Nearly 5,500 cases are pending investigation or prosecution under a 2012 law that criminalized trafficking
Between May 18 and June 24 this year, Tunisian coastguards rescued over 700 Bangladeshis, shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Italy from Libya. They were all victims of illegal migration, and organized trafficking gangs lured them with promises of fulfilling their European dreams in exchange of hefty sums of money – ranging from Tk5 lakh to Tk15 lakh.
Lucky they were that they didn’t perish in the sea, where an unspecified number of other fortune seekers have gone to their watery graves. They were part of at least 3,332 Bangladeshis who have so far been either rescued or detained in different European destinations or on their way to the continent this year.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, put this number as the highest among nearly 45,000 citizens of different countries who have tried to make it to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. And there is a record of over 62,000 Bangladeshis who ventured on to this perilous sea route to make it to Europe over the past 12 years.
Now, as Bangladesh prepares like any other nation to observe World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on Friday with a firm resolve to combat human trafficking and illegal migration, statistics showing an increasing number of its citizens falling into the trap appear mind boggling.
Experts and officials reckon that a poor rate of prosecution and a poorer rate of conviction in trafficking cases in Bangladesh have largely contributed to the thriving ‘trade’ in human trafficking and illegal migration in recent years.
They say that with hundreds of traffickers – starting from a section of brokers in villages to gangs operating in cross-border migration routes – getting off the hook, thanks to a snail-paced trial procedure, they become all the more desperate to transit and traffic people illegally.
A protracted pandemic situation that has dried up official overseas jobs and official channels of legal migration have also contributed to rising desperation among the out-migration aspirants, making them prey to the trap and subsequent dangers.
Poor case disposal rate, poorer rate of conviction
Bangladesh enacted its law—The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking (PSHT) Act)—to combat human trafficking and protect trafficking victims in 2012. But when it comes to implementation and enforcement of the law, things have appeared rather sluggish.
It took the government nearly eight years to set up special tribunals – as mandated by the law – to exclusively deal with trafficking cases.
Quoting official statistics, a Brac presentation, shared at a webinar yesterday, shows that between 2012 and 2021, as many as 24,500 people were prosecuted in 5,738 trafficking cases across the country. But up until March this year, the courts could dispose of less than 5% of the cases and the rate of conviction was only 0.6%.
Ali Hossain Shojib is a trafficking victim who was lured to Croatia with the promise of a good job early this year but was later held hostage for more money on promise of transferring him to Italy. He said he had seen many Bangladeshis dying in Croatia of starvation and enduring torture as they could not provide additional money demanded by the trafficking gangs. He thanked Bangladesh’s law enforcers, Brac and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for repatriating him from Croatia.
But he regrets that many of the accused in trafficking cases have been getting out on bail.
What are the impediments?
Saidur Rahman Khan, a special superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), has developed vast insights after dealing with trafficking issues for quite some time.
Khan considers intimidation by the powerful trafficking lobbies a big concern as most of the time the victims and witnesses have felt threatened in disclosing names and details of the perpetrators. It is a reflection that providing victims and witnesses with the protection they need is still not there.
The senior CID officer said many of the torture and exploitation cases could be addressed in the destination countries provided the victims, with support from Bangladesh’s missions, take legal recourse in the countries where they are victimized.
“I propose keeping some police representations in all missions abroad so that they can help Bangladeshi victims in such cases get some redress in the host countries. For instance, once a woman expatriate worker returns home dejected and tortured in Saudi Arabia, it becomes difficult for us to ensure justice for her against the torture she had to endure in a foreign land,” Khan explained.
The veteran CID officer said it was common knowledge now that the central Mediterranean Sea route could emerge as a vibrant transit route for illegal migration as there are trafficking gangs operating at ease by running illegally built camps in Libya. He emphasized the need for pushing the Libyan government into dismantling the trafficking nexus and their camps in its territory.