Labour migration equals trafficking in Bangladesh

Lack of safe migration, low prosecution of traffickers blamed

Md Owasim Uddin Bhuyan | Published: 00:00, Sep 13,2019


Rescued during trafficking: Bangladeshi workers who set sail towards Malaysia were spotted at the Bay of Bengal by the Bangladesh Navy and were brought back to Chattogram. — New Age file photo

Insufficient prospect for legal migration is leaving a negative impact on the practice of safe migration in Bangladesh. Trafficking is practiced in the guise of labour migration as the rackets of traffickers continue to recruit the aspirant migrants with the false promise of overseas employment.

As victims of trafficking, Bangladeshi migrant workers, both male and female, face the exploitative and inhuman conditions of labour in the form of forced labour and debt bondage in the foreign countries, said officials.

The migrant rights activists are of the opinion that low prosecution of the traffickers amid lack of enforcement of the counter-trafficking laws encouraged the unscrupulous dalals or middlemen to send the migrants abroad illegally and subject them to slavery.

They identified a number of barriers, including delay in establishing separate special tribunal and absence of comprehensive victim-witness protection for the effective enforcement of legal instrument to suppress human trafficking.

In case of labour migration from Bangladesh, even when the job contract, visa and travel documents are genuine, our citizens on arrival to the cherished destinations, realise that instead of the promised jobs, they are forced into exploitative works with low or no pay, according to National Plan of Action for Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking 2018-2022.

In definition, trafficking in persons shall mean ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat, use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purposes of exploitation.

Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, forced marriage slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs, according to the UN agency.

Home ministry officials and experts said that unscrupulous broker, recruiting agents and travel agents, wooing male and female workers by giving false promises of overseas jobs, were actually trafficking them to various countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America.

They said that the shortage of employment generation in the country and lack of awareness about safe migration was the main reason for human trafficking, which continues in Bangladesh in the guise of labour migration.

When asked, home ministry additional secretary Abu Bakar Siddique, the degignated person for tackling trafficking issues, told New Age that about 80 per cent of the trafficking victims were of illegal migration from Bangladesh.

‘Those people are sending our migrants abroad in irregular ways and they are mainly responsible for trafficking,’ he said.

He said that the government had taken moves to prepare a database of the traffickers to consistently monitor them and finally bring them to book. 

According to a recent report by the UNHCR, a UN refugee agency, Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries from where people are sailing to reach Europe after crossing the Mediterranean. Many Bangladeshis are also held hostage in some countries.

The findings of a report of International Organization for Migration mentioned that more than 8,700 Bangladeshis arrived in Italy by sea between January and August 2017 and they consisted of 9 per cent of the total arrivals.

More than 94 per cent of Bangladeshi migrants experienced some form of exploitative practices when travelling through the central Mediterranean.

Besides, in July 2017, at least 2000 Bangladeshi migrants were stranded in Turkey, one of many gateways they funnel through, as part of their irregular migration to Europe, said the IOM report.

Additionally, officials said that many Bangladeshi workers were trafficked to Indonesia, Vanuatu, and Jamaica and other countries using the same funnelling trick.

Officials said that brokers were involved in trafficking migrant workers to the Maldives via Sri Lanka, South Africa and Latin America via Kenya as well as war-torn Libya, Somalia and the Sudan.

Abu Bakar Siqqiqui said that the government has taken some steps to stop trafficking of Bangladeshi nationals who migrate in the guise of tourists.

‘Airport immigration officials have been asked not to allow Bangladeshi tourists travelling abroad without visas,’ he said.

In March, at least 295 Bangladeshi workers were trafficked to Indonesia by air for sending them to a third country. The traffickers misused the opportunity of ‘visa on arrival’ facility provided by the Indonesian government for Bangladeshi nationals, said officials.

Bangladesh ambassador in Jakarta Major General Azmal Kabir told New Age that the traffickers sent the workers from Bangladesh to the 3rd countries via Indonesia.

One of them, Delwar Hossain, a farmer of Ramchandrapur, Sharsha, Jassore, said that a broker from the capital promised him a job in Malaysia and asked him to pay Tk 2.5 lakh after reaching Malaysia.

Delwar said that his journey to Indonesia, via Kuala Lumpur and Bali, sponsored by the broker, began on the night of January 17.

He said that he and the other Bangladeshis spent two days in Bali from where Indonesian brokers took the group of 32 Bangladeshis to Jakarta by bus.

From Jakarta the group was taken to Medan where he said he found over 250 Bangladeshis.

In Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, the Indonesian police found 193 Bangladeshis locked in a suffocating warehouse.

Delwar said that at least 110 victims returned to Bangladesh in five batches and the rest were waiting to come back.

Over 60,000 Bangladeshi workers remained undocumented in the Maldives long ago, said officials of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry.

They added that the racket of middlemen sent them to the Maldives on tourist visas on arrival charging each between Tk 2.5 lakh to three lakh.

In Brunei, an organised racket of brokers were controlling recruitment of workers from Bangladesh, putting them in jeopardy, according to the Bangladesh High Commission in Bandar Seri Begawan.

On arrival of Bangladeshi workers in Brunei, brokers take possession of their passports and compel them to pay a monthly commission of up to $100 each, the officials said.

Brokers often recruit Bangladeshi workers for fake companies and without getting the visas attested by the Bangladesh High Commission’s labour wing, plunging the workers into uncertainty, they said.

In 2018, about 75 per cent of Bangladeshi workers were illegally sent to Brunei by the brokers in collaboration with the immigration police at the airport through so-called ‘body contracts,’ said officials.

