The government decreased protection efforts. It identified fewer potential victims than in the previous reporting period and maintained severely inadequate victim protection, especially for Bangladeshi trafficking victims identified overseas. The government identified 1,138 potential trafficking victims, a significant decrease from 6,866 in the previous reporting period; however, the government did not report details of this number and, in the past, had included smuggled migrants in the overall number. In comparison, NGOs and international organizations reported identifying at least 580 sex trafficking victims, 6,378 labor trafficking victims, and 717 victims of unspecified exploitation. Among the sex trafficking victims, organizations reported 429 women, 10 men, 111 female children, 10 male children, and 20 LGBTQI+ individuals, while the labor trafficking victims included 4,328 men, 1,902 women, 93 female children, 41 male children, and 14 LGBTQI+ individuals.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the government’s lead agency for combating trafficking, had SOPs for proactive trafficking victim identification; however, the government did not report whether the SOPs were widely disseminated or used. Observers noted there was no standard victim identification procedure; many law enforcement agencies attempted to follow the PSHTA with significant misunderstandings and lacked a formal procedure for identifying victims. Some police officers used a checklist to proactively identify victims when they came into contact with individuals in commercial sex establishments; however, the government did not formally adopt or disseminate the checklist, and its use was inconsistent. The government, in partnership with an international organization, developed a rapid victim identification mobile application during the reporting period, although the application was not yet finalized or approved for official use. The government also maintained several general helplines to report crime, including human trafficking.
Law enforcement did not uniformly employ SOPs to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including individuals engaged in commercial sex and, as a result, may have penalized sex trafficking victims for unlawful acts that traffickers compelled them to commit. Police enforcement operations on hotel-based commercial sex resulted in law enforcement filing many cases under PSHTA sections 12 and 13, accusing young women and girls of criminal behavior without attempting to screen for victimization with trafficking indicators. Similarly, NGOs previously reported law enforcement conducted operations in brothels and arrested foreign national women in commercial sex for visa violations without efforts to screen for trafficking. NGOs reported some authorities detained and fined foreign national trafficking victims in transit for failure to carry a passport and may have deported some victims without screening for trafficking; officials sometimes identified these individuals as trafficking victims and treated them as such. Law enforcement at the borders intercepted and charged at least 55 people under the penal sections of the passport control order, despite evidence that these individuals had been brought to the Indian border under fraudulent pretenses for the purpose of trafficking. The government previously penalized some returning Bangladeshi migrant workers with substantial indicators of trafficking on ambiguous charges of “damaging the image of the nation” without appropriately screening for trafficking. The government sentenced some of these potential victims to jail terms, although the government eventually granted bail to the victims. The government had previously arrested and charged 81 migrant workers, returned from Vietnam, for damaging the country’s image by protesting their payment of recruitment fees for jobs that never materialized in front of the Bangladesh embassy in Vietnam. A court granted bail to the migrant workers and ordered an investigation, although the government did not report its results. The government previously arrested 219 Bangladeshi workers who had returned from Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain for allegedly committing similar ambiguous offenses abroad. In November 2020, authorities released the migrant workers on bail; the government did not provide updates concerning the potential victims. Previously, the government occasionally required victims of labor exploitation, including labor trafficking, to remain at embassies overseas to pursue a civil case against their employers; many victims wanted to return home and thus could not pursue cases. The government did not file any trafficking cases in destination countries but did assist with investigations in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and Togo.
Protective services remained strained due to the pandemic and limited government resources. The government had a standard policy to refer victims to services, although it required a court-order mechanism to do so. During the reporting period, the Department of Social Services (DSS) formally adopted comprehensive Survivor Services Guidelines and referral directories to ensure minimum standards of care in government-run shelters. Authorities commonly referred victims to government-run shelter homes for protection services, although the government occasionally referred victims to NGO-run shelters. Though the government referred 5,480 victims to shelters, it did not report how many victims it referred to government shelters versus NGO-run shelters, preventing comparison with the 126 victims referred to government shelters and 167 victims referred to NGO-run shelters in the previous reporting period. NGOs and international organizations provided referrals to 618 sex trafficking victims, 543 labor trafficking victims, and 446 victims of unspecified exploitation. The government and NGO-operated shelters decreased the services available to trafficking victims in response to pandemic restrictions. For example, social distancing requirements in a shelter in Cox’s Bazar reduced the number of survivors who could be assisted to only 10 to 15 individuals at one time. With partial funding from a foreign government, the Ministry of Social Welfare (MSW) operated some longer-term shelters for women and child victims of violence, including trafficking victims, which could provide similar care. MSW shelters, however, required a court order referral. The government also required NGOs and international organizations to obtain a court order to provide additional services to victims in government shelters. Some victims reported abuse within the shelters. In addition, the government required trafficking victims without legal residence in Bangladesh to remain in shelter homes until repatriation to their country of origin. Despite legal guidelines to administer services equitably, the government did not consistently view adult men as trafficking victims, and the government did not routinely identify or provide equitable services to male victims. While some NGO shelters could house male victims, the majority of both government and NGO shelters could not; however, most NGOs could provide non-shelter services to adult male victims. The government did not report how many trafficking victims its police and MSW shelters assisted during the reporting period.
