Child migration in the context of Bangladesh: Challenges and the way forward

Participants:

1. Natalie McCauley, Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF

2. AKM Masud Ali, Executive Director, INCIDIN Bangladesh

3. Tasneem Siddiqui, Founding Chair, Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, RMRRU

4. Asma Khatun, National Programme Officer, Migrant Protection and Assistance Unit, International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

5. Wahida Banu, Executive Director, Aparajeyo Bangladesh

6. Haruno Nakashiba, Protection Officer, UNHCR

7. Ishrat Shamim, President, Centre for Women and Children Studies

8. Mohammad Tariqul Islam, Country Director, Justice and Care, Bangladesh

9. Abul Hossain, Project Director, Multisectoral Programme on Violence Against Women

10. Sheikh Rafiqul Islam, Additional Secretary and Director General, Department of Social Services

Opening presentation: Abdul Quayum, Associate Editor, Prothom Alo

Moderator: Firoz Choudhury, Assistant Editor, Prothom Alo

Abdul Quayum: The topic of discussion today is extremely important. A UN report last year stated that every day one child either dies or is lost in the Mediterranean region due to migration. Around 300 to 400 children lose their lives every year in this manner. Children face migration due to war, poverty, instability, famine, climate change and various other reasons. More than migtrating to other countries, children in Bangladesh are migrated from one district to another.

Today’s discussion will deal with the challenges about these matters and the way forward. The discussion will come up with recommendations and we hope these will be given due consideration at the policy making level.

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Natalie McCauley: There are three main objectives to this discussion. They are very critical across the whole discussion. We want to examine the different aspects of child migration, the situation in Bangladesh and the challenges to combat the situation. We will critically look at the law and policies to provide recommendations for the formulation of a multi pronged strategy by the government to address the situation. And we want to develop recommendations for expanding the social service workforce as well as developing a multi-pronged strategy by the government.

Child migration is obviously a very sensitive issue around the world and it is critical within Bangladesh. According to the UN department of economic and social affairs, the estimated number of people aged under 19 living in a country other than one where they were born, has risen from 28.7 million in 1990 to over 35 million in 2017.

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In 2017 child migrants accounted for more than 14 per cent of the total migrant population. The increase is partly due to global pressures such as complex and economic hardships as well as natural disasters and obviously now the global pandemic.

Reports continue to reveal that trends across the Mediterranean route are particularly deadly and deadliest particularly for children. These routes carry children from Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Egypt, Guinea, Port d’ Ivore, Somalia, Mali, Senegal, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroons, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even it includes children from Bangladesh.

Research on child migration in Bangladesh is very rare and it is really not supported at the moment with enough evidence. There is a huge lack of data on child migration both internally and across borders.

Migration in Bangladesh is seen in three different forms. Internal migration of children where the poorest of children across different parts of the country are migrating to towns, particularly to the metropolitan cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet as well as other cities. They are migrating with their families, but we are also seeing a lot of children migrating to the cities alone.

Children migrating to cities alone mainly end up in the streets and we see them every day. They are working in the informal sector which is beyond monitoring by any authority for compliance with national laws and policies.

Children on the streets are found as young as five years old. Street children are engaged in a wide variety of activities such a collecting paper, garbage collection, carrying and lifting goods and begging. They are also extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, trafficking and hazardous child labour.

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The other area of migration we also see is significant cross border migration of children between India and Bangladesh. This includes people from India and Bangladesh regular crossing the borders through many unofficial transit points.

People living in the border belt areas have a strong community network given the fact that most of them have either family members or neighbours living in India and therefore have confidence in movement across the border without any legal documentation.

The criminal networks in these areas have deeply penetrated the community and traffickers often traffic their own family members.

Children have been found crossing the borders on their own from 14 years and above. And children as young as five to eight are also trafficked to be involved in begging in the shrines areas of India. Girls can be trapped with false marriages and love affairs an end up in brothels in different parts of India and other parts of the world.

The third area prominent in Bangladesh is the maritime migration of children. We know this because it is often in the newspapers and the international since 2016. This is the result of the violence in Myanmar since 2017.

Now more than a million Rohingyas have come to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh of which 60 per cent are children. Men, women and children from Rohingya camps are crossing the Bay of Bengal by small boats and remain at the centre of this local and international news that we see regularly.

Many Rohingyas and Bangladeshis are taking dangerous boat journeys to migrate to southeast Asian countries. They are subject to starvation, assault, abduction and ransom demands. They are highly vulnerable to trafficking and further exploitation. This is a critical area of concern or children.

