On an overcast evening, on a boat criss-crossing a river on the Bangladesh-India border, Payal, 16, hid under a fishing net hoping to reach India where her agent said a dance tutor’s job awaited her.
Days later, she was sold to a brothel in Pune in Maharashtra about 2,000 km away from her homeland – where she says she was “beaten, abused and locked in a room” and forced to have sex with countless men.
Payal was rescued “9 months and 11 days ago” and put up at a shelter in Pune. She didn’t think anyone could help her go home.
About the same time, about 1,500 km away in New Delhi, Mosharaf Hossain, head of the consular section of the Bangladesh High Commission, was clearing travel permits for a rising number of rescued trafficking victims stranded in India.
“I found girls and also boys from Bangladesh who were suffering a lot, waiting for long (times) to return home, because of our slow investigation,” Mr Hossain, who joined the High Commission in March 2015, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I started working faster and soon more alerts on rescued girls started pouring in. I met girls in Kerala who had been staying at a government shelter for seven years waiting.”
Over the past two years Mr Hossain has been on a mission to speed up the repatriation of Bangladeshi girls trafficked to India for the sex industry.
In the past year Mr Hossain has visited shelters across the country, including a shelter run by the non-profit Rescue Foundation in Pune where he met Payal about two weeks ago. She shared her story and her address with him, which was verified.
Her travel permit was issued last week and she will leave for Bangladesh within two months.
“My mother cried when I told her I was coming home. I told her I was in a bad shape until a few months ago, but now I am fine,” Payal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the shelter.
“I am happy I am going home from a shelter and not a brothel.”
Mr Hossain, a former Deputy Inspector General in Bangladesh, has sent about 438 girls home, nearly half of them in the last six months and most from Maharashtra, a major destination for trafficked girls.
Payal said she looks forward to boarding the train with the 17 other girls to Bengal’s capital Kolkata and return to her homeland in Bangladesh.
Campaigners said this is the highest number of girls to be returned in such a short time span to Bangladesh where traffickers target poor women and children and promise them good jobs in India but sell them into brothels or domestic servitude.
Many are rescued but the wait to go home is long despite India and Bangladesh having an inter-country task force for about a decade to organise repatriations, said campaigners.
“The process has only got smoother now as High Commission officials are taking interest,” said Jyoti Nale, programme director for Save the Children India, which works with the Maharashtra government to repatriate girls.
Shiny Padiyara, superintendent of the Rescue Foundation shelter in Pune, has seen girls get restless with the long wait.
“Earlier, the girls stayed at the shelter for two to three years before the travel permit would come. They would get aggressive and in 2015, some girls broke a lot of things and a few ran away,” Padiyara said.
In May this year, 22 girls left the shelter for home, and travel permits have now arrived of 18 of the 19 girls there now.
The waiting period has shrunk to two weeks to a month from four to five months as Mr Hossain follows up on each case with officials and police in Bangladesh and coordinates with charities on both sides of the border to verify addresses and arrange phone calls between the parents and the child.
“I realised that the reaction time is important,” said Mr Hossain. “It is our responsibility to look after our destitute girls and children and ensure they go back home, safe.”
Payal said she looks forward to boarding the train with the 17 other girls to Bengal’s capital Kolkata where an Indian police van will take them to the border.
The girls will be handed over to a charity in the presence of Bangladesh migration officials and then to their parents.
“I look forward to my favourite meal of fish that my mother cooks. Even if she serves me water, I’ll be happy,” Payal said.
Padiyara is delighted to get the girls home but does fear early repatriations could lead to acquittals of the accused in these cases.
“I am not sure if they will have access to video conference facility to appear for their cases that are pending in Indian courts,” said Padiyara.
“It takes two years for the trials to end and these girls don’t have passports to return to India. And nobody wants to stay here.”