Justice for Human Trafficking: A privilege now gets in the way
When migrant workers fell victim to labour trafficking and filed cases with the police, the law enforcers prosecuted or arrested the recruiting agents responsible for sending the workers abroad.
Numerous cases showed that recruiting agents have directly been complicit in labour exploitation by force or deception, which, according to the country's law, constitutes human trafficking.
The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit even last month arrested five members of recruiting agencies, including the owner of Swadhin Tours and Travels, for bribing some airport officials and sending workers abroad using forged documents.
However, as per a recent government decision, law enforcers can no longer directly arrest recruiting agents based on lawsuits by human-trafficking victims.
Instead, they have to refer such cases to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) for negotiation and arbitration. The prosecution will begin only when the first two fail.
Talking to these correspondents, Expatriate Welfare Minister Imran Ahmed confirmed the development. "It has been decided that whenever a case regarding a migrant worker like this comes up, the first point of contact will be the BMET. Then they will recommend whether or not the case can be tried under the trafficking prevention law," he said.
The decision has, meanwhile, irked those working to protect the rights of the migrant workers. They argue that human trafficking is a criminal offence and it cannot be handled through negotiation and arbitration.
They fear that the government decision will further shield the perpetrators, who are "already very much protected by the system itself".
The decision was taken following a meeting held in October at the home ministry. Along with Imran, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen were present in the meeting, also attended by heads of all stakeholders involved in sending workers abroad.
The Daily Star obtained audio recordings captured during the meeting from two sources. It later verified the authenticity of the clips with some stakeholders present in the meeting.
In one of the clips, Shahidul Alam, director-general of BMET, is heard saying, "The police don't need to be so proactive in attempting to catch agents. Why would they catch those who have valid licences and drag them to court?"
"The trafficking law prosecutes a party when a victim is forced or deceived into going [abroad]. But these people [migrant workers] pay money to go, they make passports to go… so they are not forced. They are going by themselves. This is why we think there are other steps, other than police action, that can be taken. This can include suspension of licences [of agents].
"If we find repeat offenders, we ourselves will ask law enforcers to take action against them. Make the victims understand that when they face any problem, they should come to us instead of going to the police."
Contacted over phone, Shahidul reiterated the statement.
Meeting sources said Monirul Islam, head of Special Branch (SB) of police, said in the meeting that he endorsed the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) to deal with problems related to the issue.
He told the meeting that whatever directives are given will be conveyed to investigation agencies.
Law enforcers assured that they would not take any immediate action, the sources present in the meeting, added.
WHY THIS IS A PROBLEM
The decision comes at a time when the rate of disposal of human trafficking cases is only 2.6 percent, according to data from law enforcers.
Experts fear this development would give a further shield of immunity in a system that already protects perpetrators.
"Human trafficking is a criminal offence and a criminal offence cannot be dealt by negotiation and arbitration," said Shariful Hasan, head of Brac's Migration Programme.
He said the decision could only be an option for cases involving workers not being paid in time.
Some of the most horrifying instances of human trafficking in the last few years have been cases of labour exploitation and trafficking, where the victims were sent legally as migrant workers with BMET clearances and legitimate visas.
Fourteen-year-old Umme Kulsum and 13-year-old Nodi Akhter were tortured to death in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) last year. Both were sent legally with BMET cards.
Kulsum was sent by MH Trade International, which helped her make her passport and put her on the books as a 25-year-old woman. Twenty-five is the minimum age for a female to work overseas.
According to the rules, female migrant workers are supposed to physically show up at the BMET for training, and for visual verification for their BMET cards.
Both the children had told their recruiting agent that they were being tortured, but to no avail.
The proprietor of MH Trade International was arrested in a well-publicised raid in September last year when other migrant workers, who became victims of sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia, provided testimonials.
However, BMET does not think that the recruiting agents are to blame, even when they aresending children claiming they are 25-year-olds.
BMET DG Shahidul told this correspondent last week that it was the job of the passport authorities, not theirs, to check documents related to age.
According to him, in a country with such high rates of stunting, "All women between 13 and 30 look the same".
CONVICTION OF TRAFFICKERS RARE
A total of 538 cases were filed under the anti-trafficking law last year. Of them, only 14 were disposed of, but here's the scary part -- only one of those 14 cases resulted in a conviction.
In all 13 of the other cases, the accused were acquitted. A total of 24,549 people are currently accused in trafficking cases, according to data from the law enforcers.
The annual report of the Wage Earners' Welfare Board shows that Tk 69 lakh was spent last year in rescuing tortured women migrant workers from various countries. As per figures from 2020, a total of 473 women returned home dead from the Middle East in the previous five years; of whom 51 had committed suicide.
Time and again recruiters have been caught circumventing the legal system to traffic workers.
But BAIRA denies this. According to the home ministry meeting's audio recording, Abul Bashar, BAIRA's former chairman, dismissed the cases of the female migrant workers coming back tortured by saying, "The women because of whom we are being prosecuted are essentially being wanted back home by their husbands. The employers take the women to their respective countries after paying a certain amount of money. The women cannot come back just like that."
According to the Kafalah system, if a female worker comes back without completing her contract, the agency has to provide a substitute worker, or pay $2,000 to the employer.
"Because no action is being taken against the employers, the culprits cannot be identified. The recruiters can then recruit another female migrant worker and then abuse her in the same way," Shariful Hasan told this newspaper.
The United States Department of State publishes its "Trafficking in Persons Report" each year. The 2021 report stated, "Official complicity in human trafficking, trafficking-related corruption, and impunity for traffickers remained serious concerns, continuing to inhibit law enforcement action during the year. The government was reluctant to acknowledge or investigate such claims."
"Observers alleged some officials from district employment and manpower offices allegedly facilitated human trafficking, and some traffickers in rural areas had political connections that enabled them to operate with impunity," it added.
It further went on to say that government officials had conflicts of interest in approving "prosecution of abusive recruitment agencies".
At the home ministry meeting, the recruiting agencies further demanded that the employers abusing the workers be held responsible and blacklisted, instead of the traffickers.
There has been only one case where a Saudi woman was handed a death sentence for killing her Bangladeshi maid named Abiron Begum in March 2019. This conviction happened in February this year.