Human trafficking in and from Bangladesh
“I used to be happy before. Now, I cry a lot in the evenings. I cry because of my fate which brought me here.”
The words belong to Halima, a teenager with a sincere, childlike smile. She stands in a doorway in central Jessore, the last town in Bangladesh before the Indian border. The streets outside are busy, lined with vendors and shops. Everything is for sale here: bananas, rice, hardware, textiles. And women. The doorway leads in to one of Jessore’s biggest brothels.
“I was brought here a few years ago, I lived in the streets at that time. A man took me to Daulatdia, the biggest brothel in Bangladesh. He sold me to the owners, who kept me in a room and gave me drugs. Then, a man suddenly came in and started taking off my clothes. I was so scared, I didn’t understand what was happening.”
She continues to tell her story as she walks inside. Clothes hang to dry from the balconies, the air smells of frying oil and chilli. Someone is putting on make-up in front of a mirror. Red lips, a layer of whitening cream covering her face.
Halima doesn’t know her age exactly, but she thinks she’s 17. She has lived in different brothels since that first day she was taken away.
“I dream about having a family, just like everyone else. But I don’t think I will ever have that life.”
Halima’s story represents that of many others in her country. Bangladesh, which has the eight-largest population in the world, is a major global trafficking spot. Each year, numerous women, children and men are taken from their homes, sold and exploited. While men mainly fall victims to forced labour, women and children are brought into the global sex industry.
“It’s sad because it shows that value of the human being is absolutely zero. People who live in poverty are extremely vulnerable, and end up in this because there are no other options,” says Tawhidur Rahman, a Dhaka-based researcher on forced labour and prostitution.
Trafficking, servitude, modern-day slavery – whichever the term, it’s about deliberate exploitation of human beings. And basically every country in the world is affected, whether as a place of origin, transit or destination. More than 20 million people are victims of trafficking globally, according to the UN, the large majority from countries in the developing world. The most prominent flow originates in eastern Asia, which is a sending region to all other parts of the globe.
Next to the doorway where Halima was standing is another entrance, leading to a different part of the brothel. It’s a big brothel, with three parts, all named after the nearby Hindu temple, Marwari Mandir. This courtyard is busier than the first. Men walk in and out of doors leading to the small rooms. Children play in the corners. Taslima, a woman in her 40s, sits outside a wooden door. Just like Halima and many others in Bangladesh, she only uses her first name.
“I’ve been working like this since I was 12. That’s when my brother sold me to a brothel, for 5,000 taka.”
That’s about 65 dollars – the equivalent of one month’s salary for many Bangladeshis.
“I was first taken to India, then back to Bangladesh. I fled, but I didn’t know how to get home so I went back. Five years later, my brother came and asked to get his sister back, but the brothel wouldn’t let him.”
Taslima continues her story. Her father eventually found out what had happened to her. He was so devastated, she says, that he ate poison and killed himself. The rest of the family knows her story as well, but she never sees them.
“I have another family now, here in the brothel,” she says.
Many trafficking victims share the kind of shame and guilt that was brought upon Taslima. Exclusion from society functions as a form of retribution – for crimes the girls have never committed.
“There are some very negative attitudes towards these women, including those who have been lured into this,” says Mumtaz Ali, a social worker with the local anti-trafficking NGO, Rights Jessore.
“It’s about intolerance, but most of all a lack of knowledge. It’s something we’re working very hard to change. It’s not easy, but we have come a long way since I started working with this in 1998. I’d say that maybe 80 per cent of families accept their daughters now.”
The offices of Rights Jessore are only a short walk from the brothels and the market area. Jessore is a fairly small city, but its location, just off the Indian border, brings big problems. Drugs, medicine, livestock – anything that can be bought and sold – are taken illegally through here.
That includes thousands of people each month, something the archives of Rights Jessore bear testament to. Sudip, another social worker, sits in a small room with a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. His computer screen is full with folders called Jhuma, Nadira, Selima and Mohammad – names of people who have gone missing.
