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Cover Story

Trapped Trafficked Terrorised

Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Photos: Zahedul I. Khan

Human trafficking has been identified as the third largest source of profit for organised crime after weapons/arms and drug trafficking. Generating billions of dollars annually, those in the business make quick cash and high profits at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly those of women and children. Those trafficked from Bangladesh, which acts mainly as a source country, end up in the sex trade in India and Pakistan, or in the Middle East, either as cabaret dancers or barmaids, or else as domestic workers, also often subjected to sexual abuse by their employers. Children are often forced to beg or are victims of organ trafficking, while male children as young as four years old are made camel jockeys in Middle Eastern countries.

Statistics on trafficking, an underground trade, are hard to come by. It is uncertain exactly how many people are trafficked, whether from the villages to the cities, or across national borders. The young woman at the train station may just be with her husband, the little girl at the ferry terminal with her aunt and at the land border with India or at the airport, the two women may just be mother and daughter. Too often, however, both men and women act as recruiters for traffickers, promising acquaintances, neighbours and even relatives, financially rewarding jobs and a better future away from home.

Eighteen-year-old Hashi, daughter of a van driver in Satkhira, was offered a job at a steel mill in India by a relative. Her mother accompanied her there but the two were separated upon arrival and Hashi was taken to a brothel in Mumbai. “They beat me and threatened never to send me back home if I didn't work,” says Hashi. After seven months, a police officer found Hashi standing near a bus station, crying, and took her to a shelter home. After almost a year and a half, Hashi finally returned home. Though her father has accepted her, villagers say she has become “naushto” (ruined) and “kharap” (bad). Thus she plans to remain and work in the city.

Even in the care of relatives, friends and neighbours, children are at risk of being trafficked

While poverty is one of the main reasons behind trafficking, it is not the only one. Illiteracy, lack of employment opportunities, displacement due to natural disasters and conflict situations which lead to poverty, as well as social exclusion, insecurity and stigmatisation are also considered to be motivating factors. Women in vulnerable situations such as when single, widowed, abandoned or victims of domestic violence, looking for escape and emancipation, are common targets for traffickers. In some South Asian countries, demand is also driven by the fact that there are less women in proportion to men -- a gender imbalance created by female foeticide or the killing of female babies.

While some families hand over the responsibility of the well being of their children/daughters to people they think they can trust, other victims of trafficking are lured by deceptive offers of jobs across the border or even a visit to a relative's house. Most victims change hands so many times and know so little about where and how they are being taken that they cannot even think of finding their way back or a way out of the situation.

Seema, 14 at the time, and her cousin were at school when a young man they knew told them he would take them to a relative's house. Not understanding what was happening, the two girls accompanied him and two other men. “We couldn't even tell when we crossed the border,” says Seema, “as there was no clear demarcation. Only when we were on the other side did the border police there stop and interrogate us.” The police handed the girls over to the authorities and, after spending one year and two months at a shelter in Howrah, the girls finally returned home. “I knew I would come home someday,” says Seema, “but I didn't know when. I met a Bangladeshi girl at the shelter who had been there for seven years.”

A daughter of a farmer in Satkhira, Seema does not want to go back to her hometown for fear of the social stigma and says she would rather live and work in the city. The accused in the case are absconding.

Young village girls are sometimes also inspired by the apparently prosperous lives of women who have been trafficked previously. When these women come home for visits decked up in fancy clothes and jewellery, they hold promise for the poor girls at home whose families can barely afford to feed them. Some women actively join in the business, setting up homes in the border areas to lure and recruit new victims. Lack of awareness and sensitisation contribute to the process. From common pimps acting as recruiters, to boyfriends and men who even legally marry the victims, anyone can take young girls from villages to the cities or across the border, pretending to be their guardians or relatives. Women also act as recruiters, pretending to be mothers or aunts of the girls. Whether convinced by the promise of a better life or forced to do so, the girls corroborate the stories of the traffickers when interrogated by the authorities.

Alone and vulnerable women and children are the easiest targets for traffickers

The most common land border points for human trafficking in Bangladesh are the Jessore, Satkhira and Hili-Dinajpur borders with India. There is also a lot of internal trafficking, from rural to urban areas. Ferry and bus terminals and railway stations are common pick-up points for traffickers.

According to Advocate Suraya Banu, a counsellor at Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), trafficking using air routes is becoming more common nowadays, as opposed to land borders as was the case previously.

Advocate Salma Ali, executive director, BNWLA

“Bangladesh is mainly a source country,” says Suraya Banu, “supplying women to countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, UAE, Singapore and Lebanon. But it also acts as a transit point for people being trafficked, for example, from Myanmar to India and also as a destination for source countries like India.”

