Should fortune-seekers be punished?
In 2012 the Parliament criminalised human trafficking by enacting the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act. The Act has a provision for punishing human traffickers. In doing so, the parliament has used its wisdom and refrained from making any ridiculous provision for punishing fortune-seekers who have fallen victim to the heinous crime of human trafficking. The parliament's will, expressed in the legislation, is that the government would enforce the law to protect innocent people from being trafficked by punishing the real culprits.
The prime minister, however, now wants to punish the victims of the trafficking racket which she has expressed through some shocking remarks on Sunday. She announced that actions need to be taken against victims along with the human traffickers. Her remarks run counter to the will of the Parliament. If her directive is implemented, it will only contribute to the increasing misery of the surviving victims instead of giving them any hope to move on with their life.
Many people may find it difficult to believe that the government will take such actions against the victims. But it may not be surprising if some of the victims are forced to face consequences, following the prime minister's statement that they "tarnished the country's image" by trying to go abroad in an illegal manner.
In her words: "It is not true that everybody is moving this way for want. They are in fact running after the 'golden deer' as they think they will earn huge amounts of money if they can go abroad." The premier also described such migrants as "mentally sick."
The prime minister, however, refrained from commenting on whether her government will take any action against the members of the law enforcement agencies for their failure of taking any strict actions against the traffickers.
Why do people put their life in danger to go to abroad in illegal ways? The government's official documents describe the reasons. The documents do not indicate any sign that the migrants put their lives in danger because they suffer from any kind of "mental sickness" or because they are running after the proverbial "golden deer."
The official document, the Bangladesh Country Report 2012 on Human Trafficking, says that the issue of human trafficking is integrally linked to insecurity of livelihood as well as to continuing disparities and discrimination against marginalised communities generally, and against women in particular.
According to the document, various factors lead to people being trapped into the vicious cycle of trafficking. They include poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, lack of awareness, gender discrimination, gender-based violence, natural disasters, and lack of proper implementation of the existing laws.
The 2012 report also says that in the absence of proper measures to address poverty, unemployment and violence against women and proper structures to facilitate safe migration, people willing to migrate for a better life will continue to be vulnerable to trafficking. The report prepared in 2013 also portrays a similar situation.
Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, the government has taken various measures. It has already prepared the National Plan of Actions (NPA) to combat human trafficking. The earlier NPA 2008, which expired in 2011, focused on trafficking of women and children. The government again prepared the NPA for 2012-2014, intending to cover all types of internal and cross-border human trafficking and seeking to address the weaknesses of the previous NPA. The government is now preparing the third NPA, which is likely to be unveiled next month.
Bangladesh has also made commitments at the international level to combat human trafficking. It participated in the first World Congress, held in Stockholm in 1996, against commercial sexual exploitation of children and the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, and ratified a number of core human rights treaties.
At the regional level, the country has made its commitment to combat human trafficking by joining the third SAARC ministerial meeting on children held in Rawalpindi in 1996. It culminated in State commitments to combat trafficking of children and assist victims of violence/exploitation by evolving administrative, legal and measures for rehabilitation.
But all of its efforts and commitments seem to have failed to protect people. The failure is due to a lack of proper implementation of laws, efforts and commitments.
The government is constitutionally obliged to address the reasons stipulated in the official documents behind human trafficking. The constitution also provides an obligation for the State to prevent violation of human rights in any form, including human trafficking.
Blaming fortune-seekers cannot pave the way for the government to escape from its responsibility to protect people against human trafficking. The government should now give this issue its utmost priority. No work can be more significant than the effort to save lives. No achievement will brighten the government's image if citizens are left to face a miserable death in the sea and jungles of foreign countries. It should be kept in mind that those who were engaged and have cooperated with human trafficking have committed offences against the State. Thus, it is the responsibility of the State to punish the perpetrators, not the helpless fortune-seekers.
The writer is a senior reporter of The Daily Star.