emptied.
“It was very upsetting,” said one of the IJM staff on the operation, “but we weren’t without hope.” Instead of returning to Kolkata, they checked into a local hotel and spent most of the night planning another attempt.
But when they returned the next morning, the brothel was empty. Information had leaked, and the girls were nowhere to be found.
“We were so frustrated,” said Pasang Bhutia, an IJM aftercare manager who was there to help counsel the girls they had planned to rescue.
What They Finally Found Inside the Brothel
Refusing to give up, the IJM team decided to wait until Saturday evening. This time they went back with another special reserve police unit. And this time, the streets were congested as they got closer to the brothel.
As they approached on foot, an IJM staff member spotted a brothel manager running away; police sprang into action and successfully arrested him in the middle of the street. The rest of the team rushed inside.
The stench and filth was overwhelming. Standing water and sewage was visible between cracked floorboards; mattresses were rotting and trash bins were overflowing. A rat skittered across the floor.
The police and IJM team found more than a dozen girls and women hiding underneath beds and behind closed doors.
Many trafficking victims have been coerced and deceived by traffickers who tell them they will be arrested—or worse—if ever they are found out. IJM staff were quick to assure the young women that they were not in trouble, they were finally safe.
A New Story
Police arrested seven suspects and took them into custody that night. They also ordered the brothel closed, and a padlock now hangs on the door made from old wooden planks and bent iron. IJM will work with officials on the case so that the traffickers are restrained from harming others.
The young women went back to the police station, kept separate from the suspected traffickers. Slowly, they started to open up and share about life inside the horrible brothel. Some cried as they told how they had been desperately poor and accepted this job as a way out; instead, they were trapped and never paid. Two of the survivors had been trafficked across the border from Bangladesh.
The next day, all of the young women moved to aftercare shelters for sex trafficking survivors. IJM social workers will continue to visit them and help each one create a long-term aftercare plan. In addition to offering trauma counseling, IJM social workers help survivors develop a support network and get access to education, work, or skills training they need to stay safe in freedom.
After more than 40 hours, the IJM team returned to Kolkata. “God had a very different narrative than what we had planned when we set out,” IJM Kolkata director Biju Mathew said. “We persevered, but we cannot take credit here. This is clearly a result of answered prayer.”
See the brothel by watching this video.