To address child migration, one of the areas we are looking at is the key role that the social service work force had for responding to this issue. Proactive engagement with children and families vulnerable to the pulls of migration has received minimal attention in Bangladesh. Case work for children from vulnerable areas who are at risk of illegal migration has not been in focus with programme interventions. There is need for more than 8000 social workers or para social workers across the country and at this time the system has just over 3000 workers across the country.

In addition to the market driven employment opportunities for children and youth, there is a push to enter the informal sector which requires no skill or low skill and put children into irregular conditions and hazardous forms of labour.

To address the situation a multi-prong strategy needs to be formulated by relevant ministries. And to this end Unicef would be interested to coordinate this with UN agencies , civil society organisations to support government for the formulation of such a strategy and to improve data management.

Ishrat Shamim: At the Centre for Women and Children Studies, we have for quite some time been working and researching on trafficked children. We have been working on the matter of shelter particularly at the border area of Satkhira. Many of them cross the borders without legal documents. They are lured with the promise of jobs. Some migrate on their own accord and some are being trafficked or even sold by traffickers and middlemen or agents. They cross the border in various ways, along with the traffickers. These children are forced to work. They are forced into prostitution in brothels. Poverty drives many parents to facilitate their children’s migration. They are normally not caught at the border.

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Children come to the cities for better work. The department of social services needs to take more effective initiative in this regard. The police also needs to provide child-friendly service. This matter needs serious attention of the policy makers.

The competence and awareness of the police must be built up so they can provide more child and women friendly services. The police along the border and the immigration officers need special training. They should undertand which children are travelling alone and which are with their guardians. There are often false guardians. The officials should be well aware of these matters so that they can rescue the trafficked children.

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Tasneem Siddiqui: We see three types of child migration in Bangladesh. There is the refugee Rohingya children, trafficked children and child migrants engaged in labour. I will keep by discussion limited to the third type of child migration. Child migration for labour purposes is taking place in all South Asian countries including Bangladesh. It is taking place in two ways. The children are migrating along with their families or alone.

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Many families, through social network sources, send their children to the cities for work. Girl children basically get work as domestic help in households. They even work for wages or sometimes in the hope for assistance in future times of distress. Many children are separated from their families and come to the bigger cities, especially Dhaka, during floods, drought and other natural disasters. They work in various informal sectors as transport helpers, in car garages and shops. Many are street children, selling flowers or cleaning cars.

In all work areas there is some type of exploitation, lack of safety and abuse and this happens in the case of children too. Then there are accidents as well.

There is not much research in Bangladesh on children engaged in labour. In 2008 Dr Sumaiya Khair carried out a survey on children engaged in the informal sector. RMRRU published this as a book. Dr Jalaluddin Sikder and I carried out research on child domestic workers and RMRRU published this later in 2011. Africa has quite a lot of important research in child migration. Over there they see children’s participation in migration, while ensuring their safety and their rights to education, as opportunity for skill development for future employment opportunity. Over here as there is no policy at a state level, children’s labour hampers the potential of their development.

If child migration for labour is to be reduced, the matter must be addressed at source. There is the matter of school dropouts. Their skills must also be developed. The government is preparing a strategy paper to reduce disaster and climate induced migration and to rehabilitate victims of disaster. It is important to pay particular attention to the children becoming homeless. When families come to the cities, both the father and the mother are engaged in work and so child care facilities would keep the children away from labour. Social awareness is also very important in this regard.

AKM Masud Ali: Migration has close links with economy. The culture in which children are reared at a national level has an impact on their security and movement. Children are linked to the country's economy has this has a role in migration. It has created a global attraction towards low-wage labour. It is as if the wheels of industry are not turning without child labour.

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This is drawing children to the cities. Among the SAARC countries, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are in similar circumstances. When children go from one country to another illegally, this can no longer be considered migration. They are being trafficked, in a sense. A criminal ring uses them in hazardous labour and sex work. Sometimes the children are trafficked along with their families.

Children stay along with their families for a specific time at the Sylhet stone mines. The parents use them to carry boulders. Children similarly work in the brick fields. They often sell their labour in advance. Then they have no alternative but to work.

When children work in the informal sector, they imagine they will grow up as skilled workers. But they actually do not attain any skills. They end up as unskilled workers in the burgeoning labour market. They hardly every succeed anywhere.

The government has taken initiative to create a skilled work force. This will create a bridge with the local and overseas labour market. Children who are dropouts need to be given technical education of international standard. That that is a difficult task.

If we look at these children simply as migrant children, their actual problem will remain concealed. If a child is alone, he or she must be identified as a child separated from the family. Many are socially deprived even while remaining with their families. Measures must be taken to bring them back to normal life.

Asma Khatun: One of the main principles of the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration is sensitivity towards children. This document ensures highest safety for children. It highlights protection of children at all stages of migration, who are without any companion and are isolated.

