Battling Human Trafficking in the Bay of Bengal

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BIMSTEC Countries Commit to Fight Exploitation of Women and Children

story by Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury/Observer Research Foundation

Photos by AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Increased trafficking of people — in particular of women and children — is an urgent concern for the countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Authorities agree that the routes, methods and activities of traffickers have become highly organized, with crime syndicates having a greater degree of infiltration both within and outside the Bay of Bengal region. Most of the victims across the world are female — mainly adult women, but also increasingly girls. 

The situation in the Bay of Bengal region is no different. The alarming numbers of women and children being trafficked for forced labor or slavery-like practices (including commercial sexual exploitation) is a crucial concern. Statistics are limited and contested, making it difficult to create an exhaustive map of the situation. BIMSTEC member states include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Nonetheless, available data has drawn BIMSTEC’s attention. This analysis provides an overview of the trafficking of women in the Bay of Bengal region, particularly around Bangladesh, India and Nepal, a contiguous zone and a hub of this type of organized, transnational crime. 

The data reveals how trafficking is related to forced migration and raises several key questions: How do women and children fall prey to trafficking? What cross-border legal mechanisms exist within the Bay region? What is BIMSTEC’s response as a subregional organization? 

A Nepalese police officer monitors vehicles for women and girls who may be victims of human trafficking.

SETTING THE TONE

The United Nations adopted the Trafficking in Persons Protocol in November 2000, which became enforceable in December 2003. It defines trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, or deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” 

Exploitation includes different forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs for sale. Trafficking in persons is a multidimensional phenomenon including social, economic and criminal factors, gender, health, migration and development, according to the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women report, “Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World.” 

In the past decade alone, there has been an upward trend in the number of victims identified and traffickers convicted globally, according to the “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018” by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). There is a dearth of data on human trafficking specifically in the Bay of Bengal region. Nonetheless, the UNODC report can be used to understand the situation in South and East Asia. Of the total trafficked people in South Asia, females account for 59% and males 41%, according to the report. Of all incidents, trafficking for sexual exploitation (50%) is nearly equal to trafficking for forced labor (49%). 

In 2016, 67% of the total reported victims of trafficking in East Asia and the Pacific were women. About 60% of these victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation and 38% for forced labor. In Myanmar, most of the victims were women. In Thailand, there was more trafficking of people for forced labor than for sexual exploitation, and men accounted for most of the victims. Both these countries reported particularly high numbers of women being convicted of trading in humans. The vast majority of convicted traffickers are citizens of the country of conviction. 

South Asia is the origin area for a significant proportion of humans trafficked to the rest of the world, according to the UNODC report. Victims from South Asia have been detected in more than 40 countries. The main destinations are in the Middle East. To a lesser extent, victims have been reported in Western and Southern Europe and in North America. Victims from South Asia — particularly Bangladesh and India — also end up in Southeast Asia. 

Meanwhile, the diversity of the flows and the number of victims detected indicate that human trafficking from East Asia is of a global dimension. The flows from the region to North America, the Middle East and Western and Central Europe are particularly relevant. Thailand is a destination for victims trafficked from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. 

Suspects sit in custody, accused of smuggling Rohingya migrants into Indonesia. Boatloads of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar are victims of a multimillion-dollar international human trafficking network.

SPOTLIGHT ON BANGLADESH-INDIA-NEPAL ZONE

Based on the regional patterns of human trafficking, analysts and authorities categorize some countries as sites of origin and others as destinations. However, the situation on the ground is more complex. India, for instance, is not only a destination but a transit country as well. It’s an intermediary space, from where women and children are trafficked within the region as well as globally. Bangladesh and Nepal, meanwhile, can be characterized purely as sites of origin. 

A 2008 report revealed that Bangladesh and Nepal were two of the biggest suppliers of the traffic into India, accounting for 2.17% and 2.6%, respectively. A report by Justice and Care, in association with the Indian Border Security Force, found that more than 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children ages 12 to 30 were sent to India illegally in the past decade. Nearly 35,000 Nepalis (15,000 men, 15,000 women and 5,000 children) were trafficked into India from 2018 to 2019, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commission.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) battling trafficking estimate that about 50 women are traded from Nepal to India every day. Nepalese victims of forced labor trafficking often are transported through Myanmar and Sri Lanka to their final destination. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled from Rakhine in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, according to the U.S. State Department. Among these refugees, a substantial number of women and girls have been traded for sex work in Bangladesh and India. 

