'Although law enforcement officials are trying hard, the situation suggests there may be a loophole'
Due to increasing incidents of human trafficking at the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, the government is set to build barbed wire fencing around the camps.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Defence Ministry, in a meeting on on September 4, agreed on the need of the fencing. The proposal was placed by Cox’s Bazar police.
Zahid Akhter, camp-in-charge (CiC) of camp 11 and an official of the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner’s (RRRC’s) Office, said: “The problem [of human trafficking at the camps] will continue until the refugees are restrained from leaving the camps. We can work inside the camps to stop trafficking, but it is also necessary to limit their movement.
“If the Rohingya refugees can move freely, they can get in touch with Rohingyas who have been living in the country for years before the influx in 2017. They can also meet with miscreants among the locals,” he added, stressing that incidents of human trafficking at the camps would reduce drastically if the refugees could not meet with local miscreants.
Zahid further said the RRRC, with the assistance of NGOs, can stop attempts to lure Rohingya refugees into becoming trafficking victims if they took place inside the camps, but it was the duty of law enforcement to stop such attempts outside the camps.
“Although law enforcement officials are trying hard, the situation suggests there may be a loophole,” he said.
When asked about the barbed-wire fencing initiative, RRRC Additional Commissioner Mohammad Mizanur Rahman said effective fencing was needed to ensure the Rohingyas did not leave the camps.
“If you build a normal fence, our previous experience is that they just cut through it. We need strong, barbed-wire fences around the camps, with watch towers at regular intervals. A road should be constructed next to the fence for patrol vehicles,” he added.
The additional commissioner also said a proposal on the fencing was previously approved at a meeting of the National Task Force on Human Trafficking in late August.
“We urged the UNHCR to finance the fencing, but they denied assistance in this regard. Now, we will build the fence with our own funds,” he said.
Human trafficking at Rohingya camps increasing
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 300 Rohingya refugees were rescued from human trafficking till May this year. However, the number rose to 429 by the end of July.
The number of Rohingya refugees rescued from human trafficking this year is 14 times higher than in the first 14 months of the influx that began in 2017.
Rights activists and aid workers said the number of people rescued did not represent the full extent of the crisis. Asking to remain anonymous, the representative of a local NGO said they feared that around 400 Rohingya women had already been trafficked for the sex trade.
Promises of better future luring Rohingyas into becoming trafficking victims
Activists and aid workers have expressed concern that incidents of human trafficking at the Rohingya camps could rise further as more and more Rohingyas grow frustrated with the cramped living conditions in the camps.
Refugees are easy victims for traffickers, as they lack the means to make an income as well as other basic facilities, they added.
IOM Chief of Mission Giorgi Gigauri said: “There is a risk of trafficking for these people [the Rohingyas] as it is much easier for the traffickers to prey on the most vulnerable and desperate sections of society. The frustrated refugees are looking for any opportunities at all.”
Recently transferred former RRRC commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said the Bangladesh government is taking the human trafficking issue very seriously.
"We have tightened security at the border areas as well as on the sea, and we have increased patrols by the coast guard, police and military to prevent incidents of trafficking."
George McLeod, public information officer of IOM in Cox's Bazar, said the organization was holding awareness sessions with the refugees and host community, to point out possible tricks human traffickers may use to dupe victims.
“In one session a few weeks ago, people told me that human traffickers had claimed they would front the money for the government permit to work abroad. In reality, no such permit exists. We work to educate the people about these potential red flags,” he added.
CiC Zahid said some of the Rohingyas who have been living in Bangladesh since before the 2017 influx are helping serve as middlemen for trafficking gangs.
Didarul Alam, executive director of local NGO Nongor, said some of the Rohingyas who had been living in Bangladesh for decades were even forcing Rohingya women to work as sex workers themselves.
Citing investigations into trafficking cases, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Detective Branch (DB) north zone Deputy Commissioner Mashiur Rahman said promises of jobs abroad are the most common way for traffickers to lure their victims.
“We need to find a way to keep the refugees engaged in activities, so they do not grow desperate and become victim to trafficking,” he added.
Cox’s Bazar police Superintendent (SP) ABM Masud Hossain said they have ensured 24 hour police presence at the camps.
“We have made a number of recommendations to improve security at the camps, such as by improving communication systems, installing CCTV cameras on roads and buildings, as well as barbed-wire fencing. Once these are in place, the situation will be much better,” he added.