The brokers’ hold on Bangladesh-Brunei recruitments was so strong that Bangladeshi workers were allowed to migrate to Brunei though their visas were not attested by the labour wing, according to Bangladesh High Commission in Bandar Seri Begawan.

The officials also said that the brokers sent the workers without taking any clearance from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.

Referring to Brunei government’s information, he said, ‘Though 20,000 visas of Bangladeshi workers were stamped, only 5,000 visas were attested by the labour wing.’

Trafficking victim Al Amin Noyon, who was sent to Malaysia in 2007 through legal channel after taking clearance of BMET, was sold into bonded labour by his recruiting agent. He had to work in a jungle, which he did not envisage.

Noyon, who is currently working at BRAC migration programme, told New Age that trafficking from Bangladesh still continued though the routes used by the traffickers often changed.

‘In my observation, trafficking is taking place in the country due to lack of enforcement of the counter-trafficking law,’ he said.

According to another study conducted by Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, 15.7 per cent of the total survey participants had fallen into the traps of human traffickers and smugglers in the country.

About 81 per cent Bangladeshi workers have been forced to migrate to Italy from war-torn Libya between 2013 and 2017, the study also revealed.

The study titled, ‘Gambling on life: The plight of Bangladeshi migrants crossing the Mediterranean’ said that about 79.3 per cent Bangladeshi migrants knew they might even die at sea, but they boarded boats towards Italy for the sake of their lives and livelihood.

Of the total surveyed migrants to Italy, 81 per cent Bangladeshis were forced migrants while 15.7 per cent had fallen into the traps of human traffickers and smugglers. The second group first came to Sudan and Egypt and then via Libya finally reached Italy, said the study.

OKUP chairman Shakirul Islam said a total of 279 Bangladeshi migrants in Italy and 92 migrants’ family members living in three villages in Bhairab upazila in Kishoreganj district were surveyed.

Most migrants have education under secondary level, he added.

Migrants from Madaripur, Shariatpur, Cumilla and Noakhali are dominant in Italy, Shakirul said, adding that the study found that the migration cost ranged from $8,000 to $18,000.

He recommended reforming migration laws and ensuring effective implementation of those laws, allocating budgets for migrants’ welfare and taking exemplary legal action against human traffickers.  

Trafficking in persons is a global phenomenon, but its exact scale is difficult to quantify. The UN agency IOM suggests that at present there are 20.9 million victims of trafficking worldwide.

At the regional level, the Asia-Pacific has also been recognised ‘as a significant source of trafficking in persons’, due to high level of irregular migration, its porous land and sea borders and economic disparities, low level of employment and education opportunities.

It is important to recognise that although trafficking, labour migration, irregular migration can overlap, there exists equally important distinctions between these phenomena.

Those who assist migrants may include friends or relatives, small-scale brokers, or groups associated with transnational organised crime. People crossing borders can be for the purposes of employment, or otherwise. Thus, smuggling in people may or may not intersect with labour migration.

Global migration expert Syed Saiful Haque said that the government should immediately implement the paradigm of prevention, protection and prosecution stipulated in the counter-trafficking law to stop trafficking and irregular labour migration.

‘Prevention can be ensured by creating awareness,’ he said, adding that migrant workers in distress should be protected and the criminals should be prosecuted to help improve the situation.

He said that the government should adopt ‘code of conducts’ for the recruiting agencies as they were playing an important role in the labour migration process.

Saiful, also co-chair of the Bangladesh Civil Society for Migration, said that Bangladesh government could forge international partnership to stop visa trading at the destinations to ensure safe migration.

According to statistics of the Police Headquarters’ Human Trafficking Cell, at least 4,414 trafficking cases were filed under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act since 2012.

Over 8000 people including men, women and children became victims of trafficking from January 2013 to November 2018.

At least 6,758 traffickers were arrested but only 29 of them were convicted, according to the Police Headquarters’ Human Trafficking Cell.

Rights Jessore executive director Binoy Krishna Mallick told New Age that the traffickers were not punished properly as the investigation officers and public prosecutors were often biased toward traffickers.

Bangladesh has been put on Tier 2 Watch List for the 3rd consecutive year as the government failed to meet the minimum standards of trafficking elimination, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2019.

But it said that Bangladesh was making significant efforts to improve the situation.

‘These efforts included adopting a national action plan to combat trafficking, convicting traffickers, initiating an investigation into a police officer accused of child sex trafficking, and continuing to investigate some potential trafficking crimes against Rohingya refugees.’

The TIP report also said that Bangladesh government did not demonstrate overall intensification of efforts compared to the previous reporting period as the government identified significantly fewer trafficking victims and did not consistently refer victims to care.

Despite at least 100 credible reports of forced labour and sex trafficking of Rohingya within Bangladesh, the government did not report investigating or prosecuting these potential crimes, and the Bangladesh High Court did not entertain anti-trafficking cases filed by Rohingyas.

However, the government allowed significant humanitarian access to the Rohingya camps and cooperated closely with the UN and the NGOs in counter-trafficking efforts.

Official complicity in trafficking crimes remained a serious problem, and the government did not take any action against some high-profile allegations.

‘The government continued to allow employers to charge high recruitment fees to migrant workers and did not consistently address illegally operating recruitment sub-agents, which left workers vulnerable to trafficking,’ it said.

The TIP report asked Bangladesh government to significantly increase prosecutions and convictions for trafficking offenses, particularly of labour traffickers and complicit government officials, while strictly respecting due process.

It also recommended that Bangladesh established guidelines for provision of adequate victim care and standard operating procedures for the referral of victims to such services, expand services for trafficking victims, including adult male victims, foreign victims, and victims exploited abroad.

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