How do we address human trafficking during a pandemic? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 30, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, July 30, 2020

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

How do we address human trafficking during a pandemic?

Bangladesh has recently been rocked by several international human trafficking scandals, one of them involving a lawmaker trafficking individuals to Kuwait. Another involves a network illegally sending workers to Vietnam with the false promise of well-paid jobs. Then there was the unfortunate revenge killing of 26 victims of human trafficking from Bangladesh in the Libyan town of Mizda, by the family of a trafficker. These incidents have, once again, brought to the fore Bangladesh's struggles with human trafficking.

The US State Department's 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which promoted Bangladesh to Tier 2 from Tier 2 Watch List, also referenced the Kuwait scandal, stating "a Bangladeshi parliamentarian bribed Kuwaiti officials to bring more than 20,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad on work visas that stipulated a different job and lower salaries than their contracts, and the parliamentarian then paid the workers the lesser wages or not at all." As per reports, officials from both countries were involved in this profitable arrangement. Gulf News reported that during interrogation, "Islam [Mohammad Shahid Islam] reportedly confessed to have provided 1.1 million dinars by cheque to an official at the Ministry of Interior, one million dinars in cash to another official, in addition to 'bags' of millions of dinars in cash to a third official." 

And then there are those myriad cases this writer had mentioned in previous columns about the trafficking of Rohingya refugees to Malaysia. As recently as July 27, 2020, Malaysian authorities found 26 Rohingya refugees hiding in an islet near Langkawi. They had apparently travelled from Bangladesh in a mother boat along with hundreds of other Rohingya refugees, and were later transferred to a small boat so that they could discreetly enter Malaysia, reported Al Jazeera. 

Driven by poverty, climate change, limited income-generating opportunities, and lack of access to finance, among many other factors, thousands of people every year undertake desperate journeys in search of a better life and livelihood. And these conditions enable the traffickers to dupe helpless people into trafficking through their sinister tactics.

While trafficking in persons had been a concern in the pre-Covid-19 era, the pandemic has made the situation worse for the country. "The global restrictions on movement, to curb the spread of Covid-19, are posing new challenges to migrants, forcibly displaced populations and refugees. We fear an increase in trafficking and smuggling across borders in several countries, as the global economic downturn is making these migrants more vulnerable and they are exposed to increased risk of exploitation and abuse," said Giorgi Gigauri, IOM Chief of Mission and UN Migration Network Coordinator in Bangladesh, while commenting on this issue.

With the changing circumstances, the behaviour of traffickers is also taking new shape. In a recent report by Interpol, its Secretary General Jürgen Stock addressed this issue, "We see misinformation being used by human traffickers to convince desperate people to use their services, and at an even higher personal and financial cost because of increased difficulties in completing a journey due to travel restrictions. It is essential that law enforcement continues to cooperate and communicate internationally to maintain our vital work in protecting desperate men, women and children from potentially becoming victims of human slavery."

So, how do we address the issue of human trafficking? While cross-border cooperation and coordination among law enforcement agencies are essential to identify and catch the trafficking networks, what is even more essential is eliminating the root causes that are making people prone to trafficking in the first place.

For one, with economies shrinking, governments now need to play a more proactive role in eradicating the economic triggers that drive people away from their roots. Making sure that aid and essentials reach the people living in the fringes of society during this time of distress can be one way of addressing this problem. A family with food and essentials would be less likely to fall prey to the lures of traffickers. 

In addition, governments need to focus on creating sustainable livelihood opportunities for the people who are being affected by this pandemic. With private-sector entities grappling to cope with Covid-19 related losses, layoffs have become a common phenomenon. And of course, this has increased people's vulnerability to trafficking. In view of this situation, it has become essential for governments around the world—especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh—to find alternative ways of providing income-generating opportunities to the people.

Along with this, the governments need to strengthen monitoring mechanisms to make sure that individuals involved in human trafficking are apprehended and brought to justice, no matter how high up in the socio-political ladder they are. The culprits, irrespective of their political affiliations or financial muscle, cannot be allowed to continue their criminal activities with immunity. The 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, with regard to Bangladesh, observed that the "government increased convictions of traffickers but decreased investigations and did not take adequate steps to address internal sex trafficking or official complicity in trafficking, both of which remained pervasive." This remains a serious concern that Bangladesh must rectify immediately. Women and children are extremely vulnerable to sex trafficking, and any lax in rooting this out would lead to disastrous human rights and social consequences.

Strong political will, along with its demonstration through stricter surveillance, smoother coordination among law enforcement agencies (both internally and externally), efficient identification of cases, and fast-tracking of justice delivery processes would be crucial elements in addressing this problem.   

Human trafficking is tricky business and Covid-19 has only made the situation worse. But despite the limitations and challenges, governments need to take proactive and exemplary measures, including mobilising more resources to immediately eliminate the primary and secondary factors that trigger and enable human trafficking. A combined set of strategies covering the economic, social, political and law enforcement aspects of human trafficking will now be required to defeat this sinister menace. Given the realities, the road ahead is rocky, but with the collaboration of all, even this challenge can be overcome with success.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem

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