How Rohingya women become fodder for sex trafficking

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Around 250,000 Rohingyas have gone overseas by illegally acquiring Bangladesh passports, with the help of locals

The modern slave trade around the world generates more than $150 billion, according to the United Nations. And 70% of the world’s 4.8 million sex trafficking victims are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Global bodies have designated Bangladesh as a provider and a transit point for human trafficking. Every year, thousands of people, particularly women and children, are trafficked from Bangladesh.

The Rohingya crisis has particularly affected the scene. There are over a million living in cramped refugee camps in Bangladesh, and many of them will resort to anything for a better life.

Sixteen-year-old Morijan Begum fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 from Budichong, Myanmar after the military crackdown. She took shelter with an aunt in Sabulakata refugee camp at Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar.

One day, she was approached by a 45-year-old man named Rafikul Islam, alias Raja Mia, who promised her a well-paying job in India. He also promised to take care of visa and other costs. Such an offer was quite impossible to say no to.

The orphaned Morijan agreed and got on a bus to Dhaka with Raja on April 27 this year. Raja instructed her to refer to him as her father if anyone asked. They spent two days in Munshiganj and went to Dhaka to get their passports, which listed their address as Munshiganj. They arrived at Benapole on May 1, along with a 50-year-old man named Zaman Khan, and two other Rohingya men named Mofidul and Sarwar Islam, hoping to cross the border into India.

At the immigration, their difference in dialects roused suspicion, and under further interrogation, they admitted their real identity. They were initially detained under the Human Trafficking Act, but later released on bail.

The Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), which is handling the case, linked it to an international human trafficking network.

Vulnerable targets?

Young Rohingya women in the refugee camps, preferably helpless or destitute, are approached with offers of jobs and marriage proposals by the traffickers. They use connections in the local government offices, the passport office, and the Election Commission to procure birth certificates, national ID (NID) cards and passports. If getting a passport becomes too complicated, the women are hauled onto fishing trawlers and sent journeying across the sea.

They are sold off as prostitutes to Indian brothels and cheap labour for menial tasks in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. The high profit margins associated with human trafficking incentivizes the traffickers to sponsor their targets. But there are instances where the victims pay to be trafficked.

AKM Jahangir Hossain, additional special superintendent of the PBI in Jessore, told Dhaka Tribune there are groups which cover different aspects of the operation. 

“Most of the people we arrest are there to get the victims past immigration. The people we arrest never reveal any details. We have 35 ongoing cases,” he said.

Over the past two years, there have been various reports of Rohingyas arrested in Munshiganj, and of Rohignyas detained elsewhere with Bangladeshi identification which listed Munshiganj as their residence.

In Raja’s home village of Purbo Shialdi in Munshiganj’s Sirajdikhan upazila, his house was found empty. His phone was switched off.

A man named Nazmul Islam, claiming to be his nephew, told Dhaka Tribune: “My uncle once lived in South Korea. Now he wants to settle in the US, that is why he is visiting India, Malaysia and Singapore to improve his chances. He sometimes visits those countries with friends and acquaintances. Morijan was probably one of them. He has nothing to do with human trafficking.”

However, a village elder named Hares Mia said the village knew that Raja Mia helps send people abroad, but his arrest for trafficking Rohingyas was unknown.

A dangerous trend

In 2018, the Bangladesh government admitted that around 250,000 Rohingyas had gone overseas with Bangladeshi passports. A local broker at Cox’s Bazar passport office told Dhaka Tribune that an illegal passport can cost between Tk60,000 and Tk100,000. Local brokers help obtain proof of identification with the help of local residents who hope to make a quick buck.

Abu Naim Masum, an assistant director at the passport office in Cox’s Bazar, said they process passports if an application is filed with necessary documents, but it is the responsibility of the Special Branch of police to verify the information provided by the applicants.

There are allegations that the police did not verify a Rohingya woman who applied for a passport using a Cox’s Bazar address. 

A farmer named Sultan was listed as her father, and she used his address. Sultan’s son Selim said he wanted to go to Saudi Arabia and had a contract with a man Abdur Rahman from the Shikdar Mahal Burmese Market in Cox’s Bazar. Abdur Rahman promised to send Selim and her sister abroad if he also identified the Rohingya woman as his sister.

But when the Rohingya woman was caught and the trail led to Sultan, he was the one arrested and Abdur Rahman disappeared from the market.

Sultan claimed the police never appeared for any verification. 

ABM Masud Hossain, superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, said in each of the cases, the Rohingyas failed and agents refused to identify the ringleaders.

Special Branch officers in Cox’s Bazar claim to judiciously verify passports, and accused the Rohingyas and traffickers of lying to save themselves.