He clicks on a file and gets a photo of a woman with long hair and a colourful scarf.
“Khushi, 28 years old from Khulna. Have been gone for one year, was just recovered in India. The Indian authorities contacted us, saying she will be sent back to Bangladesh,” he reads out loud.
Finding and returning people from abroad keeps Sudip and the others more than busy. Last year, they rescued 300 people from India. The director, Binoy Krishna Mallick, a gentle man in his 50s, has three mobile phones and a huge desk overwhelmed with paper. A small lady, with a simple black dress and a cotton scarf, sits in the visitor’s chair in front of him. Her eyes are tired, her small hands hold a white napkin in a tight grip. Sorry, Mallick tells her, but no. No news about your daughter today either.
Just before Christmas last year, the NGO was part of a big effort to rescue 29 Bangladeshi men held captive in Iran. Women and children make up 75 per cent of trafficking victims globally, but the rest are men, almost always exploited as forced labour. That kind of trafficking is less common than sexual exploitation – 36 per cent as compared to 58 per cent – but numbers are growing. Between 2008 and 2012, labour trafficking doubled, according to the UN. For Bangladesh, one of the main sources of labour in the world, the problem is very real.
“We see this a lot. There are many syndicates targeting these people. They promise good jobs in Europe or the Middle East, but bring them elsewhere where they are forced to work because they’re in debt and have no money to get back. Or they demand ransom in order to release them. That’s what happened to these men in Iran,” explains Mallick.
One of them is Younus Ali, a young man from a village not far from Jessore. A crowded bus ride and a walk through green paddy fields later, we’re on the porch in front of his home. It’s a simple house, made of clay and bricks. The village is typical for rural Bangladesh: farming, the main sustenance, remains the sole work opportunity for young people. But it pays hardly anything.
Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has made great progress in addressing hardship in the country. The number of people living in poverty went from 70 per cent to under 30 per cent, and the average life expectancy rose by 10 years. The head of UNDP in Bangladesh, Neal Walker, calls it an incredible progress. “It’s really a powerful story, due to sheer obstinacy and hard work of its people, it has gone from a complete basket case, as Henry Kissinger said, to a self-sufficient country.” Still, almost 50 million Bangladeshis remain below the poverty line – mainly farmers, and people from rural backgrounds Ali says, when he got the opportunity to travel abroad for work, the decision to go was easy.
“A man from my village approached me and told me he would arrange for a work visa to Saudi Arabia. I saved up money for the ticket, and went with two other men from Jessore. Our first stop was in Dubai, but when we landed, instead of changing flights, four men came and took us away.”
They were brought to a house outside Dubai, where other Bangladeshis were already staying. The men took their money and passports.
“I don’t know who they were, but they spoke in Urdu which is similar to Hindi, so I could understand a bit. They threatened us, and kept us captive inside.
“Then one day, they took us to Oman and on to a speedboat. From there, they brought us across the water to Iran. One person died on the boat – I think from stroke or from being afraid. They just threw him in the sea and kept going.”
Once they got to Iran, Ali says, other men met up and brought them to Bandar Abbas, where they were sold and brought to different locations.
“It was now that they started asking us for money. But we didn’t have anything, they had taken everything from us. So we had to call our families and tell them to send money.”
His story is long and detailed. The men were sold again, and brought to new places. Meanwhile, the families back in Bangladesh had contacted Rights Jessore, which tried to locate them. But Ali’s family was desperate, and sent money to the kidnappers, through people with bank accounts in Bangladesh.
“My family was so afraid. Each time I called them they were crying and asking where I was. They’re poor rice farmers, they sold all their land and sent the money to free me.”
