Saad Hammadi interviews Ghassan Khalil, the chief of UNICEF’s child protection unit on the severity and the consequences of the child trafficking situation in the country
How serious is the child trafficking situation in Bangladesh?
The reports reveal that the situation is severe. However, no one can confirm numbers because trafficking by itself is a hidden act. All the reports reveal that it’s a severe problem. The government and the civil society are taking very good action towards eliminating and stopping child trafficking.
What are the purposes for which women and children are trafficked?
There are many purposes for women and children to be trafficked everywhere not only from Bangladesh. But the main reason identified in research is sexual exploitation.
Aren’t in some cases children and women trafficked by force?
Well trafficking could have many forms. It could be by promising a person of a job and when the person reaches to the other country, which we call the country of destination then the person finds out that it’s totally different. Some women get married and move out and then they find out the marriage is fake and it was only to sell the woman in the country of destination. For children as well, they could be taken with fake promises and all this forms are considered forms of trafficking.
How does a trafficking normally occur?
There are numerous scenarios. And every scenario is different and that’s why we say that when you want to deal with the identified victims of trafficking, it should be case by case management. The social worker should study very well what happened with the person and under what condition the child was trafficked. And then the repatriation and rehabilitation and reintegration process should be planned according to these conditions.
How do traffickers work through the formalities of flights, passports and immigration?
That’s why the United Arab Emirates now made a law that no child can enter the UAE on a family passport and a child should have an individual passport. And this will enhance the mechanism of eliminating trafficking into the UAE. All the countries, which are countries of destination or countries of transit, should take similar measures to prevent trafficking of children.
How do individual passports prevent children from being trafficked?
First of all, if the child has an individual passport this means that the authorities in the other countries will be able to track down the child. And also the purpose of travel should be very well defined. So all these things help prevent trafficking of child. But this is not sufficient of course. There are many other things to do like enhancement of law enforcement, border, police, and the establishment of systems between the countries or let’s say bilateral agreement, like for example in the experience of repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration of the children previously involved in camel racing from the United Arab Emirates.
It couldn’t be possible without the assistance of the UNICEF Gulf area office and UNICEF Bangladesh while these two UNICEF offices facilitated the process for the two governments to repatriate the children. Otherwise it would have been very difficult to repatriate the children. This is why we see some Bangladeshi children who are trafficked into India; their repatriation takes five to six years. And this is why the two countries should agree on certain mechanism to make repatriation an easier process and to prevent the rise of the child system of trafficking.
Could you cite some examples?
One of the examples would be to promise a job with a good salary elsewhere. Now for the children who were taken to work as camel jockeys, they were never told about the risk of being a camel jockey or the business of camel racing. That’s why they went to the United Arab Emirates and some of them did not know even that they would become camel jockeys. Some of the children heard that they would become camel jockeys but then they have never seen a camel in their life in Bangladesh, so how can they imagine what is it about. And then they ended up in an environment which is very conducive to abuse and exploitation and violence. They saw their friends dying by falling off the camel during a race. They saw abuse, they saw exploitation and so the reasons could be different and as I mentioned for women or adolescent girls as well, it could be a fake marriage which ends up in other country for the women to be sold.
Isn’t there a certain age before which a child cannot have his own passport in Bangladesh?
The age in Bangladesh in itself is a problematic area. Because you know, between seven and 10 per cent of the people only are registered in Bangladesh and that’s why UNICEF is supporting the government since 1996 to reach universal birth registration, which means birth registration to everybody. The efforts are going on and the ministry of Local Government Rural Development and Cooperatives has strengthened recently its capacity in terms of birth registration. The birth registration law will enter into force on July 03, 2006 and we hope by that a lot of progress will be made in the coming years.
After enforcing the birth registration law will every citizen be brought under the umbrella?
Everyone. UNICEF is supporting the government to have universal birth registration for every child with the certificate received. The government will establish task forces along the country in all districts, the educational institutions and the health system to the immunisation which will help in making sure that every new born is registered after birth.
What about those who do not have the birth certificate as of yet?
The children who are in school will get registered with the assistance of the administration of the school. Here we are talking about 20 to 23 per cent of the population which is children in primary and secondary schools. Once the law is enforced the government would like to have house to house registration. The ministry of local government declared that within two years universal birth registration should be achieved, which is birth registration to everybody in Bangladesh. In addition to that the registration law that was prepared in December 2004 and will be enforced on July 03 this year stipulates that for adults it will be a requirement for any person who needs a passport, a driving license or any legal credential has to acquire the birth registration.
How do the child traffickers make the arrangement by road?
The traffickers have their own ways. From the national experiences wherever trafficking exists there is no unified pattern. They do not follow a single route or method to traffic the people. Every time they change their strategy in order for the authorities like the police not to discover them or arrest them. Definitely what is needed is to enhance the capacity of the border in Bangladesh and in the neighbouring countries in order to have better control systems at the border areas.
How sophisticated are trafficking syndicates?
Many studies reveal that trafficked children are brought from the villages, from the rural areas into the city like Dhaka and Chittagong and trafficked from the cities. This is the route usually. Trafficked into the cities into a third country which could be again a country of destination where the child remains or a country of transit where the child gets moved to another country. This is why awareness is very important especially in villages to make people aware that weird job offers or any unpleased job offers or people who come suddenly to a village and start offering people jobs, the people in the villages should be very careful about these things and they should in fact also get in touch with representatives of local government and civil sectors and organisations like the NGOs and get more information before they take any decision. Trafficking could be through abduction and especially when the children are very young.
During the trafficking are law enforcers are involved with the traffickers?
The law enforcers’ role is to prevent trafficking and this is the role I believe they are doing. But capacity building is always needed and awareness is always needed as well.
Are border forces involved?
I think if you go to the border, the border is huge if you are talking about Bangladesh and India. And that is why the control over the border is very much needed but at the same time we have to recognise that you cannot put a policeman on every square metre. So this is the other issue. Other mechanisms should be established and the communities themselves should be responsible for preventing trafficking.
How strong are the penalties against traffickers?
The law is very strict in Bangladesh on trafficking. The government is making efforts in enforcing the law and I think even international reports are highlighting the efforts of the government of Bangladesh in fighting against trafficking. Of the 168 children repatriated 154 are already benefiting from a family environment and the other children are still in the shelter. Efforts are still going on to identify their family.
For arrested traffickers, what is the penalty?
The penalty could reach death penalty. Bangladesh is prosecuting and arresting many traffickers.
Is there any ranking as to how vulnerable Bangladesh is compared to other countries on child trafficking?
There are many factors but poverty would be the main one. I mean when poverty is there giving fake offers is the easiest. People are in need of money. Even the children or adolescents, when they hear that they would get a good salary, they take it as a responsibility to serve their families. This has been our experience with the camel jockeys as well. Many of the children said, ‘When we heard that we will go to the UAE, we thought immediately that we will be able to help our families’. So that is why the temptation when it comes to fake job offers is stronger when it is combined with poverty.
But it will be difficult to eradicate poverty in short time, so what should be immediate step?
That’s why awareness is very much needed. People need to be made aware of the fake offers and trafficking in general. People should understand and should take advice from the local government representatives and NGOs.
How many NGOs at present are working at the grassroots level for the awareness purpose? NGOs in Bangladesh are in thousands of course. There is a good number of NGOs working on trafficking. Our partners on women and child trafficking are BNWLA and Dhaka Ahsania Mission and they have been very successful. Many of the children rescued, you will be happy to find them in schools and back to family life.
This article was first published in New Age Xtra on June 23, 2006