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Now, Rohingyas face trafficking woes

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A hapless Rohingya girl gives a blank look at makeshift houses sprawled along sides of hills at Kutupalong in Ukhiya of Cox’s Bazar on Tuesday. Many of the Rohingyas living in these camps are falling victims to human traffickers. Independent Photo

Shamsuddin Illius back from Cox’s Bazar
Publication Date: 23 February, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Media: The Independent
Original Link: Now, Rohingyas face trafficking woes
Epaper Link: Published Date (February 23, 2018)

Faced with financial desperation at refugee camps, Rohingya women and children are falling prey to traffickers, who lure the vulnerable victims with “risky opportunities” to earn money. Talking to the victims, NGOs, law enforcement agencies and middlemen, The Independent found that the refugees are being trafficked for sex trade, unpaid domestic work, forced marriages and even bonded labour. Especially, fair women and children aged between five and 14 years are the main targets of middlemen, and sometimes these refugees are even trafficked to neighbouring countries like India and Malaysia. Ironically, Rohingyas who have been residing in the refugee camps in Bangladesh for several years play a key role in the racket.

Sources said the traffickers have a well-established network of middlemen, especially women, in the camps to target vulnerable refugees by promising them job opportunities. “There are several check points on the way set up by the Army, BGB and police. But we dodge the law enforcers by saying that we are either going to a marriage function or to visit a doctor in Cox’s Bazar,” a trafficker disclosed on condition of anonymity.

The racket is thriving under the very noses of various government agencies and NGOs, who are busy providing lifesaving support to the refugees in the camps.

“People are looking for means to get out of the camps and earn money. Following the diktats of the traffickers is one way for them to do so. We are lagging behind because we are still very busy in trying to provide housing, education, sanitation and safeguards against the looming monsoon,” said Benjamin Steinlechner, a communication officer of UNICEF. “Trafficking occurs on the sidelines. It’s a major and urgent issue in the camps,” he added.A round of the refugee camps and meeting the Rohingyas living there further exposed the malaise. Setara Begum and Abdul Khaleq fled Myanmar with their six children after the military crackdown in Rakhine state in September 2017. Though they have shelter and food in a Bangladesh refugee camp now, they spend sleepless nights as one of their daughters was trafficked to India and two others face the same

risk for their fair looks. Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Lambasia refugee camp at Kutupalong, said that a trafficker had first tried to lure his daughter with the promise of marriage and later offered him Tk. 2 lakh. “We had refused his proposal because we knew he had links with international trafficking gangs. Failing in his designs to marry or buy my daughter, the trafficker kidnapped her while she had gone for treatment to MSF Hospital at Kutupalong,” he added.

“We looked for her everywhere and made announcements over loudspeakers to ascertain her whereabouts. It was only recently that we came to know from an NGO and the camp-in-charge that my daughter was sold to a brothel in India. The Indian police have arrested the trafficker and my daughter. They are now lodged in a jail in Agartala in India,” Abdul said, showing the picture of the trafficker and his daughter. “Now, I am worried about the security of my two other daughters,” he added.

Sources within different NGOs working for victims of trafficking said four Rohingya women, one man and two children were lodged in Indian jails. However, the authorities could not give a definite number of the trafficked victims and the missing persons.

A 12-year-old girl, Rojina Akhter, is one such missing person. Her aunt Dilara Begum, a resident of B-3 block at Kutupalong, said Rojina had gone to buy some goods from the market in October and never returned to the camp. “We have informed everyone concerned about Rojina, but still there is no information about her,” she added.

A boy Zifath, 10, shares the same fate. He has been missing since the day he went to see the new arrivals at a Kutupalong refugee camp in October last year. Zifath’s mother has been searching around for him at various camps. In another incident, police caught a young woman from Cox’s Bazar airport while trying to go to Malaysia with a Bangladeshi passport.

