Three Rohingya families from Myanmar comprising 13 people were rescued in the northern Indian city of Agra at the weekend after being enslaved for a year as rag pickers, authorities said.
The three families came to India after an agent at a refugee camp in Bangladesh promised them jobs, but they worked long hours for no pay, according to activists who alerted the authorities.
United Nations officials have warned that refugee camps in Bangladesh are fertile territory for human traffickers and the scale of a recent influx from Myanmar was putting more people at risk.
‘The employers had paid these agents money and did not pay them any wages saying the amount was being adjusted against the work they were doing,’ said Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour, that took part in the rescue.
‘They came to India thinking they would find a job and safety ... but they lived in a polythene hut, the rent for which was being deducted from their non-existent wages.’
Officials said no police case against the employer has been filed with an investigation underway but confirmed the refugees were enslaved.
‘The men collected plastic bottles from garbage piles. They were in a poor state when we went to rescue them,’ said Raju Kumar, a judicial magistrate in Agra.
Almost 870,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, including about 660,000 who arrived after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.
But their influx into India started years before with close to 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living in India after fleeing Myanmar over the past decade.
Officials said Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, is densely populated and it is hard to identify the refugees among locals.
Activists have called for a survey of Rohingya families in India to see if more people are trapped in similar situations and have demanded that India’s laws against bonded labour be applied in these cases as well.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Foreign affairs