Rukhsana Begum (not real name) left home in 2014 on the promise of a well-paying job as a maid in Malaysia, made by a convincing recruitment broker in Cox’s Bazar. Seven years on, her family has not seen or heard from her.

Fearing she has become a victim of trafficking, her relatives filed a case against the broker last year, but no arrests have been made in the case so far.

One of her brothers told Prothom Alo that after the case was filed, he received several threats over the phone from different unknown numbers. This scared him and then the family was unwilling to stand witness in the case.

“We lost one family member but now we don't want to lose any others,” said the man who declined to be named.

Rukhsana’s plight and her family’s struggle for justice echo that of most other trafficking victims in Bangladesh. Trafficking is rampant but bringing the perpetrators to justice has been very difficult.

More than 400,000 people leave Bangladesh each year in search of jobs overseas according to International Labour Organisation (ILO). Mostly belonging to the lower and middle classes, they leave; sometimes illegally also; because of a lack of attractive local employment opportunities and a desire to improve the lives of their families. But they are often vulnerable to traffickers who exploit their poverty and desperation; and end up facing exploitation and abuse.

The trial of human trafficking cases is pending day after day and the government needs to be more proactive in dealing with these, besides taking the necessary steps to prevent them from happening.
Shariful Hasan, Head of Migration Programme at BRAC

According to the home ministry, as many as 9,792 people have been arrested in about 6,000 cases since the enactment of Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act in 2012. But only 246 cases have been concluded since 2014, with 54 people convicted. As per the ministry, about 4,406 cases are pending in courts.

This newspaper spoke to several sources at the home ministry, private development agencies, manpower exporters and lawyers, who say that arrests are made primarily of early-stage brokers, usually those who are known to or are neighbours of the victim, but finding other conspirators is difficult. Eventually, many of the accused are acquitted due to lack of investigation.

Shariful Hasan, Head of Migration Programme at BRAC Bangladesh, the world’s largest NGO, said the trial of human trafficking cases is pending day after day and the government needs to be more proactive in dealing with these, besides taking the necessary steps to prevent them from happening.

Bangladesh retained its position on "Tier 2" in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report for the second year, showing signs of progress after being on the "Tier 2 Watch List" for the three previous years, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report released recently. Being a Tier 2 country means the Bangladesh government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.

Cox's Bazar an old trafficking haven

Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, is known as a hotspot of human trafficking in the country. The 120 km coastline of Cox's Bazar becomes unprotected after dusk, making it amenable to transport people clandestinely. The activity of human traffickers increases mainly during the winter season when the sea is calm. At present, their target is the Rohingyas who have fled at different times in the face of torture by the Myanmar army. Attempts are made to smuggle boys into jobs and girls into marriage.

Since the enactment of the human trafficking act in 2012, 637 cases have been registered in Cox's Bazar. Of these, 318 cases are pending in the Women and Child Abuse Suppression Tribunal-1, 52 cases are pending in the Tribunal-2 and 251 cases are pending in the Tribunal-3. The remaining 16 cases were dismissed.

Since 2012, not a single one of the 621 cases has been tried, according to Faridul Alam, public prosecutor (PP) of Cox's Bazar court of the Cox's Bazar Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal. Meanwhile trafficking continues unabated.

As per the provision of the human trafficking act of 2012, seven tribunals have been set up in seven divisions of the country on 8 March 2020 to deal with trafficking cases in a focused manner

“This is a good sign because before the setting up of tribunals, human trafficking cases were less important,” said Tariqul Islam, country director at the anti-slavery non-profit charity Justice and Care, which works with the Bangladeshi government to tackle trafficking. But he said, “The case rate is not the same in all districts – for instance there are about 1500 cases in Dhaka division and only 15 cases in Barisal. So to reduce the pressure on Dhaka, manpower should be increased here. At the same time the government should set up a separate tribunal in Cox’s Bazar as it is the hotspot and there is a higher number of trafficking cases," he said.

Why the delay in the trials?

Amina Begum (not real name) from Ramu upazila in Cox’s Bazar, rejoiced when she was offered a good job in Nepal back in August 2014, but all her dreams were shattered when found herself in a brothel in Khulna instead.

She was rescued by the police luckily, and five months later, in February 2015, her daughter filed a case against three people for trafficking her mother. Not a single person has been arrested yet.

There are several reasons for the pending of human trafficking cases, police, human rights activists and law officials said. No witnesses have been found in these cases since the trial began. Witnesses are managed by the traffickers for money. Many times traffickers threaten to kill them. The families of the victims are intimidated in such a way by the traffickers that they are reluctant to pursue the case. Due to these reasons, witnesses do not appear and the case remains pending day after day.

Another victim, who declined to be named, said he paid Tk 500,000 to a recruiting agency to go to Europe. They took him on a big boat along with fifty other people giving false hope of migrating to Europe. At that time their boat was rescued by police. When the police went to arrest them, the brokers jumped into the sea and could not be caught. Later, the victim filed a case against the brokers. There is no progress in the case. Recently two unknown people came to his house and threatened him to withdraw the case.

In another instance, according to a top ranking officer of the home ministry, no witness could be found even after reminding the date 120 times. He said, many times the two parties compromise, making it difficult to prosecute.

Another hurdle according to additional superintendent of police of Cox's Bazar (Admin), Rafiqul Islam, the main human trafficking racket is outside the country; only some brokers work locally. He also said in many cases, victims do not provide information.

Besides Cox’s Bazar, human trafficking brokers are active in other areas including Sylhet, Sunamganj, Noakhali, Madaripur, Shariatpur, he said.

Prominent and senior Supreme Court lawyer Shahdeen Malik said that it was difficult to prove such cases without the help of the victims. He also said that exemplary punishment can ensure reduction of human trafficking. According to him, the law needs to be reformed so that the trial is finished within short time.

The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, 2012 provides for the death penalty, life imprisonment and a minimum of six years imprisonment and a fine of at least Tk 500,000 for organised human trafficking.

Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, professor at the Department of International Relations of Dhaka University, said that irregular migration and human trafficking take place in absence of enough employment opportunities locally. It is important that job creation is given utmost importance in country’s economic master plan, he suggested.

Victim Amina Begum’s daughter says, "We don’t know how long we have to wait for justice. We want the criminals to be punished. No one should suffer like my mother.”

*This story was written & produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation