Unaccompanied minors from Bangladesh continue to be smuggled in large numbers to Italy via the Libyan coast and land routes in Europe, by the organised rackets that remain active at home, in transit and at the destinations.
Bangladeshi brokers, who have strong connections with transnational rackets, send minor migrants, below 18 years old, from Bangladesh to Italy through all types of illegal channels, an independent investigation reveals.
Local brokers prepare travel documents including passports for the minors, showing them to be above 18, to ensure their smooth air travel as unaccompanied migrants from Bangladesh, families said.
They collect job visas of transit countries and manage the immigration officials through “body contract” process in exchange of certain amount of money, they said.
The investigation found that some families believe that if their underaged sons somehow reach Italy, they would get documents and financial aid from the Italian government, legalising them there.
Minors, 13 to 17 years old, particularly in Madaripur and Shariatpur districts of Bangladesh, desperately try to travel to Italy alone, encouraged by their family members, relatives and neighbours staying in Italy.
Their birth certificates are collected from the Union Parishad offices to make passports. The brokers manage their entire travel from Bangladesh to Italy, according to the families concerned.
Under investigation, the families of at least 10 minor migrants have been traced in Madaripur, Shariatpur, Kishoreganj, Gopalganj, Chuadanga and Magura districts and they have been interviewed separately.
The family members, especially the parents, admitted that the brokers prepared passports of their children by increasing their ages to 19 up till 22 years, though they were below 18. The contacted families sent these minors to Libya during March to May 2021 with the aim to send them to Italy, they said.
When asked for comment, Barrister Shamim Haider Patwary MP, also Chairman of Bangladesh Parliamentarians’ Caucus on Migration and Development, said that sending underaged migrants abroad is tantamount to human trafficking and the involved people should be brought under legal restrictions immediately.
“The below-18 migrants cannot take their own decisions, so sending them abroad to work is trafficking or smuggling,” he said.
According to records of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 1,213 unaccompanied and separated children from Bangladesh have arrived in Italy by sea routes from January to September 2021.
Among the nationality and demographics of arrivals to Italy during the period, the UN agency reported that 5,994 refugees and migrants were from Bangladesh.
In the first nine months of 2021, a total of 46,329 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy by sea, compared to 23,726 in the corresponding period last year. UNHCR also reported that the most common country of origin recorded among refugees and migrants reaching Italian shores was Tunisia (28%), followed by Bangladesh (13%).
Case Study 1
Farid Habib (pseudonym), a Bangladeshi underaged migrant, is now staying at a refugee camp in Rimini city of Italy. He is from Shariatpur district of Bangladesh.
He has been there for the last nine months, placed in the camp in April 2021. He was about 17 years old when he was registered in the Rimini camp.
In an interview with this correspondent, Farid said that he has recovered from the shock of his perilous journey to Europe from Bangladesh. Upon arrival in the Rimini camp, he has been receiving a monthly grant of 40 euro in addition to free food, clothes and accommodation.
Under supervision of international organisations and the Italian government, Farid has been admitted to a local school in Rimini. He has been learning the local language and attending vocational classes 5 days a week from 8am to 1pm.
In the afternoon, he works in a toyshop owned by a Bangladeshi trader in Rimini. He earns 400 euro a month and supports his family.
Farid said that he would be released from the Rimini camp after February-March of 2022, when he is over 18 years old.
Travel route history
With help of his broker, Farid started his journey from Dhaka in May 2020. He reached Kolkata, crossing the land border between Bangladesh and India. He stayed eight days at a hotel in the New Market area of Kolkata.
From Kolkata, Farid flew to Dubai where he was stranded eight days in the airport. From Dubai, he reached in Egypt where he stayed for one day.
“Unknown brokers provided me support in the airports of Dubai, Cairo and Benghazi. I got my air tickets and found a way out from the international airports. As I carried some dried foods with me, I ate these in the airport to survive,” he said.
Under guidance of Bangladeshi brokers in Libya, Farid had to move from one place to another in Libya and stayed about five months there.
One midnight Farid was placed in a boat off the Libyan coast and was sent to Malta along with other nationals including women and children from Africa and Asia.
When the boat reached the Malta coast, he was rescued and detained. He was put in detention in the Malta camp for five months. From Malta, he was taken to Germany and finally was sent to Rimini camp of Italy on April 2021.
Farid said that his family spent a total BDT 800,000 (USD 9,350), including some ransom in Libya.
He said that they managed the money from family savings, borrowed from relatives, sold cattle and took loans from moneylenders at interest of 130%.
Before starting his journey to Italy, Farid was a high school student during the 2018-2019 academic year in Bangladesh. He left studies to migrate to Italy, inspired by neighbors who had already gone to Italy through illegal paths.
His father is an agro-based small trader and farmer and mother a housewife. His younger brother and sister are school students.
Farid said that there were three more under-aged Bangladeshi migrants staying in the same refugee camp with him. Two were from Sylhet and one from Magura. The three minors reached Italy through land routes via Turkey border, he said.
Case Study 2
Rabiul Malik (pseudonym), a 14-year-old student of a madrasa in Madaripur district, got a passport with his age shown as 19 and left Bangladesh in March 2021. With help of brokers he reached Libya and has been waiting for a boat to cross the Mediterranean.
In an interview with this correspondent, his father Siraj Malik said that he had faith in the local broker who sent his son safely to Libya. “My son is keeping me updated regularly sending messages from Libya. He is in good health and is waiting in custody of Libyan brokers.”
His father, who drives a motorised van to run the family, paid Tk 800,000 ($9435) to the local broker who promised to send his only son to Italy.
“I saved the money and gave it to the broker to send my son to Italy. I believe that the broker will successfully send my son as he has previously sent more 50 people to Italy from same area,” he said.
He said that his son began his journey on 2 March 2021. He left Dhaka for Dubai. From Dubai, he was sent to Benghazi airport in Libya. In Benghazi, he was received by some brokers who were trying to send him to Italy by boat as soon as possible.
The father admitted that his son was a 15-year-old madrasa student, but his passport age was 19. Brokers helped him to make the passport, he said.
“I know that there is a big risk crossing the sea as the boat may capsize and they may die. But this risk is being taken so he may succeed in life,” said the father.
The father said that he was inspired to send his son after his two nephews of the same age went to Italy in the same way.
People resort to irregular migration, including agreeing to resort to being smuggled, because there are not enough regular migration options available to them. They are desperateLiesbeth Zonneveld, Chief of Party, USAID’s fight slavery and trafficking-in-person (FSTIP) activity, Winrock International
Case Study 3
Migrant Sohel (not real name) was repatriated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from Libya on September 2020. His age was shown as 20 years in documents when he was repatriated. He went to Libya in May 2019. He spent BDT 500,000 (USD 5896) for his travel to Libya.
He was one survivor of 26 Bangladeshi migrants who were shot dead in Libya by family members of a Libyan human trafficker in a revenge attack in the Libyan town of Mizda in May 2020.
His mother claimed that her son was a good student. While studying at Class IX at local high school in Kishoreganj district, he was motivated by relatives to travel to Italy via Libya.
When contacted for comment over the issue, Liesbeth Zonneveld, Chief of Party, USAID’s fight slavery and trafficking-in-person (FSTIP) activity, Winrock International said “It is an enormous tragedy that parents and families in Bangladesh believe they have no other option to have a better life than to agree to have their children smuggled to Italy with all gigantic risks involved including the risk that their children might get trafficked and not just smuggled.”
First of all, she added, “smuggling is a criminal offence, committed by smugglers. The minors should not be liable to criminal prosecution but the smugglers are indeed liable to criminal prosecution.”
Liesbeth Zonneveld said that smuggling of minors, and of adults as well should be prevented by all means and requires a comprehensive international approach, including cooperation, the exchange of information and other appropriate measures, including socio-economic measures, at the national, regional and international levels.
Liesbeth Zonneveld said that regular migration should be made more accessible by the European Union, in the case of Italy. “People resort to irregular migration, including agreeing to resort to being smuggled, because there are not enough regular migration options available to them. They are desperate.”
“The European Union should revise their regular migration options to make it easier for people to migrate and Bangladesh' should revise the ease of regular migration options as well so that is cheaper for Bangladeshi adults to migrate for labour to Europe,” she said.
Social media used in smuggling
Investigations found that smugglers in guise of travel agents and education consultants continue to attract potential candidates, using social media platforms and advertisements and offering to send them to Italy and other European countries with jobs.
The travel and consultancy agencies, mostly based in Dhaka, Sylhet and major cities in Bangladesh, trace the candidates and pass their contacts on to covered consultant groups who use multiple WhatsApp numbers. In this way they collect the migrants and prepare to send them to Italy through illegal ways.
In her comment, Bangladesh Parliamentarians’ Caucus on Migration and Development secretary general Mahjabeen Khaled said that everyone, from the staff of union parishad councils to immigration officials, should be trained properly to stop illegal migration and smuggling of underaged migrants.
She asked the European Union countries to ease normal recruitment of workers from Bangladesh in a bid to stop illegal migration.
In 2018, Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program's research on “Gambling on Life: Context and Consequences of Irregular Migration from Bangladesh to Italy”, found that one-fifth (19 per cent of 279 migrants) who reached Italy were minors, below 18 years.
The OKUP chairman Shakirul Islam said that he found a good number of underaged Bangladeshis sent to Italy by boats from multiple African countries were under the Italian government’s asylum programme.
He said that trafficking “rackets and routes” must be identified to bring the traffickers under legal action. “Collaboration with destination countries is very essentials in this regard,” he added.
He called upon the government to take immediate steps to stop manipulation of travel documents from union parishad and passport offices in Bangladesh.
What recruiting agencies say
Bangladesh Recruiting Agencies Oikya Parishad president Tipu Sultan said that no manpower recruitment could end migrant workers from Bangladesh to Italy as the EU country does not recruit workers from Bangladesh regularly.
“The travel agencies are not allowed to deal with recruitment of workers for overseas jobs. If they do this, it will be a crime,” he said.
In an interview, he said that the labour market in Libya still remained closed to Bangladeshi migrant workers due to the unstable situation and no agency can offer job visas to Libya and Italy.
About underaged migrants, the president of the recruiting agencies said, “Illegal migration or smuggling of minors to Italy is tarnishing the image of Bangladesh abroad, so it should be stopped by the authorities.”
The Trafficking-in-Persons (TIP) report released by the US State Department has put Bangladesh in the Tier-2 list as the country did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but was making significant efforts to this end.
Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad has reiterated the government’s ‘zero tolerance policy’ to stop the human trafficking and illegal migration from Bangladesh to Italy.
On 16 November 2021, in a meeting with Italian Ambassador in Bangladesh Enrico Nunziata, he said that the Bangladesh government launched many anti-trafficking campaigns and has taken up various awareness programmes to discourage illegal migration.
Minister Imran stressed promoting safe migration through improving their skills. The meeting with the Italian ambassador mainly focused on resisting human trafficking and ensuring quality migration.
* Md Owasim Uddin Bhuyan is a Freelance Journalist