In the end, with the information provided by the kidnappers and the help of Rights Jessore, the Iranian police managed to locate the men. They first took them to prison, says Ali, because they had neither passports nor visas. But they were released, and Ali took a temporary job on a construction site to earn money for his flight back home. Nine months after leaving Bangladesh, he could finally return. But, even as he comes to the end of his story, his eyes remain sad. In fact, they fill with tears.
“I’m free, sure, but in a much worse place than before, because both me and my family have lost everything. I have no money and their land is gone. I don’t know what to do,” he says.
Ali’s story is an indication of what Bangladesh is facing. One hundred and sixty million people share a small piece of land, with recurring flooding and limited resources, which leaves people with few options but to look elsewhere for jobs. The country’s prime asset – its hardworking people – is also the source of its vulnerability.
No one knows exactly how many people are trafficked from and within Bangladesh each year, but at least 50,000 women and children are taken abroad each year. Adding to that are tens of thousands of men, and all the victims of domestic trafficking.
The main targets of traffickers are women and young girls – vulnerable groups to begin with, who face even more risk if they come from poor areas, or belong to socially excluded groups and minorities.
The main destination is India, the big western neighbour, with large brothels full with Bengali and Nepalese women.
While many remain in captivity, some manage to make it back to safety. The first stop is often one of the safe homes run by the government and various NGOs. On the outskirts of Jessore, surrounded by farmland and greenery, is one such place. Shahanaz, its director, has worked there for several years and counselled many victims.
“Almost everyone who comes here has been in the sex industry. Many come from Kolkata or Mumbai, or Pakistan and the Gulf countries. Sometimes they’re only 10 or 12 and have been abused in brothels. It’s bad, they are physically and mentally not ready to go through such experiences,” she says.
The place is simple – a white brick building with therapy rooms and a kitchen on the first floor, and bedrooms on the second. A girl, who uses the nickname Lotta, sits on her bed upstairs. She wraps her scarf around her as she starts talking.
“I got to know a young man from the same town as me; he told me that he would help me get a good job in Dhaka. He said I was like his sister, that I could trust him. One day he picked me up on his motorbike, and brought bananas and biscuits. But he had prepared them with something, some kind of drug.”
She lost consciousness almost immediately, and when she woke up several hours later, she was in India.
“There were men I had never seen before, who brought me all the way to Pune, where I was sold to a brothel in the red-light district.”
The owner locked her inside and forced her to work.
“It was awful. Most girls were from Bangladesh like me, and there was a leader who took all the money. It stayed like that for a month, then a customer called Elyas came along. He was not like the others. I started crying to him, telling my story. He told me he would help me.”
Elyas contacted the police in Pune, who raided the brothel. That way, Lotta could get in touch with a team of Bangladeshi officials on an anti-trafficking mission, and was brought back home.
“Those days at the brothel were so horrible. So hurtful to me. When I was finally released, it was like touching the sky,” she says.
“In the future, I will never get married. I want to make myself confident and skilled, nobody shall ever touch me again.”
It has been several months since Lotta was rescued, and she’s about to leave the shelter. Her family knows what happened to her in India, and supports her. But reintegration is not an easy process. Victims are vulnerable to being trafficked again – especially those without family support or with debts to pay back.
While Bangladesh remains a vulnerable trafficking spot, it has made several improvements during the last decade. New legislation has been enacted, and a special tribunal for crimes against women and children has been formed. The global 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report says that, although Bangladesh fails to meet minimum anti-trafficking standards, it is striving to do so.
Taslima, from the Marwari Mandir brothel, has not given up either. She has taken the hard decision to let her son, 7-year-old Mofiz, grow up in a safe environment away from the brothel – even though it means she cannot see him much.
“I have only one aim now and that is to make sure my son gets the best life possible. I have already lost my own life in this place, I don’t want to lose my son as well,” she says.
Jenny Gustafsson is a Sweden-born freelance journalist living in Beirut. Her work has appeared in The National, Al Jazeera, UN publications and magazines worldwide.