Swedish NGO Under Investigation for Creating Fake 'Rescue' Stories to Solicit Donations

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

A Swedish NGO, Love and Hope (formerly LoveNepal) in Nepal collected donations from Swedish people based on false claims of “saving children from brothels” and posting photographs on social media of three girls they claimed to be sex workers.

In 2016, the organisation collected SEK 32 million, an increase of SEK 13 million from the year before. This was largely due to exposure in the media in Sweden, following the messages and posts from the organisations’ Facebook page and Instagram account. One of the most popular posts, which went viral, showed a picture of 3 Nepalese girls around the age of 8. The organisation also posted photos of the children again as teenagers. The accompanying text read "three girls around the age of 8. Prostitutes and total destruction. Three girls 6 years later. Full of hope and faith in a future they never thought were there. They laugh, they smile, their eyes are full of life again. It's this one that is LoveNepal. Thanks for joining and making it possible!"

Håkan Gabrielsson, from the charity organisation Out of Ashes based in Nepal described this post as “purely fantasy." He told media how the photos used for this social media post by LoveNepal are the same photos he showed Mikael Alfven in 2009, one of the founders of LoveNepal. Gabrielsson claims that the pictures have been used nonconsensually, and that the accompanying story has been made up to solicit donations. Hannah Badi, a Nepalese woman who has spoken out about her experiences with the charity, said the charity often uses fake stories to elicit emotions and money from the Swedish public.

Hannah Badi, a woman from the Badi community, said Mikael coached her to lie about her background to make a “better story” to increase donations. When she shared her story for the first time, she says Mikael told her “this is not enough, this is not a strong story.” He allegedly encouraged her to talk about sex slavery in brothels and to cry when talking about the Badi people. She was told to share “really emotional things” so that people will believe her and donate to the charity. Even though Hannah was not a sex slave in the brothel, she was persuaded to say so. She spoke of how nervous she felt lying, but Mikael would give thumbs up and say “remember remember” asking her to cry when telling parts of the story. She condemned his actions and those of LoveNepal, stating in a video, “he didn’t sell our bodies, but he sold our stories, he sold our feelings, he sold our emotions and he sold our love.”

Nepal’s 1853 civil code codified discrimination against the Badi community as a socially and economically disadvantaged Dalit caste in Nepal.

Taruna Badi explains her experience as a Badi woman in Nepal. "If we try to start a business with the help of loans, customers ostracize our establishments on the grounds that they are run by ‘untouchable’ Dalits. What is an alternative then for means of survival?”

Since 2007, sex work bans introduced into local areas of Nepal have made life harder, especially when combined with lack of social welfare and the absence of other employment opportunities. Maya Badi says the ban worsens women’s lives by making it harder to earn any living.

"The state had agreed to rehabilitate the Badi community and provide employment, but these assurances have been limited to paper alone” said National Badi Rights Struggle Committee to reporters in 2011.

Mikael often brought women from Nepal to Sweden to dance in front of Swedish audiences, and to solicit donations for the organisation. Hannah Badi explained, “we said that ‘if you say we're going to dance we'll do it’ because we thought 'he's our hero, he gave us money for food and we could go to school.' But when I started dancing, I remember every day of my old life.” Hannah attended two tours in Sweden, organised by LoveNepal: "I saw my own eyes that the Swedes really gave, really a lot of money, at every meeting. Everyone who came to the cry cried.”

Since 2010, representatives of LoveNepal and later Love and Hope have repeatedly described how they save Nepalese girls from sex slavery at the Indian border. In a post on Facebook in January 2016, they stated "we are in a brothel where the darkness is total" and a little further down that "there is now an emergency rescue operation where we already have many girls free."

However, people on the ground in Nepal say that LoveNepal has never saved any children from the brothels. After mounting public pressure, on 29 June LoveNepal issued a statement on Facebook addressing the complaints, explaining the truth was ”we Swedes are not involved in any rescue operations." Reporters from Swedish media AftonBladet said the organisation’s most high profile representative, Jonathan Alfvén had written on June 21, “I'm continuously in these dark areas" and that he is working with contacts "who brings me to these women and children" on brothels in India.

Jonathan’s mother, Marie Alfvén told reporters her son is not involved in rescue operations, but works in a "different way" with a team in northern India where he is in a brothel and “builds confidence” and could therefore start a school for the children who live in brothels.

When questioned by reporters if what they were doing was making sure children went to school, not “saving children from brothels” Alfvén responded "that's the same."

After the interview with Marie Alfvén, the Facebook page where Jonathan Alfvén wrote about "these dark areas" was no longer available.

Swedish Collecting Control has received several complaints against Love and Hope from private individuals. “We have them under extra investigation.” said Sweden’s regulatory body, who added that they were investigating the complaints and currently reviewing [LoveNepal’s] financial statements.