Overlooked otherwise | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 04, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:05 AM, June 04, 2020

Overlooked otherwise

Only tragedies remind all human trafficking happening; lack of effective action makes it more unstoppable

Human trafficking to Libya from Bangladesh and torture of victims for ransom have been quite common for years but such crimes come to light only after a terrible tragedy.

When something big happens, the media alongside rights bodies raise an outcry but the transborder menace continues in the absence of a coordinated and effective mechanism to curb it.

The deaths are also forgotten in no time.

The brutal torture and killing of 26 Bangladeshis in Libya on May 27 could be a case in point, which came just a year after a boat capsize left around 40 Bangladeshis -- bound for Europe from Libya -- drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

"We come to know of such heinous crimes when there is a big incident though human trafficking to Libya, holding people hostage and torturing them for ransom have been taking place for years," said a Bangladesh Embassy official in Tripoli.

When Bangladesh stopped sending workers to Libya in 2014 in the wake of the civil war that began after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, human traffickers started taking jobseekers to the north African country with tourist visas.

The jobseekers are taken to Dubai first and then to Libya via Egypt or Sudan. In some cases, they go to Dubai via Sri Lanka or India.

"The dream that the traffickers sell is they [the jobseekers] will be taken to Europe," said the embassy official, requesting anonymity.

The May 27 killings took place when the migrants, 38 Bangladeshis and several Africans, were being transported from Benghazi to Tripoli on way to Europe via the Mediterranean.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, between January and April 30 this year, a total of 693 Bangladeshis out of 23,658 migrants made it to Europe illegally through land and sea routes.

The number of Bangladeshis who reached Italy through the Mediterranean was 8,131 in 2016, 5,040 in 2015 and 4,386 in 2014, according to the UN Migration Agency.

Law enforcers say vulnerable migrant workers in the Middle East are also the targets of human traffickers.

"Traffickers sell dreams of Europe to the jobless or low-paid migrants in countries like Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq. They smuggle them to Europe via Iran and Turkey," said a CID official who was involved in probing human trafficking cases of Bangladeshis in Iran recently.

In Iran and Turkey, they are held hostage for ransom. Those who can pay are sent to Europe, while others face inhumane torture, he said.

Brac Migration Programme Head Shariful Hasan said those going abroad with valid work visas also fall victim to human trafficking when they pay very high fees and don't get jobs or salaries as per the job contract.

Many a time, job contracts are prepared against non-existent companies. Also, the migrants' passports are confiscated by the employers or agents, preventing them from changing jobs even when they don't get proper salaries or work excessive hours, he said.

"In many cases, our migrants work under duress and remain indebted. These are all elements of human trafficking."

This is the situation for long but there has not been any coordinated and effective mechanism to punish the human traffickers, Shariful said, adding that not much has been done since the deaths of the Bangladeshis in the Mediterranean in May last year.

Following a High Court order, an inter-ministerial committee was formed with the expatriates' welfare ministry's additional secretary as its convener. The committee was asked to submit a report on the actions taken against those involved in human trafficking.

Contacted, Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, secretary of expatriates' welfare ministry, said the committee had submitted a report, including findings and recommendations, to the High Court.

"Human trafficking to Libya is happening by using tourist visas. These people know that it is illegal to go to Libya for work, but still they are going there," he told The Daily Star.

"Awareness is needed to stop human trafficking," he added.

Asked why the conviction rate of human trafficking cases is low, he said it was the responsibility of the home ministry to look into the matter.

According to the Police Headquarters, between 2012 and 2019, a total of 5,088 cases were filed under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act-2012, but only 111 persons were convicted.

Last year alone, 1,557 got arrested in human trafficking cases. 

The Act says any case under it should be investigated in 90 days and disposed in 180 days.

Rights activist Noor Khan Liton said there have been numerous incidents of human trafficking over the last few years, but no exemplary punishment was given to the criminals.

He recalled that mass graves of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were discovered in Thai and Malaysian jungles, unfolding harrowing tales of torture and death.

"Every time a big incident happens, we see some arrests and cases. We haven't seen any drastic measures or any exemplary punishment to the human traffickers," Noor Khan told The Daily Star.

The criminals get rid of the cases because of their political influence and negligence of law enforcers, he said.

For the last three consecutive years, the US has ranked Bangladesh in the bracket of Tier 2 Watch List  in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

As per the US law, Bangladesh is not eligible to remain in Tier 2 Watch List this year. Either Bangladesh must show significant and increased efforts to meet the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking in persons and achieve a Tier 2 ranking or risk an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the US Embassy in Dhaka earlier told The Daily Star.

Contacted, Abu Bakar Siddique, chief of the counter-trafficking cell under the home ministry, said it is true that case disposal and conviction rates are low.

"In many cases, the complainants settle through arbitration. In some others, appropriate evidence is not found," he told The Daily Star on Monday.

He added that the government published a gazette in mid-March this year to establish seven specialised tribunals to deal with human trafficking cases.

Once these courts are physically established, the trafficking cases will see more and quick disposal, he added.

Shariful Hasan of Brac said the country has a national plan of action to combat trafficking. As per the plan, there should be committees at the district, upazila and union levels to create awareness, but these are largely ineffective.

"One ministry passes responsibility to another ministry. That's how things are going and thus we see our image tarnished globally," he added.

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