Bangladeshi criminal groups take Rohingya women from refugee camps at night, exploit them in sex trafficking and return them during the day, the United States said Thursday, in an annual report accusing Dhaka of not probing “potential crimes” against the stateless minority.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so,” the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report said, explaining why it kept Bangladesh on Tier 2 Watch List, just one step above the lowest ranking.
“Despite at least 100 credible reports of forced labor and sex trafficking of Rohingya within Bangladesh, the government did not report investigating or prosecuting these potential crimes, and the Bangladesh High Court did not entertain anti-trafficking cases filed by Rohingya,” the report said.
Released by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, the report kept Indonesia and Thailand on Tier 2, while the Philippines remained on Tier 1. Malaysia was placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second year. The report identifies the best countries as Tier 1 and the worst as Tier 3.
The designations carry consequences, Pompeo said in a speech during the report’s release that was attended by human-trafficking survivors and diplomats. He said President Donald Trump last year restricted certain types of assistance to 22 countries ranked in Tier 3.
“Human trafficking is a stain … on all of humanity,” Pompeo said. “We must hold the perpetrators of this heinous crime accountable. We must achieve justice for survivors as they rebuild their lives,” he said.
An estimated 25 million people around the world are trapped in labor- or sex-trafficking, according to the report.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal challenged the findings.
“We do not agree with this report,” he told BenarNews. “It is not true that the government is not taking measures to stop human trafficking.”
The U.S. Congress enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act more than 18 years ago to prevent trafficking, protect victims and punish traffickers. The law requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual report on human trafficking and to rank foreign governments based on anti-trafficking efforts.
The law stipulates that that the worst performers in the TIP Report could be subject to potential restrictions on U.S. foreign aid and other funds.
According to the TIP Report, Bangladeshi traffickers also sometimes transport Rohingya girls from refugee camps to Chittagong and Dhaka and to Kathmandu, Nepal, and Kolkata, India for sex work. Some traffickers “trade” these girls over the internet, it said.
The report cited reports from NGOs and foreign organizations alleging that some Bangladeshi border guard, military, and police officials had been involved in facilitating trafficking, including accepting bribes from traffickers.
“Traffickers defraud and coerce Rohingya women and girls from refugee camps into sex trafficking through fraudulent job or marriage proposals, and abduction,” the report said.
“Other observers reported some police conducted slow and flawed investigations to allow traffickers to evade punishment, including when suspects included fellow officers,” it said.
A military crackdown beginning in August 2017 in Myanmar’s Rakhine state led to an exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where they are living in makeshift homes in refugee camps.
Indonesia making ‘significant efforts,’ report says
The report said Tier 2 Indonesia demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period by establishing 13 anti-trafficking law-enforcement task forces and continuing to create and disseminate awareness materials.
“However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Investigations, prosecutions, and convictions decreased,” the report said. “Although the government reported ongoing investigations, it did not report any prosecutions or convictions of officials allegedly complicit in trafficking.”
Corrupt Indonesian officials reportedly continued to facilitate the issuance of false documents, accept bribes to allow brokers to transport undocumented migrants across borders and protect venues where sex trafficking occurred, it said.
Malaysia on Tier 2 Watch List for Second Year
The TIP report praised the Malaysian government for probing allegations of official complicity in the 2015 discovery of graves of victims at human-smuggling camps along Malaysia’s border with Thailand.
But it said Kuala Lumpur also “did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous year” in the fight against trafficking.
“Corruption related to processes for foreign nationals to work in Malaysia remained pervasive and the government did not report initiating new prosecutions or convicting any complicit officials during the reporting period,” it said. “Therefore Malaysia remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the second year.”
U.S. law requires countries be automatically downgraded to Tier 3 after two consecutive years on Tier 2 Watch List, unless granted a waiver based on credible evidence the government has a written plan that makes significant efforts to comply with minimum standards.
Philippines: Robust efforts to prevent trafficking
The Philippine government has demonstrated serious and sustained efforts against trafficking, the report said, lauding the country’s robust efforts to prosecute traffickers and keeping it at Tier 1.
It noted that while Manila “meets the minimum standards, it did not vigorously investigate and prosecute officials allegedly involved in trafficking crimes.”
An estimated 10 million Filipinos reside or work abroad and the government processes around 2.3 million new or renewed contracts for Filipinos to work overseas each year.
Thailand ‘does not fully meet minimum standards’
Tier 2 Thailand has demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, the report said, citing the government’s “efforts to identify more victims and sentencing of convicted traffickers, including complicit officials, to significant prison terms.
“However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government prosecuted and convicted fewer traffickers and investigated only 43 cases of labor trafficking,” it said.
The report lauded the government’s amended 2008 anti-trafficking law, which imposes harsh penalties for sex trafficking and labor trafficking, including fines of up to U.S. $62,000 for those involving a child victim.
Thailand investigated 304 trafficking cases, compared to 302 in 2017, prosecuted 438 suspected traffickers and convicted 316 traffickers in 2018, the report said.
The report was released a week after 65 Rohingya landed on an island in southern Thailand with six suspected human smugglers, including five from Myanmar, after their wooden boat ran out of fuel, officials said.
After interviewing the 65 Rohingya, police on Thursday said they had charged five Myanmar men and the Thai boat captain with human smuggling. Investigators said they were compiling evidence to determine if additional charges of human trafficking can be pressed.
“The Rohingya were interviewed and their story sounds like human trafficking,” said Police Maj. Gen. Damras Wiriyakul, the commander of the Police Region 9 Bureau, told reporters on Thursday.