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The objective of this global compact is to establish various policies for the protection of migrant children through legal, administrative and judicial processes, identify the special needs of women and children migrants and prepare policies accordingly, highlight the needs of migrants in helpless circumstances, preparing guidelines to improve national programmes and to ensure unity, protection and coordination in border management.

In order to ensure the safety of children who are without companions and are isolated, the authorities providing protection to children must be speedily informed and arrangements must be made for their protection.

The reliability and pre-warning system of the migration procedures must be strengthened. Children at the exit points who are without companions and isolated, must be speedily identified and, if necessary, sent to the authorities in charge of protecting children.

Other than the global compact for migration, children safety is also highlighted in the sustainable development goals (SDG). This includes social security for all, including children. Then there is the goal to ensure safe, effective and standard medication as well as universal health care for sick persons who are at financial risk. Also, there is the goal to eliminate child labour by 2025.

Child safety is also included in the seventh national plan. The IOM at present is collecting data on migration and helping the government in policymaking. The issue of child safety will be included in social, economic, healthcare, child development and all work plans.

All partners must worked together to halt irregular migration or relocation and the first phase of this work is to collect the necessary data and information.

Wahida Banu: We have been working with deprived children of the country for around 25 years. The biggest obstacle to such work is that there is no updated data on a national level. We are working with data of 2005. It says that there are over 2.4 million street children between the ages of 10 to 15. But we have crossed that.

These children roam around alone or with friends. They've grown the ability to live on the streets.

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Unscrupulous persons at a local level use these children for anti-social activities. When there is any 'urs' (religious gathering) or any fair, these children attend the events in large groups. All street children are subject to abuse in one way or the other. Girls are particularly prone to repeated sexual abuse.

We place importance on education and counselling. We do not know the actual number of street children. Perhaps that is why there is no budget allocated to them. They get some assistance from the social safety net sector. They use this to inhale 'dandi' (an addictive glue) on the streets. If these children could be education, trained and brought to the mainstream, then Bangladesh would become a child-friendly country.

Haruno Nakashiba: UNHCR is the UN agency for refugees. Our basic work is to provide protection to the refugees who are victims of violence and oppression. With the cooperation of our affiliated agencies, partners and the government, we resolve various problems faced by the refugees.

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A large percentage of the refugee population is children. Their number is huge globally. They face all sorts of harm. Refugee children are children who need special attention. Their challenges and survival is different from that of other children. Their future security is almost entirely uncertain. They are most of the time abused physically and mentally. At the international refugee conference in 2018 it was said that pressure must be applied on countries from where the refugees come. They must ensure their safety and welfare and take them back. The conference presented facts and figures showing how refugee children and their families were harmed.

In general, the lack of access to livelihoods and education contribute to a sense of desperation among children and adolescents that can easily be exploited by trafficking networks.

One of the major tasks of UNHCR is to enlist each and every refugee. By this we can determine how many of them are women, men, boys and girls. This helps the families stay intact and also helps in providing each of them with healthcare and other assistance. The list of refugees also helps the government in putting pressure on the countries from where they have fled.

The list of how many refugees have been driven out of their country, how many men, women, boys and girls there are, can be discussed. Many countries help in this enlistment. Accurate information will also held social workers in providing proper service.

It seems as if child labour, child marriage and other forms of abuse have become normal for refugees. The matter of most concern is child trafficking. Many Rohingya children face this predicament.

In many instances, Rohingya women and children are being trafficked to engage them in anti-social work. The Rohingyas do not have much education or awareness. The traffickers take advantage of this. Women and children are at highest risk of trafficking.

In Malaysia, in order to protect the rights of the Rohingya boys and girls, they are being married off outside of the camps. This is exploiting them all over again. There is a propensity for the Rohingyas to go to Malaysia. Last week 300 Rohingyas were rescued from Indonesia. Almost half of them were women. There were 40 children under the age of 10. These hazardous journeys by sea route simply are not stopping. It is urgent that steps be taken in this regard. No investigations are even being carried out about this. The competence of the concerned authorities and the law enforcement agencies must be increased in this regard. The children must be rescued. They must be rehabilitated. The social workers must go to the women, children and all of them to talk to them and understand their problems.

Mohammad Tariqul Islam: Cross border movement is a very old issue. It began with crossing over along with the family or to visit relatives. Then complications emerged in the form of passports, visas and so on. Then is when the tendency for illegal crossing over began.

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There is a sort of black market here too and the children get involved. There is hardly any research in this regard. An organisation call Sangjog carried out research in 2011. Children come and go to India for various reasons. The study showed that children from 20 districts in Bangladesh travel to and from India. Of them, 66 per cent are school dropouts and 7 per cent did not go to school at all. Children go to and from India from 32 places including Satkhira, Kushtia and Dinajpur.

