KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Nazmin Nahar, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, was offered a job in a garment factory by a distant cousin, she thought she had found a way to support her ageing parents.
But her relative sold her as a maid in Chittagong, 160 km (100 miles) away from her family in the world’s largest refugee settlement in southeast Bangladesh, where she was tortured and forced to work without pay.
Nahar, 23, is one of a rising number of Rohingya refugees, who fled Myanmar in a massive exodus two years ago to escape a military crackdown, to have been duped by human traffickers into slavery or fleeced with promises to reunite them with family.
“I used to work all day. I never got proper sleep,” a tearful Nahar, 23, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her home in Kutupalong, the largest camp in the settlement that is home to more than 900,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees.
“They didn’t even give me fresh food and I was always locked inside,” she said, adding that she escaped by stealing the house key when her owners were asleep one afternoon.
As more reports emerge of human traffickers preying on Rohingya refugees, authorities and aid groups have ramped up activities in the camps ranging from comic books and street plays to more police patrols to warn people of the risks.
The United Nation’s migration agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM), said these activities had helped encourage victims of trafficking to come forward and 420 cases were identified between December and June which was a fourfold jump on the previous 14 months.
Most of these people were trafficked to Chittagong or the nearby beach town of Cox’s Bazar where men were made to work in factories, construction sites and the fishing industry while women were forced into domestic servitude.
“Many of them were physically tortured and abused psychologically ... they were paid little money or no money at all,” IOM’s counter-trafficking officer Emmy Nurmila Sjarijono told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“For the Rohingya it’s difficult because leaving the camp itself is a crime so when they want to go back, their employers threaten them by saying if you leave we will call the police.”
Rohingya people cannot leave the camps without permission and are not allowed to work.
Bangladesh’s law enforcers rescued at least 250 Rohingya from traffickers between January and June this year, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which did not publish data for the same period a year ago.
Operations included rescuing about 56 Rohingya in late May from a Malaysia-bound trawler in the Bay of Bengal and killing three people suspected of trafficking Rohingya refugees near Kutupalong camp in a clash with the police in June.
“The Rohingya who tried to go abroad initially were cheated and suffered a lot,” said Major Mehedi Hasan from the country’s elite police force, Rapid Action Batallion (RAB), adding that their return could be a deterrent to others seeking to leave.
“We increased our surveillance and other aspects once we saw that the trafficking situation was getting worse.”
Anti-trafficking campaigners, however, fear the ramped-up efforts are not enough because a lack of security at the crowded camps, an uncertain future and flooding were worsening the situation, prompting more people to seek new lives elsewhere.
Parvin Akter, 23, escaped to Bangladesh from Myanmar two years ago and went to Chittagong earlier this year with a broker who promised to send her to Malaysia where her husband has been working for the past six years.
“Why would you want to stay here when your husband is far away? (My husband) gave me the contact of a broker,” Akter said.
Once in Chittagong, however, the broker was arrested and Akter was sent back to the camps near Cox’s Bazar in May.
Mohammad Iqbal Hossain, additional superintendent of Cox’s Bazar Police, said most of the brokers did not actually have the ability to transport people from Bangladesh to Malaysia.
“It’s a hoax most of the times,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in June found Bangladesh had not investigated dozens of potential crimes of forced labour and sex trafficking against the Rohingya living in refugee camps in the country.
A spokesman from Bangladesh’s Ministry of Home Affairs said they were working hard to tackle the issue but it was a huge task with nearly one million people now in the refugee camps and no sign of them leaving.
This included about 730,000 Rohingya who fled Buddhist-dominated Myanmar two years ago to join others in neighbouring Bangladesh and escape a military offensive the United Nations called “ethnic cleansing” of one of the most oppressed people.
“Some are told that they will be given jobs in garment factories or other places and then trafficked. Sexual abuse also takes place,” said Abu Bakar Siddique, who leads the ministry’s anti-trafficking work.
“We have the data. It’s not like we aren’t arresting any of them. We are working hard to resolve this.”
Authorities hope that using a variety of activities in the camps will help spread word about the risks of trafficking.
In one play a trafficker, wearing a striped shirt, tried to entice a Rohingya refugee to go with him with the play ending with a song warning about the dangers of human trafficking.
“The place where men are trafficked, is the place where their bodies rot. They (traffickers) are never at peace, until their pockets are hot,” sang the actors, accompanied by a dhol, or barrel drum, in front of a crowd of Rohingya children.
A comic published in May by the IOM, titled “The Brave Stories”, described the lives of a young woman who was forced into prostitution and a 22-year-old man who was made to work long hours in a field without any pay.
Ali Kabir, a local anti-trafficking researcher affiliated to the World Commission of Human Rights who focuses on brokers peddling the “Malaysian dream”, said the hardships of camp life made it hard to stop people hoping promised jobs might be real.
“As long as livelihoods in the camps don’t improve, they will always say yes to going outside,” said Kabir.
Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org
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