Traffickers abduct Rohingya women and children who are in transit as well as those already in refugee camps in Bangladesh and sell them into forced marriages in India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Some victims reportedly also have been subjected to forced labor or sex trafficking. 

Traffickers transport Rohingya girls within Bangladesh to Chittagong and Dhaka and transnationally to Kathmandu, Nepal, and Kolkata, India, for sex work; some traffickers also trade these girls over the internet. Once victims are trafficked to another country, they lose their rights and become virtually stateless. Some start as migrant workers but end up in brothels, primarily because there are no authorized safe channels for female migrant workers to guarantee their employment, let alone be paid for their work. 

In most cases, the migration occurs without legal or authorized documents. Unskilled female workers ages 9 to 25 constitute the most vulnerable group in human trafficking. A U.N. report on trafficking in women, written by Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy, provided important indicators for the possible intersections between trafficking and migration. The growth in migration and trafficking flows has resulted from a combination of  factors. Illiteracy, poverty, class clashes, natural calamities and political and ethnic unrest have contributed to heightening the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups, making them even more susceptible to gross violations of human rights.

Residents of the Shakti Samuha safe house take part in informal education classes in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shakti Samuha, an organization started by trafficking victims, organizes and empowers survivors through legal counsel, vocational training, shelter housing and therapy.

CROSS-BORDER LEGAL MECHANISMS

Until recently, the national governments of the BIMSTEC members did not prioritize the issue of cross-border human trafficking. However, most of the region has now committed at the national level to combat the trafficking of women and children. Bangladesh, India and Nepal are perhaps the most proactive in attempting to combat the problem through the passage of national legislation. However, domestic laws face issues of implementation and enforcement; impunity still prevails despite the legislation.

  • Bilateral Responses

The Bangladesh-India memorandum of understanding signed in 2015 was a significant move in their efforts to prevent human trafficking. It has focused on three aspects: expansion of the definition of trafficked individuals; repatriation; and the creation of a joint task force. India has been planning to sign similar agreements with other neighbors, such as Myanmar and Nepal. 

In November 2019, the Union Cabinet of India approved an agreement with Myanmar on bilateral cooperation for the prevention of trafficking in persons, covering rescue, recovery, repatriation and reintegration of victims. In Thailand, agencies including the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Royal Thai Police, the Immigration Bureau, the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Judiciary have cooperated with the Myanmar police and other agencies to assist and expedite the repatriation of Myanmar victims through the reception center in Myawaddy near the Myanmar-Thai border.

  • SAARC’s Approach

The signing of the Convention on Trafficking in 2002 by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was a landmark step toward recognizing the importance of issues relating to cross-border human trafficking and undocumented migration. However, despite being regarded as a milestone in coordinating interventions against human trade at the regional level, the convention has its limitations. For one, it defines trafficking within the limited scope of prostitution. This definition needs to be broadened.

  • BIMSTEC’s Role

BIMSTEC has identified the fight against terrorism and organized international crime as one of the most important prerequisites for sustainable growth and for maintaining peace in the region. At the eighth Ministerial Meeting held in Dhaka in December 2005, BIMSTEC added a priority sector of counterterrorism and transnational crime, with India as the lead. Accordingly, a joint working group was formed, including four subgroups, each with a lead country: intelligence sharing (Sri Lanka), financing of terrorism (Thailand), legal and law enforcement issues (India), and prevention of trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances (Myanmar). It’s unclear how the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar will affect that nation’s role in anti-trafficking efforts. 

In 2009, the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking was adopted. Comprising 15 articles, the convention can be considered a confidence-building measure, and the member states, subject to their domestic laws and regulations, made a commitment to cooperate in combating international terrorism, transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, including their precursor chemicals. However, the convention does not mention human trafficking or undocumented migration. 

All member states have ratified the convention except Bhutan. In principle, Bhutan agrees with the agenda of combating human trafficking. A lack of clarity remains about the nature of the extradition treaty at the BIMSTEC level because Bhutan has already signed a bilateral extradition treaty with India.

RECOMMENDATIONS

BIMSTEC has yet to take collective measures to stop the trafficking of its people within its borders. In relation to the countries’ populations, the response level of criminal justice appears to be limited. For instance, in 2016, countries in South Asia reported lower conviction rates compared to those in more populated regions; the situation is similar in BIMSTEC. 