There are several reasons for their trips. Girls are lured by fake marriages and romantic relationships. Criminal rings get attached to them. There are some children that cross the border with their families and return with them. Many are caught by the law enforcement agencies. They have no protection because they are entering an independent sovereign country that has its own laws. They can be punished under those laws.

What happens when our children are detained in another country? If it is in India, they have a judicial board there and a child welfare committee. The very small children are handed over to the child welfare committee. If they have no fault, they are handed over to a shelter home. Two year ago I was involved with a shelter home in North Dinajpur. I brought back 46 children at that time. They had been in India three years. They were not involved in any crime.

There have been recent media reports of 18 children detained in India. No steps were taken for them by either country. Finally they managed to make a hole in the ceiling, escape and return to Bangladesh. Seven children are still back there. Efforts to bring them back have been on for a year, but BSF and BGB still haven’t fixed a date for their return.

There should be a standard operating procedure between Bangladesh and India. Talks are on in this regard. This will include determining the location of the children, rescuing them and bringing them back. The Bangladesh high commission must provide legal assistance in arranging their return. The handover process and other procedures between Border Guard Bangladesh and BSF must be swift. It is also important to ensure that the children who return are rehabilitated in a child-friendly environment.

Abul Hossain: The ministry of women and children’s affairs has been running a rehabilitation programme for street children since 2016.

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It is a common propensity for people to move from one place to another. This is true in the animal world too. Our work is about proper protection. Hardly any children are actually born on the streets. For whatever circumstances they come to the streets, their lives are at risk every moment. A street child is a problem for the state, to society and to themselves. When they cannot be rehabilitated in the state, they become burdens for the state. We always place importance to this.

There are six juvenile development centres under the women and children affairs ministry. There are two shelter homes in Kawran Bazar and Kamalapur under the street programme. Till now we have provided 4,500 street children with various forms of assistance.

Street children normally come from the slums. We have arranged accommodation for 4000 children in the slums and admitted 400 children to school. Another 100 children have been given vocational training. Then 238 children have been handed over to their families.

Generally speaking, these children come for the northern regions of the country. They come mostly from the regions where train and launch communication is good. They come to the cities with their families or alone due to floods, cyclones, drought, river erosion and various reasons. Everyone, including the government and development partners must take up integrated efforts to stop this.

I must thank Prothom Alo for publicising our various numbers including 109 for people to contact during this COVID-19 pandemic. We have also been publicising a few numbers for ready response.

Street children must be brought to the shelter homes or returned to their families. We rehabilitate them through various means including song and dance.

Poor families around the country must be given support. If a family is self-reliant, the children will remain safe. We are taking up a Tk 1.57 billion (Tk 157 crore) project in this regard. We will together create a common platform for an integrated and effective initiative so that children will not come to the streets.

Sheikh Rafiqul Islam: This government is extremely child-friendly. Bangladesh has had a children act since 1974. It is almost 50 years since the UN Child Rights Convention. The present government updated the law in 2010.

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The social welfare department is extremely conscious about child rights. We make all out efforts to rescue the children who are trafficked. We provide rehabilitation and all over services.

The social welfare department has taken up various programmes for the poor people of the country. We have a project for rural social services for the poor rural population. We provide them with various forms of training. We highlight the harmful aspects of child migration, whether within the country or across the border. We mobilise public awareness in this regard. We hold meeting with development partners, various departments and local representatives. We have a 1098 hotline.

From 15 October 2015 till 15 September 2020, a total of 248 children were rescued. They were being trafficked from Bangladesh to India. We provided rehabilitation assistance to 70 of them. The social welfare department has 226 rehabilitation centres and 85 institutions for poor children where they get shelter, education and other facilities. We have many institutions in Narayanganj, Manikganj and Gazipur which provide children with assistance. They are given shelter and training.

We are aware of child migration. Poverty is more prevalent in the north and south regions of the country. People are normally rendered poor by river erosion, floods, drought and other natural disaster. A poor child coming to Dhaka may start living in the Korail slum, and then moves on to Agargaon. Then the child may go on to Narayanganj.

Other than the street children, there are children roaming around the bus, train and launch terminals. Most of them are over 10 years old. They do not want to stay on one place. They do not want to stay at the shelter homes. They need long-term counseling.

As I said, this government is very child-friendly. We need an integrated initiative. Our government is rehabilitating the children through various initiatives including education and training.

Firoz Choudhury: The discussions at today’s virtual roundtable have been extremely productive. We hope the government and all concerned give due consideration to the suggestions and recommendations that have emerged from these deliberations. Prothom Alo expresses gratitude and thanks everyone for participating in the discussions.