Widowed and alone 21-year-old Umme Kulthum had hoped for a fresh start in Bangladesh, but was forced into prostitution instead, falling victim to what aid groups and officials say is a growing trafficking scourge targeting refugees. Women and children make up the majority of the more than six lakhs Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh, many escaping with only the clothes on their back and desperate to survive any way they can.
Confined to congested tent cities near the border without any prospect of work, refugees are willing to take whatever comes their way — and many have fallen prey to traffickers, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Young girls in particular are at high risk, with the IOM documenting cases of refugees being lured with promises of marriage or jobs in big cities that end instead in forced labour or sex work.
Kulthum lost her husband in the ethnic violence that tore through Myanmar’s Rakhine state this year. Separated from her parents and children during the journey to Bangladesh, she was approached by a Rohingya man after arriving in Kutupalong, a gigantic camp housing hundreds of thousands of refugees. His marriage proposal offered a brighter future away from the squalor of the camp and a chance to lay her unhappy memories to rest. But Kulthum , not her real name, was taken to a brothel, where she was forced to have sex with up to seven men a day.
Human trafficking networks have expanded as the refugee population has climbed and are now “rife” throughout the camps, the IOM said. Bangladesh has deployed its top police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, to Cox’s Bazar to crack down on traffickers, many of whom manage to evade detection despite restrictions on non-authorised personnel entering the refugee camps.
A checkpoint in the coastal town of Teknaf set up a month ago has already rescued 30 women and children from the clutches of traffickers, he added. Another security official, who asked to remain anonymous, said there had been cases of criminal syndicates organising fake passports for Rohingya women who are then sent abroad, especially to Malaysia and the Middle East. The IOM said it was also aware of cases of Rohingya refugees being trafficked overseas.
Dhaka has prohibited the Rohingya from leaving the camps, fearing an influx in its bigger cities, and has set up checkpoints along the roads leading to the tented settlements. More than twenty thousand Rohingya have been turned back but aid workers say that unless the refugees are taught about the dangers of trafficking, they will keep trying to leave the camps in search of a better life.