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Displaced by climate change, migrant children fall victim to abuse and crime

  • Published at 12:26 am May 20th, 2019
Children and teenagers who struggle for a roof over their heads in Dhaka are in peril of falling into the ravenous grasp of the crime world Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Preventive and curative measures have been recommended to handle the issue

Aminul was only nine years old when his family was forced to leave their home on the island of Bhola—at the mouth of the Meghna River—after incessant rains resulted in massive soil erosion and floods. His father left his mother and him with relatives to go in search of a livelihood and Aminul never saw him again.

Now 30, Aminul is a drug peddler in the slums of Dhaka. He says he had no choice. He came to the big city when he was 11, in search of his father, and tried to eke out a living at the Sadarghat Launch Terminal, the bustling river port in the city, by being a baggage handler and waste collector.

“It was very harsh. I was beaten and tortured by unknown people…I slept many days without food, and later I became addicted to sniffing glue. The glue helped to control my hunger, as well as numb my body so that I did not feel any pain when I was physically abused,” he told Dhaka Tribune.

Then one day, he found a saviour. A man found him injured and brought him away to the Karwan Bazar slum; a man who introduced him to drugs and gave him a livelihood.

“This man was bad but he took care of me, saved me from those animals who used to beat me brutally or sexually abuse me on the streets,” he said. 

Explaining why he became involved with crime, Aminul said: “I was physically and sexually abused. I never found my father, and my mother also died. The man who found me was bad. This life is bad, I agree. But, there was no one to protect me except him. I also wanted a decent life.”

A recent Unicef study, published on April 5, found that climate change threatens the lives of 19 million Bangladeshi children.

The report said climate change is a key factor in pushing poorer Bangladeshis to abandon their homes and communities to try and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Many head to Dhaka and other major cities, where children risk being pushed into dangerous forms of labour and into early marriages. 

Why internal migration happens

Bangladesh is located downstream of three large river basins: the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna river basins. Heavy rainfall during the monsoon period is the main cause of flooding which occurs almost every year, with a devastating flood every 5–8 years, according to the country’s Flood Forecasting and Warning centre.

The river bank erosion and displacement from char land—which is vulnerable—results in the displacement of large amounts of people who migrate to major cities or nearby towns in search of a livelihood.  

“Suddenly they do not know where to go, and many of them move to major cities like Dhaka where they end up in slums,” said Dr Atiq Rahman, executive director of think-tank Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS).

Forced migration is a hugely traumatic event and migrants do not always get to choose how to live.

“Very often, displaced people are extremely responsible; they are making a living. But, because their family structure is under threat, areas are new, there may be some who might be dislodged or might be lured by others into minor criminal activity,” Dr Atiq said.

“Now, the next issue is climate change-induced displacement. Climate change is a much more recent phenomenon. Some people say climate change has not started in a full-blown way. Some say the beginning of a half-hazard has started,” he added.

A large number of street children come to urban areas from disaster-prone areas, according to Moniruzzaman Mukul, deputy program manager of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), who has worked with them for decades.

“In Sadarghat area, most of the street children come from Barisal division, Chandpur, and other river basin areas. In the Dhaka slum, we have found the same scenario, those who migrate from bitter effects of climate change,” he said.

The slum census of 2014, identified frequent natural calamities and river erosion as the potential reason for rural to urban migration, he added.

Children, abuse and crime

According to Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Foundation, 148 children came under law enforcement supervision in 2018, who were involved in crime like: rape, murder, kidnapping, drug peddling, purse snatching, sexual harassment, and others.  

Moniruzzaman said: “In the slums, children are unaccompanied during the day, as the parents are engaged in work elsewhere. Boys are pushed into work on the streets. The slum census of 2014 reports that around 71% of girls are married-off before the age of 18, and more the 60% of the slum dwellers do not even pass eighth grade.”

According to Department of Narcotics Control (DNC), around 200 drug peddlers were arrested at the Karwan Bazar slum. Khorshid Alam, DNC assistant director, told Dhaka Tribune that the drug business at Karwan Bazar slum usually starts in the evening, till midnight.

He added: “We have also seen abused children become drug carriers. We bring children to our treatment centre or refer them to a social welfare rehabilitation center.”

Assistant Director (Operation) of NDC Md Bazlur Rahman said the number of narcotics cases has increased but there is no data or research done on how many children are involved. 

“Children are never suspected. Hence, slum children or drifting children are an easy choice for drug peddlers to use as carriers,” said Md Bazlur. 

Chief Consultant of Central Drug Addiction Treatment Centre Dr Syed Emamul Hossain emphasized that street and floating children are vulnerable to social protection. “Street or floating children from slums or city streets, I found here, most do not have a family. Some of their parents left them on the streets. Some parents got divorced. When they do not find any other means to live a decent life, they become easy targets for abuse,” said Dr Emamul.

What can be done?

Dr Emamul suggested someone determine from where, and why, these children are coming to city streets or slums, and urged that proper protection measures be taken for them. 

MJF Deputy Program Manager Moniruzzaman also suggested that two types of measures—preventive and curative—be used to deal with the future challenge.

Preventive measures:

•    Strengthen standing committees in the local government system. The members of the Union Parishad know the problems in their communities, so they can help identify vulnerable families to address the problem

•    Initiate a mass-awareness raising program

•    Improve village economies, for example, by expanding agro loans, developing local entrepreneurship, and improving access for vulnerable groups to public resources, etc.

•    Prepare database and rationing services

Curative measures:

•    Extend services, and create information hub  

•    Create rehabilitation centre for street children

•    Undertake ward-wise service mapping