Consequences of trafficking include everything from being sold and put under debt bondage (forced to work until debts are repaid) to even suicide and murder of the victims. In between, they are often subjected to physical confinement, forced labour and/or sexual service, violence, abuse, rape, torture, arrest and detention. In the flesh trade especially, health risks run high and include being infected with sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

While counter-trafficking efforts have grown and improved over the years, the trafficking syndicates themselves have also become more organised and are always a few steps ahead of the former, reorganising themselves and continuously changing routes so as not to be caught. Even pimps, who used to be illiterate villagers, are now more educated and are better able to convince their victims of a better life, despite increased awareness about trafficking created by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Whether directly or indirectly, law enforcers also play a role in the trafficking process. Whereas some are simply corrupt, others are confused or try to avoid responsibility by putting what should be a trafficking case under the Foreigners Act in which the victim her/himself becomes the accused for illegal immigration as they do not have any papers or identification. Border police are currently being trained by the BNWLA in order to be more aware of the situation regarding trafficking, how to interrogate, identify and handle possible cases.

The legal system as a whole is difficult with legal procedures being lengthy and cumbersome. “Without ensuring protection of victims and witnesses, we cannot expect judgment in cases,” says Advocate Suraya Banu.

Ferry and bus terminals and railway stations are common pickup
points for traffickers, while air routes are being increasingly used

The lack of a victim/witness protection act results in few cases being taken to court. Without their security ensured, many victims do not dare to fight for justice. It is easy for perpetrators to reach and negotiate with victims and their families, threatening them, buying them out, and sometimes, even marrying the victims and thus avoiding legal action. The absence of extradition treaties between countries also makes it difficult for source countries to have traffickers sent back and prosecuted.

While the “SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution” of 2002 lays out the judicial proceedings and provisions for mutual legal assistance, extradition or prosecution, measures to prevent and interdict trafficking; care, treatment, rehabilitation and repatriation of the victims, their implementation remains incomplete and imperfect.

Preventing trafficking does not mean restricting freedom of movement however, says executive director of BNWLA Advocate Salma Ali. “Migration is a right and safe migration must be ensured.”

There is a fine line between labour migration and human trafficking, which makes it all the more confusing. Knowing who is migrating legally and who is being taken by force can be difficult. With the traffickers having accomplices everywhere from travel agencies and passport offices to the law-enforcing agencies as well as brothels here and across the border, the process is made to seem almost foolproof. But lines must be drawn and crimes must be identified and prosecuted for what they are.

After a child or woman has been trafficked, the four R's -- rescue, rehabilitation, repatriation and reintegration --become all-important. Firstly, law-enforcing agencies must be trained and sensitised about trafficking in order to carry out the rescue process in a non-violent and sensitive manner.

“There is a difference between rescue and raids,” says Salma Ali, “and it is important for rescues to follow certain guidelines, such as upholding the dignity of victims, providing them with support within 24 hours, maintaining their privacy in the media, etc.”

Survivors of trafficking are often shunned by society

The State as well as NGOs must provide for the rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking in shelter homes. These tasks can be divided up by different organisations, so that some can provide legal aid while others provide shelter, etc. “Minimum standard care must be provided for victims,” says Ali, “which includes counselling, which includes medical and psychosocial care, etc.”

Repatriation refers to voluntary return to the country of origin of the person trafficked across international borders. While children do not have a choice, adults do and this choice must be respected though it is usually the interest of the State that is given priority.

Reintegration, both social and economic, is possibly the most difficult point. According to Advocate Salma Ali, social acceptance has grown with awareness, and some girls even go back to their homes and settle there. “Before, we could not send the girls back home. But now, after rehabilitation, some have gone back to their homes and gotten married and are settled there. We even married a HIV-positive man and woman, the man who was a migrant worker and the woman a victim of trafficking. Awareness of these issues has grown, leading to greater acceptance.”

Most girls and women, however, still hesitate to go back home for fear of social condemnation. Along with further awareness-raising is necessary the creation of alternative sustainable livelihoods for survivors of trafficking. According to Salma Ali, some women, after getting used to relatively luxurious lifestyles abroad where they make quick cash and enjoy colour televisions and other urban facilities, also have trouble settling back home and re-adjusting to life there.

“Everyone has a role to play,” says Salma Ali. “From the family and school to the wider community, everyone can contribute to raising awareness, providing support. There can be hotlines to which not only victims but also members of the community who suspect cases of trafficking can call and report to. The different ministries play a major role and must be coordinated in their efforts, along with bi-lateral efforts between countries. Political commitment is vital. Not only signing international treaties but being committed to implementing them is what will make a difference.”

There has been a lot of progress, says Salma Ali, with the government and NGOs working together towards prevention as well as rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration. Bi-lateral efforts are also visible, and the case of Farida -- a Bangladeshi victim of rape who was paid compensation in India even though she was a foreigner -- is seen as a landmark judgment in terms of victims being compensated on foreign turf.

Rooting out the causes of trafficking will, no doubt, contribute to its decline, if not elimination. Creating work opportunities and livelihood programmes for people in their own hometowns can deter them from seeking work abroad. Countering gender-based violence and discrimination, educating and empowering women and children and making them aware of the dangers of trafficking and potential traffickers is vital. Registration of recruiting agencies can also make the process more professional and reliable.

