The helpless Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh since late August last year to escape a brutal military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are now facing another threat – human trafficking.
Life in the cramped camps is tough. Many of the Rohingyas are trying to escape the camps to build a better future for themselves and their families. Human traffickers are taking advantage of this situation.
Around 40 trafficking cases have been reported in the refugee camps since the latest influx started, according to an unofficial source. The information could not be verified independently but given the sheer number of the refugees – more than a million – the number of cases seems credible.
Back in their homeland in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are denied citizenship and basic rights by the government. Members of the mainly-Muslim ethnic community often venture out of their country in desperation and end up falling prey to trafficking.
Media reports indicate that many Rohingyas are now stranded in India and Nepal after moving there illegally from Bangladesh. Their exact numbers could not be ascertained.
Rohingya refugees in India
The Dhaka Tribune met an eight-year-old Rohingya girl, who identified herself as Nuri, at an Indian safe home in southern Kolkata. Her family fled from Myanmar in mid-2017.
Nuri has been living with other Bangladeshi trafficking victims rescued by the Indian police for about a year now. She was found in Kolkata’s Habra Bazar with two other Bangladeshi girls from Cox’s Bazar.
She reluctantly gave her identity. Nuri said she had come to India from Bangladesh with her parents and two sisters. “Police sent me here, and put my sisters and parents in jail,” she said.
When asked who had helped them cross the border, another girl Koli, who accompanied Nuri’s family, said a broker did. “But we were later caught by the police,” she said.
Nuri said her family stayed at a rented house in Patiya for a month after fleeing Myanmar. After her two other sisters, who were already in Hyderabad, told them to come over, one of her brothers-in-law contacted the middle-man.
Koli, 14, said she and her sister wanted to go to their aunt’s house in Hyderabad. A broker took TK10,000 from the two sisters and TK40,000 from the Rohingya family.
“Nuri is from Burma. Her family was with us. The seven of us had started from Cox’s Bazar on the same day last year and were caught by Indian police at Habra Bazar the next day,” Koli said.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingyas are believed to living in India, according to Kiren Rijiju, state minister for home. They include 14,000 Rohingyas registered as refugees with UNHCR, media reports say.
Rohingya refugees in Nepal
Nepali travel agent Govind Shahi said Rohingyas were coming there from Bangladesh. “It is not difficult to cross the border ... Rohingyas are coming here via Bangladesh and India,” he said.
A report by the Diplomat on December 5, 2017, claimed that some Rohingya were moving to the Himalayan country.
It said that approximately 300 Rohingyas were living in hastily-built shelters in Kathmandu, some in Kapan while about 600 are spread across Nepal. Their exact number was impossible to determine.
“Worryingly, of the 147 Rohingya registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, all arrived before August 25, the start date of the Tatmadaw’s most recent brutal military actions. This means none of the most recent arrivals has been registered as the refugees they clearly are,” the report said.
Risk of trafficking in the camps
Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies have prioritized preventing the risk of the Rohingya refugees being trafficked from the camps. All vehicles and exit points are under heavy security check. But the risk still remains high, experts say.
“It actually goes back several years. The grand crisis is just part of a longer story,” human trafficking expert Siddharth Kara told this Dhaka Tribune correspondent in Los Angeles. “Many of them (Rohingyas) have been trafficked to Thailand for prostitution.”
He said the traffickers took advantage of the recent exodus and trafficked girls to India or other parts of Bangladesh. “It is a horrible scenario,” he said, adding: “I do not have that much faith in the repatriation process.”
Assistant Director for Mediation in BLAST Taposhi Rabaya said that at the beginning of the influx, people took away many children from the camps.
“These Rohingya children and women are at high risk of being trafficked. People are trafficking children for domestic work. They just hold the hand of a child and take him or her with them,” she said.
“No one knows what happens at the camps after sunset as outsiders (NGOs and aid workers) are not allowed to stay. Anything can happen. In fact, I did not feel that the security [in the camps] is tight enough even during the day,” she added.
Women’s rights activist Salma Ali said that many Rohingya women and children had already been trafficked. At the beginning of the influx, no one monitored the movement of the refugees.
“I have seen women getting on motorbikes from near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and nobody knew where they were going. These women and children are in need. They are refugees. They are not sure whether they would be able to go back to their own houses. Living in this kind of uncertainty makes them more vulnerable to crimes or trafficking,” she added.
What are the refugee camps doing to stop trafficking?
Various organizations have taken steps to raise awareness about trafficking among the refugees. The Women Friendly Space by UNFPA has two weekly sessions on trafficking.
UNFPA Case Worker Asmaul Hosna told the Dhaka Tribune that they talk about trafficking – what is trafficking? How might they aend up being a victim of trafficking? How will they understand that someone is trying to traffic them?
“Women and children are at high risk. Traffickers may entice them with offers of jobs or a better life,” he said.
At times, they are swayed by such offers and flee with the swindlers, ending up as trafficking victims, he added.
Senior Manager of Child Protection, Save the Children, Mostofa Feroz said such instances were common. Save the Children is running a Child Club in the camps to raise awareness about such issues.
“We tell them (the children) not to trust people offering gifts or jobs. In such cases, we have advised the children to come to our offices. Child Peer Leaders from our Child Club are spreading awareness messages among the Rohingyas about trafficking,” he added.