The agonizing 6-month search for Shireen
Acting on Urgent Information On 23rd June, we received an urgent appeal from an anti-trafficking organization in Bangladesh to rescue Shireen*. She was reported to have been sold to a brothel in Pune. The organization requested us to notify them once she was rescued. Since we have a regional office in Pune, we thought rescuing her quickly would be easy. We should have known better. Shireen was transported to three metropolitan cities in India for 6 months as Freedom Firm staff gathered leads, collaborated with independent investigators and lawyers before they were able to rescue her on 22nd January, exactly 6 months after we were alerted.
Desperate to be saved - A Timeline to Shireen’s Rescue June - we immediately checked the brothels in the notorious Budhwarpet red-light area but didn’t find her. Our social worker at West Bengal contacted her family in Bangladesh and learned that Shireen had called in an agony of fear, crying, and begging to be rescued.
July - we got the trafficker’s number from independent sources and our staff in West Bengal contacted her pretending to be a young girl from Bangladesh looking for a job in India. The trafficker promised to get back to her but said she needed to travel to Bangalore in Southern India for work. We now knew that the trafficker was not in Pune, but in Bangalore but had no leads on where Shireen was.
August - we learned that Shireen had called her family in Bangladesh once again (using the trafficker’s phone when she was asleep) crying and asking to be rescued.
September to mid-October - Freedom Firm staff reached out to two local organizations in Bangalore to help conduct investigations but they were unable to assist saying that trafficking was not their focus.
Last Week of October - the Bangalore police conducted a drive to round up illegal Bangladeshis in Bangalore and we wondered if Shireen had been apprehended and was now in police custody. Ashwin, Freedom Firm’s Director of Program immediately called the Joint Commissioner of Police in Bangalore but did not receive any response from him. The aftercare team then reached out to the Child Welfare Committee in Bangalore to know if Shireen was rescued and safe, but they said they hadn’t heard her name. And we knew without a doubt that she wasn’t rescued yet.
The only way to confirm what we believed was to contact the trafficker. Our investigator contacted the trafficker posing as a customer and in what was a slip of the tongue, the trafficker mentioned that she was in Kothanur, Bangalore with Shireen and Shireen’s going rate was Rs.5000 ($70.5) per customer.
November - to save time while our own investigator traveled 1000 miles to reach Bangalore, we hired a private investigator to look for Shireen. The trafficker then sent pictures of Shireen to the investigator and asked him to meet them at a particular location. When our investigator arrived, no one was there. When he called to find out where they were, the trafficker said a better offer had surfaced. Shireen was sent to Chennai, another metropolitan city to service a customer who had agreed to pay Rs. 12000 ($168.11) a day for her and had booked Shireen for the entire week.
December Our investigator kept in touch with the trafficker but was unable to meet Shireen since the trafficker was wary.
January 2020 - When our social worker in West Bengal called Shireen’s family in Bangladesh once again in January she learned that Shireen had called her family on 13th January desperate and pleading for help, but as she was talking the trafficker discovered her and yanked the phone away.
Our investigator meets Shireen in person On 20th January, the trafficker agreed to meet our undercover investigator at a restaurant so he could meet Shireen. Our investigator knew it was Shireen from the photo he carried, but she was thinner, weaker, and looked like she was in pain. After their meal, the trafficker took them to a location where the investigator would engage Shireen. In the room, the investigator sat down and asked Shireen to tell her story. Shireen said that she didn’t like the work, that the brothel keeper made her do it and she was not allowed to tell anyone that she didn’t like it.
Still posing as a customer, our investigator finished his “session”** and walked a short distance away from the brothel. Then he followed Shireen and her trafficker at a safe distance and tracked them to an apartment in a residential area in Bangalore. The next day, our team met the police to show them the surveillance footage of Shireen – clearly trafficked and forced into prostitution.
The police agreed to conduct the rescue operation on the 22nd of January around 12.00 in the afternoon. On the day of the rescue, our surveillance team checked the apartment building posing as individuals looking to rent out an apartment, to confirm that Shireen and her traffickers were in the apartment.
The police step in and Shireen is rescued
The Deputy Superintendent of Bangalore and his staff cooperated and were prompt to rescue Shireen. Shireen was rescued at 12.30 pm on 22nd January, exactly six months after she was trafficked to Pune. We learned later that the apartment which the trafficker had been renting was also being used as a brothel.
Shireen is safe now. Three traffickers were arrested that day and sent to jail.
*name changed to protect identity
**Please note it is not part of Freedom Firm’s undercover protocol to EVER do more than speak with a girl as part of the investigation. When he pays money to engage the girl, an undercover camera is running to keep him accountable as he spends time talking to the victim and recording her story.