While significant milestones have been achieved by national governments in introducing anti-trafficking initiatives in the Bay region, the criminal activity continues unchecked. Crossing national borders is a daily routine for many; thus, the role of security officials at border checkpoints is crucial. The risks of, and possible responses to, trafficking could be disseminated as practical information and should be provided to refugees, internally displaced people and communities along migration routes. 

Indeed, the international community’s role is important in facilitating anti-trafficking strategies. In this context, the 2018 UNODC report recommended that the international community “accelerate progress to build capacities and cooperation, to stop human trafficking especially in conflict situations and in all our societies where this terrible crime continues to operate in the shadows.” The report indicated that in precarious socioeconomic conditions or situations involving persecution, people escaping conflict are compelled to migrate, accepting fraudulent job offers in neighboring countries or fraudulent marriage proposals that bring them to exploitative situations. Further, the report noted, “armed conflicts tend to have a negative impact on the livelihood of people living in the surrounding areas, even when they are not directly involved in the violence. Again, traffickers may target communities that are particularly vulnerable because of forced displacement, lack of access to opportunities for income generation, discrimination and family separation.”

This analysis offers the following recommendations to arrest the incidence of human trafficking in the BIMSTEC region:

A More Holistic View
Under the ambit of the counterterrorism and transnational crime sector of BIMSTEC, more focused and coordinated efforts should be adopted to tackle all interconnected segments of human trafficking. The definition of human trafficking must be considered in a more holistic manner, incorporating the various facets of cross-border undocumented migration.

For possible cross-border cooperation, member states must strengthen infrastructural and institutional connectivity, enhancing counterterrorism and transnational crime measures through the convergence of rules, regulations and policies. 

An Understanding of Victims’ Perspectives
While trafficking for sexual exploitation may be carried out by criminals using physical violence and other coercive methods, victims may also be trapped in such situations by abuse and deception. Institutions dealing with human trafficking should collaborate to identify the often complex contexts and realities in which sexual exploitation takes place in order to respond to victims’ physical, psychological, social and economic needs. 

Free Exchange of Information
Because of the transnational nature of this organized crime, it is important to have free and fair exchange of information among member states. In most cases, victim data is not systematically collected. As most countries in the Bay region are parties to the U.N. Trafficking in Persons Protocol and have appropriate laws in place, it is time to focus on the implementation of the protocol provisions. In the spirit of shared responsibility and international cooperation, support from neighboring countries affected by these trafficking flows can help accelerate anti-trafficking efforts. 

Engage NGOs and International Organizations
While transnational trafficking networks are still prevalent, appropriate responses can be found using international cooperation and national justice measures. Different stakeholders relevant in this field, including NGOs and international organizations, should engage in constant dialogue.

Address Gender, Migration and Labor Issues
The increase in trafficking of women and children in the BIMSTEC region runs parallel to rising illegal and undocumented migration within the region. Economic growth, relative prosperity and peace on the other side of a border act as pull factors. Growing economies create increased demand for imported labor. Young women, in particular, are in demand because they are presumed to be more compliant and less likely to object to substandard working conditions. BIMSTEC should work toward linking issues related to gender, migration and labor. 

Anti-Trafficking Interventions for Children
The trafficking of children is an urgent concern. There should be a holistic approach to reduce the vulnerability of children to exploitative patterns. Anti-trafficking interventions for children can be more effective if they are included in programs to provide quality education for all, especially in settings at an increased risk of trafficking, such as refugee camps.

CONCLUSION

BIMSTEC is finalizing its charter and rules of law. It would do well to include the issue of human trafficking in its priority agenda. Reliable, updated data is elusive. Still, available data points to a dire situation — especially in the contiguous zone of Bangladesh, India and Nepal — that needs immediate, suitable responses from national governments and BIMSTEC as a collective. 

After all, the grouping has identified the fight against terrorism and organized international crime as one of the most important prerequisites for peace in the region. This priority designation necessitates the need for more focused exchange of information among BIMSTEC states and a more holistic view of the spectrum of issues related to trade in humans.  

The Observer Research Foundation originally published this article in November 2020. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format. To access the original report, visit https://www.orfonline.org/research/strengthening-anti-human-trafficking-mechanisms-
in-the-bay-of-bengal-region/.

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