COVID is leaving hundreds of Indian children orphaned. Now there are concerns of child trafficking

India’s COVID crisis has left a wave of new orphans to fend for themselves, and authorities are concerned about children being “marketed” on WhatsApp and social media posts.

India's COVID orphans

A file photo of an orphan at Balgran charitable Orphanage home in Jammu, India, 24 April 2020. Source: EPA

The messages seem innocent enough.

“Please help these girls get a new life,” one reads.

“There are two girls for adoption, one is three days old and the other is 6 months old. Their parents are expired due to COVID-19.”

But according to local authorities, these alerts popping up in phones across India are doing more harm than good.

Anurag Kundu, from the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says while some messages could be posted out of ignorance or through good will, some may also be cases of children being trafficked or sold. 

“I am concerned about the future of the children who have lost their parents, and ensuring that they don’t fall prey to trafficking is the minimum we can do,” he wrote in a letter to the Delhi police chief.

There are concerns the devastating toll from India’s COVID crisis is leading to a generation of pandemic orphans.

In a country that already has an estimated 20 million orphans, the virus is adding to those ranks with speed.

Their parents are dying in hospitals or homes across the country, and newly-orphaned children wait, alone, for help. 

Often, neighbours are too worried about contracting the virus themselves to help, or distant relatives won't take them in because they can’t provide for them.

In one case in rural north India, a toddler was left to fend for himself when both parents died after contracting the virus.

The neighbours could hear the cries of the child but they were wary of being infected.

“People were reluctant to rush in and were struggling as to what to do or how to respond,” Save the Children India chief executive Sudarshan Suchi told SBS News from Haryana.

“They were afraid, and they were concerned. And that is when they reached out.”

Save the Children arranged for an ambulance to take the child to get medical help, before notifying local child welfare authorities.

Mr Suchi says his organisation is being inundated with such requests for help, with hundreds of cases of COVID orphans in the last few weeks coming through.

“There are many more children who are coming into distress now, getting orphaned,” he said.

“What we try to do is, if there's an immediate health issue and subsequent to that, we make sure that the due processes of child safeguarding are followed.”

But his other major concern is the abandoned children he’s not hearing about.

“All those requests which are not able to come right now, due to the social distancing, lack of communication and the lockdown efforts. That's of larger concern for us,” Mr Suchi said.

In the past few weeks, the stories of India’s COVID orphans are emerging across social and mainstream media.

In one video circulating on Twitter, three young children sit crying outside their home after the body of their mother, wrapped in a white sheet, is dragged out by neighbours.

The problem is so acute that around India, hotlines are being set up by government agencies, NGOs and aid groups to allow people to report children orphaned by COVID, and those in need of immediate care because their parents are too ill.

Some good samaritans like Akancha Srivastava are taking up the task individually, setting up their own reporting mechanisms to assist vulnerable children whose parents have died after falling ill with the virus.

Ms Srivastava, a cyber-safety expert, has set up a WhatsApp helpline number where people can send details of orphaned children to her.

Working remotely, she verifies the cases, checks to see if the children are in need of immediate medical help, jots down details and flags the cases to child welfare authorities and police.

The idea came to her after she read news articles about concerns for India’s pandemic orphans.

“I lost my parents very young and I know the trauma of when you cremate your parents and you come back and in a situation like this,” she told SBS News.

“Where does the child go? That really hit me hard.”

Within hours of setting up the messaging line, she began receiving thousands of alerts. Many of them were spam but Ms Srivastava now has 20 active cases she’s working on.

The people who alert her to new cases are usually distant relatives of the orphans who don’t have the capacity to care for them, neighbours of the child, or well-meaning strangers without the means to follow-up the whole process with child welfare authorities.

The children, she says, are in disbelief and feeling helpless.

“They're utterly shocked and numb, because I don't think it has sunk in what has really happened, because the deaths have been so quick, the deterioration.”

She’s recently helped an eight-year-old boy who was left home alone after his father died in hospital two days after being admitted.

“Just imagine, (to him) his father's just disappeared,” Ms Srivastava says.

Concerned neighbours rang Ms Srivastava for help.

“An eight year old, all alone,” Ms Srivastava says.

“That's extremely scary, and it has a huge scarring effect on the child.”

Ms Srivastava alerted child welfare authorities who took the child into their care. 

But she stresses the importance of following the right procedures in the whole procedure, ensuring children are always in the care of authorities.

“There are so many rackets right now about child adoption,” she says.

“People are just manipulating the sentiment in a lot of childless parents where they are saying ‘Oh you know, you can easily adopt all these abandoned kids,’. No you can't. You just can't do that - that's illegal, and it can lead to, you know, sex trafficking. So we are being extremely cautious.”

It’s a concern also shared by Mr Suchi.

“This is a very real fear right now, that in absence of a physical monitoring ability and emotions running high, the chances of abuse and chances of child trafficking are very real and very high,” he said.

6 min read
Published 7 May 2021 at 12:37pm
By Rashida Yosufzai