Since Bangladesh passed the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act (PSHTA) in 2012, as many as 4,152 trafficking cases have been recorded in the country over the last six years. But when it comes to meting out punishment to the perpetuators, the rate of convictions remain pathetically low.
Only 25 people have been convicted in cases over trafficking of some 7,840 victims since the 2012 anti-trafficking law enactment. Between February 2012 and June this year, police recorded 4,152 cases under the law. The cases involved 5,367 men, 1,638 women and 835 children, all of whom were victims of human trafficking at home and abroad, according to data from Police Headquarters.
According to a UN report, Bangladesh reported just 10 to 15 convictions a year in human trafficking cases in comparison to 50 to 80 convictions a year in neighbouring Nepal. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) stated this in its ‘Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2016’. As governments, non-government organisations and right bodies across the globe observing the ‘World Day against Trafficking in Persons’ on July 30, the UN body said it would come up with its latest Global Report on Trafficking in Persons at the end of 2018. But as far as trafficking case convictions in Bangladesh are concerned – it is in effect even much less that 10-15. There is record of only one conviction in the country in 2017 and four this year up until June.
Though PSHTA has a provision for establishing separate tribunals for handling exclusively the human trafficking cases, such tribunals have not been set up in all these years. Rather what government did was assigning the already case-burdened Women and Children Repression Tribunals for trials of human trafficking cases. There are as many as 1.66 lakh cases related to women and children repression are lying with Bangladesh’s judiciary for being disposal. It’s not too hard for one to understand why we have so poor conviction rate in trafficking cases in this country.
And here we heard at a city event the other day National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman lamenting, “This culture of impunity is allowing crimes like human trafficking. If the perpetrators are not punished, people’s rights cannot be protected.” Kazi Reazul Hoque, the NHRC Chairman said Bangladesh has enacted rules, a law and a national plan of action on the prevention of human trafficking, but sadly the conviction rate is very low. In many cases, human trafficking is happening in the name of labour migration. “The cases under the human trafficking prevention law must see fast disposal. We want justice for the victims,” he said. Speaking at the same programme a ranking police officer (Shah Alam, DIG of the Crime Investigation Department), said, “We failed to send a strong message to the human traffickers. They know they can get away with it and so, they still thrive.”
Human trafficking in Bangladesh came under the spotlight during the Andaman sea refugee crisis when mass graves of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were discovered in the bordering areas of Thailand and Malaysia in 2015. Besides this, the media was abuzz with lots of reports on human trafficking gangs operating in Libya and Iran who held Bangladeshis hostage for months and demanded ransom. In many instances, men and women who had gone abroad as job seekers were confined to rooms without any jobs or pay.
In this year’s ‘World Day against Trafficking in Persons’ UNODC focused on ‘responding to the trafficking of children and young people’. This year’s campaign highlighted the fact that almost a third of trafficking victims are children. Hence, the theme drew attention to the issues faced by trafficked children and to possible action initiatives linked to safeguarding and ensuring justice for child victims. “According to preliminary data, children make up almost 30 per cent of all human trafficking victims worldwide. However, in some parts of the world, like West Africa and Central America, children account for the majority of victims detected. In addition, preliminary results also show that one third of the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are children,” said UNODC. Today, there are millions of people whose liberty, dignity and essential human rights have been stolen. They are coerced into sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, forced begging and stealing, and even compelled to “sell” skin and organs.
Low rate of convictions in trafficking cases can be one possible reason why Bangladesh has been bracketed for two years on the trot in the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ of the US State Department’s annual ‘Trafficking in Persons’ (TIP) report. Before 2017, Bangladesh had been in a better category for five years since 2012. This year’s TIP report that the United States published in late June, stated that the “Government of Bangladesh does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” It said, the Bangladesh government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. “Courts convicted only one trafficker in 2017—a decrease from 2016 and a low number compared with the scale of the trafficking problem.”
In TIP Report, ‘Tier 1’ refers to the governments of countries that fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, ‘Tier 2’ refers to the governments of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. However, ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ refers to the government of countries that fail to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecution, and convictions of trafficking crimes. And last but not the least, ‘Tier 3’ refers to the governments of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. After 2011 Bangladesh graduated from ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ to ‘Tier 2’ but slipped back to the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’ again in 2017 and couldn’t bounce back yet.
US State Department report recommended Bangladesh to take steps to eliminate recruitment fees charged to workers by licensed labor recruiters and ensure they are paid by employers; increase prosecutions and convictions, particularly of labor traffickers, fraudulent labor recruiters, and complicit government officials, while strictly respecting due process; proactively incorporate forced labor and sex trafficking prevention measures into the response to the Rohingya refugee crisis; increase investigations and prosecutions of credible allegations of trafficking of Rohingya; establish guidelines for provision of adequate victim care and standard operating procedures for the referral of victims to such services.
According to this year’s TIP Report, in 2017, the government reported 778 cases were recorded with police under the PSHTA, of which 496 remained under investigation at the end of the year. Of the 282 completed investigations, 86 cases were unsubstantiated and 196 cases resulted in charges against the accused, although the government did not report the number of prosecutions initiated during the year nor did it categorize the cases between sex and labor trafficking as it had in the past.
In 2016, the government investigated 290 cases—122 sex and 168 labor trafficking cases, 31 of which were specifically investigated for bonded labor—and prosecuted 302 alleged traffickers under the PSHTA. In 2017, the courts reached verdicts in nine cases and convicted one trafficker, compared with three convictions in 2016. The other eight cases resulted in acquittal. The courts sentenced the convicted trafficker to life imprisonment.