Considering the fact that women who have been trafficked are often vulnerable to being so again, creating awareness, changing mindsets and removing stigmas towards survivors is also crucial in preventing the vicious cycle from continuing. While it is sometimes argued that trafficked persons have a better life than their lives of poverty back home, the fact that they are cheated into this life, not knowing what they are in for, and then subjected to torture and slavery, is what makes trafficking an inhuman crime that must be stopped.

Kaniz (not her real name) was trapped and trafficked to Singapore
Twenty-year-old Kaniz, from Dinajpur, had been working at a beauty parlour in Dhaka for two years when one of the women at the parlour introduced her to a travel agent who promised her a lucrative job at a beauty parlour in Singapore. Kaniz negotiated the price from Tk. 2.5 lakh down to Tk. 2 lakh, sold land to raise it, and paid it to the agent in two instalments in March and April of last year. Though she was told that she would leave within 15 days of payment, Kaniz flew for Singapore in July. She was handed her passport, containing a fake address, the day she was flying, at the airport.

“There were two other women waiting at the airport when I got there,” says Kaniz, “and they also had fake addresses in their passports, so I thought this was how it was.” The travel agent assured her that she would not be questioned at the airport because he had contacts there.

In Singapore, Kaniz was picked up by the travel agent's brother who works there and locked in a room in his house. The evening she arrived, he brought in two or three drunk men who, according to Kaniz, were not Bangladeshi, and was told that they would teach her the work she was to do there. First she was beaten, then starved for three days. “I begged him to send me back home. I told him I did not want my money back or anything, I just wanted to come home. But he said if I did not work he would not send me back home, he threatened to kill me. I did not know the local language and did not know how or who to ask for help.”

Kaniz remained in Singapore for a month before being taken to Malaysia by road for a day and night, where she also had to work. “He told me I was influencing the women I lived with to also not work. He said, 'Malaysia is not a good place, if I kill you, no one will even know'.”

Back in Singapore, Kaniz was taken and kept at the red-light district along with other women from Bangladesh. One day, during a police raid, Kaniz escaped from the brothel and ran into a Bangladeshi man who helped her buy a ticket and sent her back home.

In Dhaka, Kaniz got in touch with the travel agent who had sent her to Singapore. “He threatened me saying I better not tell anyone about him. He said he has a lot of money and can do anything. He can even kill me.”

When Kaniz went to file a case at Motijheel police station in October of last year, the Officer-in-Charge (OC) refused to take her case, saying, “We do not take women's cases. You need money for these things.” Kaniz hired a lawyer who advised her to get in touch with the relevant ministries as well as women's rights organisations. Earlier this month, she again attempted to file a police case, but was refused again. Kaniz's case is currently being looked into by the BNWLA.

Victims of trafficking are beaten and starved until they give in to the traffickers' demands

Eighteen-year-old Rimi was still in school when she was offered a job at a steel factory in Dubai, UAE by her neighbour. Her elder sister had refused the offer, but Rimi, in the hope of reducing her farmer father's burden of six daughters and one son, took it up. Though her parents advised Rimi not to go, at her insistence, her father sold some land to raise the money for her travel expenses. In 2003, at the age of 13, Rimi and two other girls accompanied the recruiter across the border. But India, which was supposed to be a transit, became Rimi's destination. First, she was taken to Mumbai and sold for Tk. 60,000. She was put in a room with two other girls. “They made us look different,” says Rimi.

“They made us wear short skirts, coloured our hair and forbade us to tell anyone that we were from Bangladesh. They said if we did, we would end up in jail. If we refused to work, they would beat us and not give us any food.”

Later, Rimi was sent to tourist hub Goa. “I tried to escape several times,” she says, “but was always caught.” She was, however, able to make phone calls home every once in a while and that is how she got in touch with her parents who later got in touch with lawyers at BNWLA. In 2005, following a brawl between pimps and the hotel staff where Rimi was taken one night, there was a police raid and Rimi was rescued and taken to a shelter home there. Eventually, with the efforts of BNWLA and the cooperation of the Indian authorities, Rimi was sent back home. Cases were filed both in Bangladesh and India against her perpetrators. The 12 accused, including the recruiter Parveen, are currently in jail in India.

According to BNWLA's executive director Advocate Salma Ali, Rimi's case is an exemplary one. “It was a very positive example of cooperation between the two countries. Rimi's case was processed in a very child-friendly court. Everyone was in civil dress and the lawyers were very kind to her. Rimi was able to see but remain unseen by the accused. She was provided training and legal and psychosocial counselling. The expenses of her travel to India and back during the case as well as her father going to testify there were borne by both countries.”

Though people back home in Faridpur are hostile, saying she has been “ruined”, Rimi's family has been very supportive. “I'm very proud of my family,” she says. Rimi wants to continue her studies and then become a social worker. As for punishment of her perpetrators, Rimi says, “I am not a judge, I don't know what their legal punishment should be. But it should ensure that they never look at another woman again in the way they looked at me.”

The names of trafficked persons in this story have been changed in order to protect their identities.

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