Expatriates’ Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad wants police not to record cases under the anti-trafficking act if workers sent abroad with proper documents come up with complaints against recruiting agents.
He rather suggests actions be taken through the ministry, Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) or Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) instead of filing the cases.
Experts and activists say migrants can fall victim to human trafficking even after going abroad for jobs maintaining all legal procedures. So, they should be able to file cases under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, 2012.
“The suggestion of expatriates’ welfare minister will encourage human traffickers and leave victims unprotected. Therefore, I would say this is an ill-advised instruction,” said Prof Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of National Human Rights Commission.
In a letter to the home minister on June 25, Imran Ahmad said over 1,400 licensed recruiting agents, mostly members of Baira, are involved in sending the workers abroad under the Overseas Employment and Migration Act, 2013.
After collecting job demand letters and visas, the agents get those verified by the Bangladesh missions in the destination countries concerned. Then they apply to the BMET for immigration certificates by paying a certain amount of fees.
Upon scrutiny, the BMET issues immigration certificates and smart cards for the aspirant migrants.
“If any worker faces any problems after going abroad, recruiting agents address those as per the instructions of the Bangladesh mission concerned, the ministry and the BMET,” read the letter.
The minister further said migrants make complaints -- “true or false” -- to police stations or other agencies and the complaints are recorded under the anti-trafficking act, instead of the migration act.
Because of this, the recruiting agents regularly face harassments, searches, passport seizures and detentions, and remain fearful of law enforcement agencies, he said.
“It has a serious negative impact on the overseas jobs sector. Overseas employments are going down. There are fears that remittance inflow will come down and it will affect the overall economy of the country,” the letter read.
Under the anti-trafficking act, the highest punishment is death penalty while under the Overseas Employment and Migration Act, a criminal faces maximum ten years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Tk 5 lakh.
“The overseas employment act is much softer than that of the anti-trafficking law. So, not allowing the victims to file case under this law means allowing the human traffickers to get off scot-free,” added Prof Mizan.
Talking to The Daily Star, Prof Mizanur Rahman said police certainly assess the merit of any complaint and a case is filed accordingly.
“So, if the case has merit, why shouldn’t police accept it? Why should a minister make such a suggestion to the home ministry?” said Prof Mizan, who also teaches at Dhaka University law department.
“If this instruction is to be followed, the victims would be doubly victimised -- once abroad and then at home,” he added.
“This is totally a wrong strategy,” he added.
Shakirul Islam, executive director of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, observed that agents are luring many jobseekers into going abroad after painting a rosy picture of destination countries though the reality is very different.
“The purpose of this is to squeeze money out of jobseekers. This is a clear element of human trafficking,” he said.
Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, a migrant rights researcher and activist living in Malaysia, said a worker can surely file a case under the anti-trafficking act if he or she has to pay higher cost than legal fees for recruitment, does not get a job or salary as per the contract or faces confinement or forced labour by the employer.
Explaining his research in 2007-08 in Malaysia, he said he interviewed several hundred Bangladeshis, who had all the legal documents. But still they did not have jobs as some of the companies were dodgy and had secured the papers through corruption.
“In such cases, the officials who issued documents or those who attested those also can be sued under the anti-trafficking law,” he said.
According to the Police Headquarters, since enactment of the act, a total of 4,668 cases were filed, but only 245 were settled.
The number of cases filed under the anti-trafficking act is tip of the iceberg, Harun Al Rashid said, explaining that there are thousands of incidents having elements of trafficking.
If the recruiting agents, Bangladesh missions, the ministry or BMET could address the migrants’ problems, hardly any complainants would have gone to the court, he said.
Bangladesh has been put on Tier 2 in the watch list prepared by the US Trafficking in Persons report for the last three years. It means the government of Bangladesh does not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.