Is Bangladesh Still Waiting for Comprehensive Law to Fight Human Trafficking?

In December 2011, the Bangladesh government approved a new draft law to combat human trafficking with capital punishment topping the punitive measures. The government did what most people wanted it to do. Now it remain to be seen whether at all it will help curb human trafficking, considered the world’s third largest organised crime after narcotics and arms trafficking.

Human smuggling is considered a crime against humanity. It involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person through the use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall prey to traffickers, and Bangladesh is no different.

Annually, some 25,000 women and children, mostly hailing from impoverished backgrounds, are trafficked on the false promises of a better life. According to the estimates of rights groups working in the country, every month around 200 to 400 women are smuggled to Pakistan and the Gulf, while an estimated 10,000-15,000 are sent annually across the border into India. Yet another 70-80 are trafficked daily across the globe. This ‘trade’ is carried out over the Dhaka-Mumbai-Karachi-Dubai route and human smugglers supply hundreds of girls – sometimes as young as nine years old – to either work as bonded labour or in the sex industry or as ‘camel race jockeys’ in the Gulf, exposing them to serious physical harm, besides a lifetime of misery and loneliness.

But if these figures have managed to draw out alarmed reactions, the real shocker is that Bangladesh is still waiting for a comprehensive law to fight this crime.

That’s what makes the proposed legislation, which is finally ready to be tabled in the parliament, so critical. According to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Press Secretary, “The cabinet has approved a draft law to prevent and curb human trafficking with the highest punishment, including death sentence and Tk 0.5 million fine. The proposed bill will be tabled in parliament and it’ll become a law on approval.”

Of course, it’s not as if at present there are no provisions in the penal code to tackle this growing menace. The Constitution of Bangladesh prohibits forced and compulsory labour (Article 34). In addition, the Penal Code 1860 (Sections 372, 373, and 466A), the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act, 1933 (Sections 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10) and the Repression of Violence against Women and Children Act, 2000 (Articles 5 and 6) also clearly provide that trafficking is an illegal and punishable offence for which capital punishment may be imposed as the maximum punishment.

However, the low number of court cases and convictions regarding trafficking demonstrates the weak implementation of the existing laws. During the last five years only 53 cases of trafficking have been brought before the court, of which 35 were dismissed on grounds of lack of adequate evidence. Only 21 accused have been convicted with the highest punishment of 10 years of rigorous (hard labour) imprisonment.

That’s what human rights activists like Salma Ali, who is also the Executive Director of the Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), are hoping will change once the proposed law is passed.

Of course, there are not many voices of optimism like Ali’s. Said an official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, who did not wish to be named, “Bangladesh has enough laws to check crimes but their implementation is not a priority for the government. That’s why the laws dealing with human trafficking are simply not acting as a deterrent. Traffickers know that their prosecution will take years.”

Therefore, the main focus of interventions, according to him, needs to be towards prevention. “We have to reach the root cause of human trafficking and for that we need to ensure that the development programmes meant for the poor reach them.”

Poverty is one of the main causes for such a crime to thrive. Numerous surveys over the decades show that human smugglers use 20 main points in the 16 south and south-western districts of the country near the Indian border to carry on their illicit trade. Women and children, particularly girls under 18 years of age, are lured away from villages on promises of well paying jobs or on the pretext of marriage.

Something needs to be done and done really fast if Bangladesh has to save its women and children from becoming mere traded commodities. But there are some simple measures experts say that the government can undertake to help prevent it.

Increasing public awareness about the issue is among them. This is where the media and civil society can play a major role by running campaigns, providing training, staging street theatre, and so on.

Pressure can also be put on the government to strictly enforce the existing laws and ensure that traffickers face exemplary punishment. Creating anti-trafficking networks and initiating a viable rehabilitation programme for those rescued, are also important next steps.

Most importantly, though, society in general and parents in particular need to be motivated to accept trafficking victims back into the families. “Any effective and sustainable effort to combat human trafficking must be integrated, transnational and collaborative,” says Professor Md. Zakir Hossain, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Chittagong.

Martin Reeve, regional advisor to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an agency that helps countries enforce their anti-trafficking laws, agrees that a comprehensive approach, which is beyond law enforcement and includes other sections of the community, is needed to curb human trafficking. He says, “Certainly law enforcement can’t do it on its own; neither can government policy, neither can civil society. So really, one needs to take a multilateral approach. The business community, for instance, can look at its own practices and make sure that it’s not involving exploitative labour at any point during the supply process.”

Meaningful regional cooperation that puts in place an effective regime of prevention, rescue and repatriation, is also the need of the hour, more so in South Asia where borders are porous.

Trafficking is an organised million-dollar illicit business stemming from a variety of moral, legal, social and economic problems. It cannot be tackled overnight or by merely enacting a tougher law. But that does not mean that we should give up the fight.

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