Human Trafficking: Together, we can stop the scourge

This op-ed has been written by members of Bangladesh UN Network on Migration

Feature | 11 June 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic is putting the world under enormous social and economic strain. The major disruption to the global economy has resulted in the near collapse of overseas employment for millions, with devastating implications for migrant workers including in states heavily reliant on a foreign labour force. As a result, millions of Bangladeshis are now at the edge of subsistence with little or no social protection available.

Among the country's 10-million-strong migrant labour force, many are stranded in countries of transit or destination, unable to travel home and with little access to healthcare and other basic services. Of the estimated 500,000 Bangladeshis who have returned to Bangladesh since the outbreak of Covid-19, many have endured great financial losses, discrimination and rejection from their communities.

At the same time, trafficking and smuggling networks are taking advantage of the Covid-19-induced economic downturn, offering risky survival alternatives to migrants who are increasingly destitute, without income, with very limited mobility and no access to domestic remedies or support.

The recent tragedy in Libya serves as a stark reminder of the threat trafficking and smuggling networks pose to migrants. On May 27, 30 migrants, including 26 Bangladeshi nationals, were killed by traffickers in a warehouse holding approximately 200 migrants in Mezda, Libya. The horrendous incident in Libya brings into focus the reality of the abuse and torture people face at the hands of traffickers and smugglers. It also highlights the close link between the smuggling of migrants and human trafficking along routes that are used by a number of people with varying needs (known as "mixed migration flows"), such as asylum seekers, refugees, stateless people, or unaccompanied or separated children.

Bangladesh is familiar with the increasing challenge of human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants. The great demand for low-skilled migrant workers, coupled with limited access to safe regular migratory routes, excessive recruitment fees, and low awareness of trafficking and smuggling risks, result in many Bangladeshis making perilous journeys facilitated by smugglers and traffickers.

The major destinations for Bangladeshi migrants include Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where many allegedly end up in forced labour, sexual exploitation, debt bondage or working in slave-like conditions. Migrants are also often at heightened risk of financial exploitation and associated violence as a result of taking out loans from informal moneylenders.

Bangladesh is the seventh largest recipient of global remittances and has made significant progress toward ensuring that the rights and interests of its migrant workers are protected both at home and abroad.

The government has passed the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012 and its Rules (2017), acceded to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) in July 2011, and in September 2019, acceded to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UNTOC (Palermo Protocol).

Further, Bangladesh is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, has adopted the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act in 2013 (OEMA 2013) and ratified ILO core conventions on forced labour (No. 29 and No. 105). The country is currently implementing a National Plan of Action (NPA) for Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking 2018-2022.

While progress has clearly been made by the government of Bangladesh, there are still some areas that need to be addressed.

To effectively fight trafficking, the capacity of social welfare authorities, law enforcement agencies and the justice system must be enhanced, and support should be provided to migrants' organisations and civil society bodies which are working to help migrants access justice.

As outlined in the 2012 Act on Human Trafficking (PSHTA 2012), a separate/dedicated special anti-trafficking tribunal should be established to address crimes related to human trafficking. This year, the government has pledged to establish seven divisional level Special Tribunals on human trafficking cases. The establishment and full activation of these tribunals must be prioritised to ensure protection for and access to justice for survivors and victims of trafficking.

Bangladesh is yet to ratify the UN Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants, the purpose of which is to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants, as well as to promote cooperation among States Parties to uphold the rights of migrants. Ratification of this protocol would help build on the significant progress that Bangladesh has already made in protecting its migrant labour force.

Reducing the operational space for organised trafficking and smuggling networks is also key. Promoting safe migration is a proven strategy to reduce vulnerability to trafficking. Investment in skills development of prospective migrants is viewed as a key factor in securing greater security, remittance and better employment for Bangladeshi migrant workers. Investment in higher quality pre-departure information is equally important, as is the provision of protection by Bangladeshi representations to migrants abroad.

Covid-19 is presenting new challenges to the protection of migrants, and it is widely known that the pandemic impacts men, women and children including adolescents differently. Since the onset of the health crisis, female migrant workers who already face great risks of discrimination and exploitation are particularly susceptible to being subjected to violence of various forms.

Within the national context of human trafficking, persons with disabilities and children are also very vulnerable and risk being exposed to exploitation, violence, discrimination and organised crime. This calls for an expanded rights-based, inclusive, gender-sensitive and age-specific policy response rooted in a whole-of-community approach. This ought to be reflected in the NPA and its implementation.

With the recent decision to lift Covid-19 restrictions imposed with the lockdown since March 26, it is important to look beyond the borders of Bangladesh and actively engage migrant-receiving and sending countries, in pursuit of solutions.

Bangladesh could also seek support through international human rights mechanisms such as the Special Rapporteurs on Trafficking or on Migration, which could support the government to assess situations of exploitation and adapt policies and strategies aimed at increasing protections for migrants and victims and reducing the risk of trafficking and smuggling.

Lastly, the fight against trafficking and smuggling of migrants requires multi-stakeholder engagement. It is, therefore, urgent to strengthen and institutionalise the National Counter Human Trafficking Authority to oversee and coordinate the implementation of the NPA.

To counter the increased risk of smuggling and trafficking of migrants, the UN calls upon the government of Bangladesh, global partners, the private sector, and civil society actors to focus their efforts on advancing a robust, rights-based approach aimed toward preventing exploitation and shrinking the space in which trafficking and smuggling networks operate.

The authors of the op-ed are Mia Seppo, UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh; Giorgi Gigauri, Chief of Mission, IOM Bangladesh; Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director, ILO; Steven Corliss, Country Representative, UNHCR; Shoko Ishikawa, Country Representative, UN WOMEN; Sudipto Mukerjee, Resident Representative, UNDP Bangladesh; Asa Torkelsson, Representative, UNFPA; Tomoo Hozumi, Representative, UNICEF; Sergey Kapinos, Representative, UNODC Regional Office for South Asia; and Dr. Bardan Jung Rana, Representative, WHO.