Traffickers lure Indian girls into sex slavery with 'Taj Mahal' promise

NEW DELHI, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human traffickers in India are luring village girls into sex slavery with promises of visiting the Taj Mahal, a charity said on Monday, as criminal gangs find new ways to enslave the poor.

Rishi Kant, of anti-trafficking charity Shakti Vahini, said 15 girls and young women were last week rescued from a brothel in the northern city of Agra, home to the 17th century white marble mausoleum which draws millions of tourists annually.

"For many days we were looking for six girls reported missing by their families in West Bengal state and finally managed to trace them to a brothel in Agra's red light district," Kant told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Human trafficking in India
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Human trafficking in India
MUMBAI, INDIA - 2009/02/01: An Indian taxi driver on the streets of Mumbai. He is a rural migrant guestworker and says openly that he and his friends tend to buy sex from Nepalese girls. Many men in India prefer the Nepalese women because of their 'innocent looks'. Many of the women and girls they pay to have sex with are sex slaves, trafficked across the border from Nepal.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - 2009/01/30: Bombay. City of Dreams. For a fortunate few the dream comes true. Others may see both their dreams and their future betrayed. Every year some 12,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal to brothels in India, where already 200,000 Nepalese women and girls are working. Most of these sex slaves are conned into making the trip with offers of ficticious jobs, others are simply sold to the traffickers and brothel owners.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - 2009/02/03: A man leaves a house in the red-light district where numerous Nepalese women and girls who have been trafficked across the border live and work, often as sex slaves, locked up and servicing as many as 10 men or more per day, paying off fictitious debts.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - 2009/02/01: Rajan lives in the brothel area in Kamathipura where numerous Nepalese women and girls who have been trafficked across the border live and work, often as sex slaves, locked up and servicing as many as 10 men or more per day, paying off fictitious debts.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SUNAULI, NEPAL - 2009/02/07: Maiti Nepal's anti-sex slave workers, who are patrolling the Nepal/India border crossing points, find a girl on a bus who doesn?t know the name of her new alleged place of work. She?s taken off the bus by forcible means. After some quick calls she is informed that the job she was heading for in India, a job as a secretary, doesn?t exist. She lowers her gaze upon finding out. She?s sent home to her family and gets her childhood back. Maiti Nepal is an organization fighting the sex trade in Nepal and the trafficking of girls and women into India.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SUNAULI, NEPAL - 2009/02/08: Maili, who works for Maiti Nepal, questions girls and young women who may be being trafficked across the border into India as sex-slaves. She always looks the passengers in the eye and asks the young girls: 'Where are you from?' and 'how well do you know the people you are travelling with?' Maili says that it is easy to see if someone is lying. 'We ourselves have been in exactly the same situation as those we are questioning.' Each car, bicycle taxi and bus is checked. Last year 1,618 girls were rescued and got their childhood back. Approximately 12,000 broke through Maiti Nepal's cordon. The odds are on the traffickers side.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SUNAULI, NEPAL - 2009/02/08: Maili, who works for Maiti Nepal, walks through a bus looking for girls and young women who may be being trafficked across the border into India as sex-slaves. She looks the passengers in the eye and asks the young girls: 'Where are you from?' and 'how well do you know the people you are travelling with?' Maili says that it is easy to see if someone is lying. 'We ourselves have been in exactly the same situation as those we are questioning.'. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SUNAULI, NEPAL - 2009/02/10: The slave traders provide the girls with fake IDs and instructions on how to behave in order to dupe Maiti Nepal?s frontier guards. The latest smuggling trick is to hide the girls in gasoline trucks, or simply to drive past the border guards at full speed in jeeps with tinted windows. Maiti Nepal is an organization fighting the sex trade in Nepal and the trafficking of girls and women into India. They have border patrol guards manning the numerous crossing points twenty four hours a day.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KATHMANDU, NEPAL - 2009/01/19: Breakfast at the Maiti Nepal Rehabilitation Center in Kathmandu. Maiti Nepal is an organization fighting the sex trade in Nepal and the trafficking of girls and women into India. About 200 women and children live at the Rehabilitation Center. Everybody here has one thing in common - they are all former sex slaves or children of sex slaves.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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"With police, we conducted a raid and found the six girls, and nine others. They had been confined there for two months and forced to have sex with customers. They said they had gone with the trafficker as he promised to take them to see the Taj."

Almost 46 million people are enslaved worldwide - trafficked into brothels, forced into manual labor, victims of debt bondage or even born into servitude - according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

Forty percent, or more than 18 million, are in India. Many are from poor rural regions and lured with the promise of good jobs or marriage but end up sold into prostitution, domestic work, or industries such as brick kilns or textile units.

Kant said interviews with the rescued girls suggested that using the Taj Mahal to lure victims was "an emerging trend" employed by traffickers, who are constantly finding new ways to enslave people as public awareness of the crime spreads.

"There are many initiatives in trafficking-prone areas such as public campaigns to inform people about human trafficking and how these traffickers operate," said Kant.

"But these criminal gangs are also very clever and using new ways to cheat poor illiterate communities. We need to know about these methods and incorporate them into our public awareness work."

The six girls, all aged between 17 and 19 and from villages in the impoverished district of South 24 Parganas on India's eastern border with Bangladesh, were reported missing in March, said Kant.

They were initially taken to Delhi where they were kept in a small flat for six days and then transported to Agra in Uttar Pradesh state - 230 km (140 miles) from the capital - where they were sold to a brothel, he added.

One of girls had managed to phone her family and police traced the mobile phone to Agra. They raided the brothel on Thursday and found the girls hidden in a secret bunker under a bed in one of the rooms. Two of the girls are pregnant.

There were also nine other victims in the brothel.

The victims have been reunited with their families, said Kant, adding that the priority was to ensure they were given medical and psychological support. The brothel owner, a 24-year-old woman, has been arrested. Police are still looking for the traffickers, added Kant.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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