Government data released on Thursday shows 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.
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 attribute the rise in human trafficking cases to heightened public awareness of trafficking-related crimes and increased police training. They say the actual figure could be much higher as many victims were still not reporting their cases to the police, largely because they did not know the law or feared traffickers and retaliation.
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 human traffickers with promises of good jobs, but instead are sold into modern day slavery.
Some end up as domestic workers, or are forced to work in small industries such as textile workshops or farms, or are even shoved into brothels to be sexually exploited.
Many are unpaid or are held in debt bondage. Some go missing, and are unable to be traced by their families.
According to the data, 9,104 children were trafficked 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 neighbors Bangladesh and Nepal, and is a known human trafficking hub as a result—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.