Anti-trafficking NGOs in India are being forced to put their work on hold following public lynchings of 10 people and false rumors of child kidnapping spreading across Facebook and WhatsApp.

Anti-trafficking activists say they fear being targeted as their work involves interacting with vulnerable children — something they fear could be misconstrued as something sinister.

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This Sunday, five people were killed and two beaten up in separate incidents in the western state of Maharashtra.

Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:

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 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.

Adrian Phillips from non-profit Justice and Care said that the rumors on social media were likely to negatively impact anti-trafficking campaigners.

“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.

Investigating officials say that these rumors of child kidnappings often have no real link to actual missing children.

Still, as police officer Harsh Poddar points out, “The rumours are striking at a very primal fear of one’s child being at risk.”

“We want people to be careful about their children but are arresting people for causing public panic.”

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