This correspondent also spoke to three victims—one was trafficked for forced sex, one for forced labour being lured by job as domestic help and one was kidnapped—who managed to return to the camps recently.

Rumana Akhter (not real name), 17, a resident of D-3 of the Balukhali-1 camp who came to the UNICEF awareness programme against trafficking on Saturday, told The Independent: “One of my relatives promised to give me a job at home as domestic help as we were without food when we came to Bangladesh. I was brought to Chittagong and was forced to have sex with many men for the last four months.”

However, she was released due to continuous pressure by her family and local NGOs to the Rohingya people who facilitated her return to Chittagong from the camp. Zannatul Baki, who is one of the facilitators of the awareness programme, said at her centre she found 10 victims of suspected trafficking, including forced sex and unpaid domestic help.

Renu Ara, 12, a resident of the Kerontali camp of Chakmarkul, was rescued by an NGO. She was a captive in a seven-storied building in Cox’s Bazar Eidgah area as domestic help. She said the owners of that building used to torture her and did not give food regularly. When they used to leave home, they locked her in a room. Even they did not give her a dress; she had to live with one dress.

Her mother Ayesha said: “Promising a job for my daughter, they took her away, but didn’t give us any money. Moreover, we didn’t know where my daughter was. Running to many NGOs and the military, we finally got her back after four months. Now she is going to school regularly.”

Md Rifath, 11, a madrasa student and a resident of the B-3 Kutu Palong camp, was returned after five months. He said he was picked up in a vehicle by some people. However, after five months, he was lucky enough to return home with the help of the police.

Although incidents of disapearance are continuing in the refugee camps, no international NGO or local NGO has a list of the missing persins or victims.

Md Ershaduzzaman, programme officer of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), said: “We rescued four children who were held captive as unpaid domestic help. An eight-month-old baby was adopted. Two young girls were forced into sex trade at a hotel at Kolatoli of Cox’s Bazar after they were lured by the promise of a good job.”

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, identified and assisted 32 victims of trafficking till February 13, 2018. It said these numbers are far from representative, as it is mainly a clandestine activity.

Shirin Akhter, communication officer of IOM, said: “The settlements have become a target for opportunist human traffickers looking to exploit the refugees. The IOM is working to help protect the refugees and offer support to survivors of exploitation and human trafficking.”

IOM also said there is no single solution to ending trafficking, and it is vital that aid agencies and the authorities work together to build skills and share information about this extremely serious issue.

UNICEF’s communication officer in Cox’s Bazar, Nazzina Mohsin, said: “Children have been reportedly taken to other parts of Cox’s Bazar district, to other parts of the country, and other countries, where they have no contact with their families and may not receive any payment for their work. It has also been reported that adolescent girls are being forced into marriage, often with older Bangladeshi men or are being forced into prostitution by their employers, prospective husbands or traffickers. There is also a risk of children and adults being taken by smugglers to other countries by boat.” “UNICEF and its partners have established 163 community-based child protection committees within the refugee community to prevent child exploitation and other protection violations. They also work to identify those at-risk,” she added.

However, the UNHCR said it have no numbers about trafficking in the camps. Tayba Sharif, senior protection officer of the UNHCR, said: “It might be happening, but we have no numbers. We have received only one call on our hotline about it.” She also said they are preparing some messages to create awareness among the refugees about trafficking. Maj. Ruhul Amin, company commander of RAB in Cox’s Bazar, said he also rescued some victims of forced labour, forced sex and forced marriage. Cox’s Bazar district administration sources said since August 25, four mobile courts of the district administration have sentenced about 600 people for various reasons, including helping Rohingyas come out from camps, and exploitation.

Published date: February 23, 2018
Shamsuddin Illius
Shamsuddin Illius is a print and online media journalist. He has been working in the field (fulltime) of journalism since 2010. He is very much passionate about journalism since his early age. Currently he is the Bureau Chief-Chittagong at The Business Standard.

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