CHENNAI (REUTERS) - The public lynchings of at least 10 people in India on false rumours of child kidnap has forced anti-trafficking charities to put their work on hold, fearing they could be targeted.
Fake messages about child kidnappings spread on Facebook and WhatsApp have triggered attacks in more than half a dozen Indian states, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 people.
On Sunday (July 1), five people were killed and two beaten up in separate incidents in the western state of Maharashtra.
Five charities told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had been forced to postpone work after the attacks, and there were fears traffickers could exploit the public anger.
"The messages are a combination of old video clips, headlines and messages that are spreading like fire," said Ms Anita Kaniya, India CEO of anti-trafficking charity The Freedom Project.
"We have had to put on hold a survey we were doing of children trafficked into beggary in Bengaluru since it involves taking pictures, talking to children, and our motives may be questioned."
A 26-year-old man was lynched in May in the southern Indian technology hub of Bengaluru on suspicion of being a kidnapper after a warning that 400 child traffickers were arriving spread on WhatsApp.
Mr Adrian Phillips, advocate for the non-profit Justice and Care, warned traffickers would exploit the trend.
"These actions colour genuine anti-trafficking cases very negatively, such that suspicions will be raised about motives and genuine cases may not be taken seriously everywhere," he said.
In India, a country with over a billion phone subscribers with access to cheap mobile data, false news messages and videos can instantly go viral, creating mass hysteria and stirring up communal tensions.
Investigating officials say the rumours have targeted outsiders, from holidaymakers to migrant workers from other states, and there is often no link with actual cases of missing children.
"The rumours are striking at a very primal fear of one's child being at risk," said police officer Harsh Poddar, referring to the lynching of two people in Maharashtra on Sunday.
"We want people to be careful about their children, but are arresting people for causing public panic."
About 40 million people were living as modern slaves last year - either trapped in forced labour or forced marriages - says the United Nations International Labour Organisation and rights group Walk Free Foundation.
South Asia is one of the fastest-growing regions for human trafficking.
Indian government data show reports of trafficking rose by almost 20 per cent in 2016 against the previous year.
Nearly half of victims were trafficked for the purposes of forced labour, and 33 per cent for sexual exploitation such as prostitution and child pornography.