The government maintained overall law enforcement efforts. The government prosecuted more traffickers for forced labor, expanded cooperation on transnational trafficking crimes, and revoked the seat of a member of parliament following his conviction abroad for trafficking crimes, but it convicted fewer traffickers and did not take adequate steps to address internal sex trafficking or official complicity in general, 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) ($588). Bonded labor was treated as a separate offense with lesser prescribed penalties of five to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than 50,000 BDT ($588). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government continued to train police officers through an anti-trafficking module at the police academy. The government also continued to train and provide in-kind support to international organization and NGO-run trainings for judicial, immigration, and border officials. The government did not report whether police and other relevant officials received training on the 2017 PSHTA implementing rules.
The government investigated 348 cases under the PSHTA (including 138 investigations continued from previous years), compared with the investigation of 403 cases (including 29 ongoing investigations) during the previous reporting period. The government prosecuted 517 suspects (184 for sex trafficking and 333 for forced labor)—an increase from the 312 individuals the government prosecuted the previous reporting period, of which 56 were for forced labor. The government convicted seven traffickers, including one for sex trafficking, two for labor trafficking, and four for undefined trafficking crimes, but acquitted 14 defendants. This was a significant decrease from courts convicting 25 traffickers the previous reporting year. Due to the pandemic, courts were closed from April to July 2020 and in-person activities were delayed until August. In addition to delaying trials, the pandemic forced postponement of the orientation and training for new anti-human trafficking tribunal judges and prosecutors who had been appointed in March 2020. The government reported more than 4,000 trafficking cases remained pending investigation or prosecution as of December 2020. The government acknowledged investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for trafficking remained inadequate compared to the scale of the problem.
In previous reporting periods, the majority of cases involved migrant smuggling of Rohingya and Bangladeshis without clear indicators of crimes of trafficking in persons; the government did not report case details of this year’s investigations or prosecutions. Some 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. However, in one notable case, the government collaborated with United Arab Emirates (UAE) law enforcement and intelligence agencies to investigate organized crime and human trafficking following the arrest in Dhaka of a Bangladeshi alleged to have led a sex trafficking ring which forced Bangladeshi women into commercial sex in Dubai nightclubs. Police also arrested five other Bangladeshis in connection to the case. In the previous reporting period, the government established seven anti-trafficking tribunals by appointing seven judges and special prosecutors exclusively to hear human trafficking cases and address the substantial case backlog. Due to pandemic-related delays, the tribunals did not begin operating until August 2020. Legal experts praised the expediency in which one internal case before the Dhaka tribunal was decided. However, they cautioned the process for more complicated cases, especially those involving transnational elements, would require additional time before the tribunals. For cases heard outside of the tribunals, observers had previously noted the government generally did not dedicate sufficient resources to pre-trial investigations, and cases languished due to a lack of evidence or case backlogs. The government continued to allow mobile courts, established under the executive branch, to adjudicate labor violations, human trafficking cases, and migrant smuggling cases, especially in areas without a trafficking tribunal. 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 that 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, most Rohingya-related cases reported by law enforcement involved movement via boat—cases that might have amounted to 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 crimes, including trafficking, from approaching law enforcement for assistance. In previous reporting periods, the Bangladeshi High Court did not accept anti-trafficking cases filed by Rohingya, despite the law allowing Rohingya to file such cases in Bangladeshi courts. International organizations continued to allege some Bangladeshi officials facilitated trafficking of Rohingya, including by accepting bribes from traffickers to gain access to camps.
Official complicity in human trafficking, trafficking-related corruption, and impunity for traffickers remained serious concerns, continuing to inhibit 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 forego checking for the required documentation that each individual was older than 18, and to procure fraudulent documents for girls 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.
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. During the reporting period, the Anti-Corruption Commission opened an investigation into a Bangladeshi parliamentarian accused of bribing Kuwaiti officials to bring more than 20,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers into Kuwait on work visas which stipulated a different job, and paid the workers significantly lower wages than promised, or none at all. Parliament revoked the member’s seat following his conviction and imprisonment in Kuwait for bribery. The government initiated an investigation into the accused’s wife, also a member of parliament and convicted in Kuwait on a related but lesser charge, and other family members. Media reported 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 ($435) 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, and for a second year no hearings were held. Other than the investigation into the member of parliament, and despite ongoing allegations of official complicity, the government did not report any other investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.