The government increased convictions of traffickers but decreased investigations and did not take adequate steps to address internal sex trafficking or official complicity in trafficking, both of which remained pervasive. The 2012 Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act (PSHTA) criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of five years to life imprisonment and a fine of not less than 50,000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) ($590). Bonded labor was treated as a separate offense and prescribed lesser penalties of five to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than 50,000 BDT ($590). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regards to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government continued to train police officers through an anti-trafficking module at the police academy. The government also trained and provided in-kind support to international- and NGO-run trainings for judicial, immigration, and border officials. The government did not report if police and other relevant officials received training on the PSHTA implementing rules, which it disseminated in 2017.
The government investigated 403 cases under the PSHTA (including 29 investigations continued from previous years), prosecuted 312 suspects (256 for sex trafficking and 56 for forced labor), and convicted 25 individuals in nine trafficking-related cases. However, at least one reported conviction was for baby selling, which is not a human trafficking crime under international law. This is a decrease in investigations but increase in convictions from the previous reporting period, when the government investigated 592 cases, prosecuted an unknown number of suspects, and convicted eight traffickers in five cases. The judiciary completed prosecution in 39 cases. Judges acquitted 68 traffickers in 30 cases, convicted 25 traffickers in nine cases, and sentenced 17 of those convicted to life imprisonment. The judiciary did not report the sentences of the other eight convicted. This sentencing is similar to the previous reporting period, when the judiciary imposed life imprisonment in seven of the eight convictions. The government reported 4,407 trafficking cases remained pending investigation or prosecution as of December 2019. In the previous reporting period, the vast majority of cases involved migrant smuggling of Rohingya and Bangladeshis without clear indicators of crimes of trafficking in persons. This year, media continued to report police filed cases under the PSHTA with clear elements of migrant smuggling and without indicators of exploitation in labor or commercial sex. The government acknowledged investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for trafficking remained inadequate compared to the scale of the problem; the conviction rate for suspected traffickers arrested under the PSHTA was 1.7 percent.
Many officials did not understand human trafficking and at times conflated it with migrant smuggling. Some officials continued to deny the existence of internal trafficking, especially child sex trafficking, despite observers recording multiple cases of child sex trafficking in licensed brothels each month. Police and prosecutors did not collaborate during the law enforcement process, which led to delays and the formation of weak cases for prosecution. In cross-border cases, Bangladeshi officials often did not travel abroad to collect evidence and did not have sufficient agreements to receive evidence from foreign governments. Some observers noted it could take police up to eight years after receiving a complaint of trafficking to file the charge sheet necessary to refer the case for prosecution, and trafficking cases took on average 11 years from first report to adjudication. NGOs reported the substantial delay contributed to the dearth of successful investigations and prosecutions because most suspects remained out of jail and could bribe or threaten victims not to testify. The government took steps to establish seven anti-trafficking tribunals stipulated in the PSHTA to exclusively hear human trafficking cases, including appointing seven judges. The women and children’s tribunal continued to hear trafficking cases but had insufficient staff and resources to handle the caseloads, and prosecutors lacked expertise in trafficking. Observers stated the government generally did not dedicate sufficient resources to pre-trial investigations and prosecutors persisted with trials to meet the statutorily required timeline of 180 working days for the disposal of cases, even if inadequately prepared. The Bangladeshi High Commission collaborated with the Government of Brunei to revoke the passports of suspected Bangladeshi labor traffickers and deport them to Bangladesh for criminal prosecution. The government continued to allow mobile courts, established under the executive branch, to adjudicate labor violations, human trafficking cases, and migrant smuggling cases. Mobile courts could only prescribe penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment—less than the minimum penalty of five years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses under the PSHTA. An NGO expressed concern that some village courts, five-person panels of local government officials and villagers, adjudicated trafficking cases but could only administer financial penalties, and the courts may have subjected victims to intimidation, fraud, and corruption.
Despite continued reports of traffickers exploiting hundreds of Rohingya in forced labor and sex trafficking within Bangladesh, the only Rohingya-related cases reported by law enforcement involved movement via boat—cases that might have been migrant smuggling without elements of trafficking. The government did not establish clear legal reporting mechanisms within the camps, which impeded Rohingyas’ access to justice and increased impunity for offenders. Police and international humanitarian actors maintained multiple help desks in several refugee camps to provide legal assistance to female and child refugee victims of crime, but public distrust of police and security services deterred many victims of crime, including trafficking, from approaching law enforcement for assistance. The Bangladeshi High Court did not entertain anti-trafficking cases filed by Rohingya, despite the law allowing Rohingya to file trafficking cases in Bangladeshi courts. International organizations alleged some Bangladeshi officials facilitated trafficking of Rohingya, including accepting bribes from traffickers to gain access to camps.
Official complicity in human trafficking, trafficking-related corruption, and impunity for offenders remained serious concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. The government was reluctant to acknowledge or investigate such claims. In registered brothels, some police charged bribes to ignore abuse within the establishments, to not check for the required documentation that each worker was older than 18, and to procure fraudulent documents for workers as young as 10 years old. Some labor attachés, local politicians, judges, and police requested bribes from victims and their families to pursue cases. Observers alleged some officials from district employment and manpower offices allegedly facilitated human trafficking, and some traffickers in rural areas had political connections that enabled them to operate with impunity. According to NGOs, some local politicians convinced victims to accept payment from recruitment sub-agents to not report fraudulent or exploitative labor recruitment actions to police. Other observers reported some police conducted slow and flawed investigations to allow traffickers to evade punishment, including when suspects were fellow officers. During the previous reporting period, police reported arresting a law enforcement officer for allegedly forcing two 12-year-old girls into drug trafficking and exploiting them in commercial sex. The government subsequently denied the case.
Because a number of government officials, including parliamentarians, maintained close ties to foreign employment agencies, there were concerns such officials had conflicts of interest in approving migrant-friendly practices, such as prosecution of abusive recruitment agencies and increasing protections for migrant workers. In February 2020, media reported a Bangladeshi parliamentarian bribed Kuwaiti officials to bring more than 20,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad on work visas that stipulated a different job and lower salaries than their contracts, and the parliamentarian then paid the workers the lesser wages or not at all. Media reported that from 2015-2018, Malaysian employment agencies and 10 Bangladeshi recruitment agencies bribed officials and politicians in both countries to create a monopoly on recruitment of Bangladeshi workers. The monopoly increased the recruitment fees charged to workers from 37,000 BDT ($440) to more than 400,000 BDT ($4,710) per person—higher than the government’s legal maximum—which increased Bangladeshi migrant workers’ vulnerability to debt-based coercion. After two warnings from the Dhaka High Court, the government submitted its investigative report in November 2019, where it awaited hearing. In September 2016, a federal court in New York entered a default judgment against a former Bangladeshi consular officer and his wife and ordered them to pay approximately $920,000 to a Bangladeshi citizen in a civil suit in which the plaintiff alleged violations of the TVPA, as well as federal and state labor laws. The consular officer left the United States and remained in the Bangladesh foreign service as an ambassador. Following an appeal, a revised judgment was issued in May 2018 for approximately $850,000. Parties reached a settlement in May 2019 and voluntarily dismissed the case in June 2019. The plaintiff had alleged experiencing retaliatory actions by the Bangladesh Consulate in New York prior to the settlement. The government did not report taking any action during the reporting period to hold the consular officer accountable.