What can we do to stop human trafficking?
Human trafficking, one of the most burning issues of modern times, is an age-old illegal trade of humans for forced labour, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation. Given the hidden nature of human trafficking, it is almost impossible to understand the full scope and scale of the issue.
Bangladesh is no exception and remains a highly vulnerable victim of such trade. One such tragedy was unveiled through the Libyan route to Europe.
30 migrants, including 26 Bangladeshis, were abducted and killed in Libya by smugglers. Slain Bangladeshis were heading towards their dream destination in Europe for a better life. The carnage was planned, to take revenge on the murder of a smuggler leader.
The killings shattered dreams of the 26 Bangladeshis and their families. They were deprived of their rights, a heinous crime against humanity. Bangladeshi migrants frequently die on that route.
But in most cases, they lose their lives either for sinking boats, sometimes because of attacks by smugglers. Last year, 39 Bangladeshis drowned as a boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate says that around two million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea between 2014 to April 2020. Of them, 19,000 were killed. Unfortunately, many of them were Bangladeshi.
Libya is located near the Mediterranean Sea and its political instability contributed to making this route popular for illegal migration. Naturally, Libya has come under the spotlight of the international media.
These characteristics transform Libya into a transit country for migrants to advance to Europe, especially after a civil war broke out across the country in 2011. During the civil war, several groups formed against the Libyan government force which have broken the law and order situation, instigating smugglings and human trafficking in Libya. Militias and armed groups take advantage of the power vacuum at the borders.
Migrants travelling to Libya and entering from its southern, south-western, or south-eastern borders have to cross the desert to set foot on European soil. In most cases, migrants attempt to seek help from the smugglers to cross the country.
During the journey, migrants in Libya face kidnapping, exploitation, and torture at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. When someone eventually succeeds in reaching the coast, they have to pay ransom for the next trip.
If unable to pay, many of them are forced to call their natives for more money to avoid torture on foreign land. This grim reality is evident from the experience of some of the Bangladeshi nationals who survived the terrorist attack in Libya.
Once the smugglers get hold of the money, they get the migrants on board to depart for Europe often on unseaworthy boats which have the risk of capsizing.
The Independent published a report on May 5, 2017, that said Bangladesh is the single biggest country of origin for refugees on boats as a new route to Europe emerges. It also reported that each of the aid workers who were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea paid more than $10,000 to be taken from Dhaka to Dubai or Turkey and onwards to Libya.
In 2017, an International Organisatio for Migration survey found that Bangladesh is among five countries whose citizens entered Italy regularly. According to the UNHCR, Bangladesh remains in the top list of the countries whose people abuse the opportunity to enter through the Mediterranean Sea.
Alongside this, Bangladesh has been ranked in the Tier 2 Watch List for the last three consecutive years in the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.
All of these rankings or tier-based systems which highlight the tendency of Bangladeshi people for such an endeavour to abuse a backdoor entry to Europe have created a negative perception about Bangladesh.
Early this year I had an opportunity to discuss with two officials of the Foreign Ministry and Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) Ministry who believed that labour migration in such a risky way has a detrimental effect on the image of the country.
In several meetings, Bangladeshi officials also expressed their concern that diplomats of different countries asked them for the explanation of why people of Bangladesh are travelling in this way by risking their lives, though, at present, the GDP or the economic growth rate of Bangladesh is better than it has ever been. Diplomats were also eager to know what measures the Bangladeshi authority has taken to stop this journey.
So, in this situation, Bangladesh needs to take massive steps to stop such deadly journeys. As a part of immediate action, the government has to show zero tolerance and start a combing operation from top to bottom of the system.
It should ensure surveillance over the people and the group related to this risky illegal trade. With the assistance of the Home Ministry, local government should have strong surveillance in some districts, especially in Sylhet, Sunamganj, Noakhali, Madaripur, and Shariatpur from where people were prone to migrate to Europe by brokers.
Alongside this law enforcement should increase surveillance over the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar as they are travelling abroad with Bangladeshi passports. Finally, the Home Ministry should also instruct the coastal area guards, especially that of Ukhiya and Teknaf, to enforce tough measures so that people cannot travel to Malaysia or Thailand illegally by boats.
Apart from this, local administration should play a role to make awareness among mass people against human trafficking.
In the endeavour to stop this, I would like to suggest a few steps that might help to check and stop such mischievous acts gradually. In this regard, especially the EWOE Ministry, needs to collect specific authentic information from home and abroad to check the loophole prevailing in the system which makes a leeway for the abuse of vulnerable migrants by the organized trafficking groups.
Though recently our law enforcement agency arrested some leaders of such a gang and also conducted several combing operations to track the member of such groups, it did not prove to be sufficient to stop such activities.
These actions failed to win the trust of the people of the county as it is still going on as a regular practice. To gain public faith, rigorous actions needed to be taken on a regular basis.
Moreover, it is also believed that the so-called powerful accused will be able to escape punishment. After that, they will resume the illegal business by utilizing their connections.
For that reason, law enforcement faces challenges to control human traffickers as they are locally powerful and most of the times they use politics as their shield.
With other facts, pending cases in the court are also a big issue of this sector. Bangladeshi media reported that over 3,000 cases regarding human trafficking are pending in the court.
If these cases were concluded earlier, it would spread fear among the traffickers as well as make people aware of the risky endeavour.
However, the Bangladesh government has been making some moves, including the signing of a UN treaty, “Palermo protocols,” to stop human trafficking abroad. But I think only signing the protocol is not a solution.
Only an organized, regular, unbiased, and strict law enforcement system can make sure that people of our country will not be the victims of illegal human trafficking in the coming future and will ensure their human rights.
Prabir Barua Chowdhury is a journalist.