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Stopping human trafficking and modern slavery around displaced Rohingyas is complex and difficult.

Displaced Rohingyas at sea oscillate from one country to another in hopes of gaining entry into Malaysia or Thailand since February of this year. While some were rescued by the coast guard when the boats returned to Bangladesh in mid-April and early May, there remained apprehension that more such trawlers are still being denied access at sea due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The few hundred displaced Rohingyas rescued were severely emaciated, dehydrated, and barely able to walk due to food and water shortages. Several had died and their bodies were disposed of at sea. Such abysmal conditions force us to ponder what propels these people to venture on such a dangerous expedition and what eventually happens to most of them? Malaysia and Thailand appear to be lucrative destinations for these hapless people for quite some time now. They believe that once they get there it will put an end to their ongoing anguish of being in cage-like circumstances with no economic or social opportunities available to them. Thus, they agree to commence unsafe sea journeys in search of better lives.

However, a ruthless trafficking network lurks behind these anticipated aspirations, which are preying on such vulnerable conditions. The blight of human trafficking affects roughly 40 million people in South and Southeast Asia, according to the latest reports. Women and girls make up 71 percent of the figures in modern slavery. Women and children are enmeshed in an atrocious network of sexual abuse, forced labour, and coerced marriage.

Currently, a population of about 885,000 Rohingyas resides in Bangladesh and their stateless status and displacement have eroded their financial capacity. Restriction of movement and stalled repatriation efforts between the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments, coupled with isolation and desperation, have increased crimes such as human trafficking. Thus, men, women, and children are either enticed with false job assurance or are simply kidnapped. Once an offer is accepted, individuals are often trapped, abused, and not paid the agreed amount and sometimes held for ransom until an exorbitant sum is paid by their family to rescue them. Physical and sexual violence is widespread among women and children who are often coerced into prostitution after accepting employment as domestic workers. Men are coerced to work as bonded labourers under inhuman conditions. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic may have saved these people from a fatal future.

If one delves deeper into the issue, it can be quite intriguing to find the lack of reported cases. Reports received have always been in bits and pieces and a comprehensive figure remains absent. In 2019, 529 Rohingyas had been saved from slavery in the camps around Cox’s Bazar, according to police reports. According to aid groups, this could only be the tip of the iceberg as the figures are uncertain for people trapped in the clutches of human trafficking networks. The idea of ‘shame’ is one of the main recurrent factors behind unreported events. The fear of being labeled and stigmatized in public, coming from an extremely conservative community, constrains the parents, relatives, or spouses from reporting such crimes. Where rescued, women and children refrain from narrating their harrowing experiences.

Another compelling, albeit quite disturbing, reason is the presence of corruption within official ranks. Occasionally, officials inside camp areas are active or passive receivers of this violation, thus under-reporting seems a more convenient option. However, if one looks closely, human trafficking is not a new phenomenon in the case of displaced Rohingyas seeking better economic opportunities. Reports of such dangerous journeys, as well as inhuman abuses, have appeared frequently between 2012 and 2015. Yet this trend’s revival places our minds uneasy as the strong network of trafficking becomes more apparent. It questions and also puts the efficacy of national and regional security measures designed to stop such criminal ecosystems.

At the national level, Bangladesh, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is combating human trafficking with a national action plan 2018-2022 aimed at strengthening compliance through better interagency cooperation and better training of officials. But human trafficking trials are below average. Of the 5,000 cases filed since 2013 against traffickers, only 30 human trafficking cases have ended in convictions. Due to poor police investigations and lack of witnesses several cases were dismissed. The government is trying to set up special tribunals to speed up human trafficking trials but the current pandemic has slowed the process.

The identification of government officials and personnel who are gaining from this crime is essential. The implementation of regulations for combating corruption would be crucial to an effective response. In this regard, capacity building will be of paramount importance in enabling proper training and also flagging illegal financial deals. Additionally, victim care is often unsatisfactory. Protective services should be in place for victims of the crime. Instead of abusing or mistreating victims as criminals, they need proper treatment, medical attention, and protection. Bangladesh is placed by the U.S. Department of State on the Tier-2 Watch List in Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for three consecutive years from 2017-19 and could slip to Tier-3 if it does not work on the fault lines.

The regional angle becomes relevant in light of the enormity of the issue. An estimated 33,600 refugees and migrants of different nationalities took to smugglers’ boats in Southeast Asia in 2015 according to a UNHCR survey. The discovery of scores of mass graves supposed to contain the bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants in Thailand and Malaysia’s border areas created enormous international pressure. This prompted Thailand to enforce strict vigilance and suspend its officials responsible for facilitating the crime and punishing the involved traffickers. It has also prompted Malaysia to issue migrants and asylum seekers legal permits.

The 2016 Bali Declaration under the Bali Process, a regional structure dealing with smuggling, trafficking, and transnational crime, was enforced which encouraged member countries to provide migrants, victims of human trafficking, refugees, and asylum seekers with security and protection. The current events, though, are going against that narrative. Crime against displaced persons are still permeating. The global trafficking crisis has shown how little the country is prepared and equipped to deal with such a state-to-state migration of displaced people. A major lacuna may be required to draw up a regional legal framework, as most South and Southeast Asian countries, particularly the destination nations like Malaysia and Thailand, are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Efforts have been made to strengthen domestic legislation as well as federal crisis-management agreements.

In response to the current crisis, Indonesia and Australia who are co-chairs of the Bali Process were approached. The situation needs close monitoring if it’s displaced or stateless people are to be better protected by regional cooperation. To those seeking opportunity and security through migration, robust legal machinery is needed. The present situation should be dealt with as urgently as it demands. Therefore integrated approaches are the need of the hour at both national and regional levels. If ignored, these crimes along with the pandemic will continue to spill over.

Abhishek Kumar is a student of law at National Law University, Lucknow, India with an interest in public policy and Human Rights. He is an avid reader, Trekkie and cinephile.