The government provided services to 442 sex trafficking victims, 2,420 labor trafficking victims, and 1,410 victims of unspecified exploitation during the reporting period. In comparison, NGOs and international organizations provided services to 751 sex trafficking victims, 4,656 labor trafficking victims, and 557 victims of other exploitation. The government reported these services included eight victim support centers for women and children that provided free food, clothing, medical care, and education to 34 trafficking victims. Counter Trafficking Committee (CTC) members and police used referral directories developed by a partner organization to refer victims and at-risk individuals to services, although the absence of well-established protocols created challenges referring identified victims to appropriate services. Police operated multiple centers for women and child victims of violence, including trafficking, in each of Bangladesh’s eight divisions, offering short-term shelter, medical services, and psychological care. In response to pandemic-related restrictions, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs created psycho-social support options through cell phone and email. Government-run hospitals also had one-stop centers to assist female victims of crime, although it was unclear whether and how officials referred women to these centers. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau previously withheld approval for foreign funding to some NGOs working on some human rights or humanitarian issues, which may have affected availability and provision of services to vulnerable populations, including trafficking victims. The pandemic limited resources and strained the ability of NGOs to offer victim services. The PSHTA entitled victims to protection during judicial proceedings, including police security, and allowed victims to provide testimony via video conference. While some victims participated in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers, the government and NGOs noted insufficient implementation of the protection provision contributed to a lack of participation by most trafficking victims. The government offered free legal services to trafficking victims through public and special prosecutors, as well as legal and financial support through the Bangladesh National Legal Aid Organization. The government allocated funding to provide legal services to trafficking victims through the district offices of the National Legal Aid Service Organization (NLASO). Government-run District Legal Aid Committees could also offer free legal services to victims, although the services were insufficiently publicized among eligible survivors. The government did not provide legal alternatives to removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they might face hardship or retribution. However, foreign victims of trafficking were legally entitled to the same benefits as Bangladeshi nationals under the PSHTA. In addition, NGOs and international organizations could care for foreign trafficking victims. NGOs provided temporary care to Rohingya trafficking victims in safe homes, but most returned to the refugee camps, where they remained vulnerable to re-trafficking. The government allowed some NGOs to provide shelter services without a court order in Cox’s Bazar, although the organizations needed to first receive permission from officials overseeing the refugee camps.
The Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE) maintained 29 labor offices, or labor welfare wings, in embassies and consulates in 26 major destination countries to provide welfare services to Bangladeshi migrant workers through labor attachés trained on trafficking issues. These labor attachés were responsible for reviewing and verifying employment documents. International organizations continued to report these labor wings had neither the staffing nor the resources to assist the large number of migrant workers, especially at embassies in the Gulf with large numbers of Bangladeshi workers. MEWOE operated five safe houses abroad for workers with strong indicators of trafficking who fled abusive employers, but it did not report how many individuals or victims the shelters assisted. While the government funded some trafficking victim repatriation, it often took so long that victims funded it themselves and incurred additional debt. The government relied on NGOs to support victims upon repatriation. The government made minimal efforts to assist Bangladeshi sex and labor trafficking victims abroad, although the PSHTA included provisions for the repatriation of foreign victims of human trafficking identified in Bangladesh. The government worked with an international organization to repatriate 35 Bangladeshi trafficking victims from Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Vanuatu, and Vietnam. The government formed an inter-ministerial committee to identify trafficking victims among deported returnees from Libya. Trafficking victims of Bangladeshi origin are likely to be deported or turned away without screening for trafficking in destination or transit countries, particularly India. The MHA and the Government of India continued to finalize victim identification and repatriation SOPs. The governments facilitated, and NGOs funded, repatriation of trafficking victims from India, but without a final, adopted SOP, the lengthy and complex approval system resulted in some Bangladeshi victims languishing in Indian shelters for years. Both governments coordinated several repatriation initiatives over the previous year, including a group of 21 women and children in 2022. Border closures due to the pandemic temporarily halted repatriation services, often resulting in significant distress for trafficking survivors in shelters waiting to return home from destination countries.
While the 2012 PSHTA mandated creation of a fund to assist victims in seeking compensation from their traffickers, the government had not yet created the fund. Trafficking victims were encouraged to file cases under the PSHTA, although an alternative system of arbitration existed with MEWOE. All trafficking victims could file civil suits seeking compensation, and trafficking victims had the right to pursue restitution from defendants in criminal cases, although restitution through out-of-court settlements between victims and traffickers remained more common. These settlements typically involved victims recanting their testimony, effectively eliminating the possibility of the trafficker facing a criminal conviction. Overseas Bangladeshi workers who secured their employment through MEWOE could lodge complaints with MEWOE to seek restitution for labor and recruitment violations, including allegations of forced labor, through an arbitration process. However, trafficking-related corruption impeded the process, which often yielded minimal awards. At least one NGO reported the Bureau of Manpower and Employment Training (BMET), which facilitated the arbitration, prohibited NGO advocates from accompanying migrant workers, forcing workers to arbitrate claims alone against both powerful recruitment agencies and BMET. MEWOE reported it settled 22 complaints against recruitment agents in FY 2020-2021, compelling them to pay 1.52 million BDT ($17,670) to migrant workers, compared with 424 recruitment agents compelled to pay 24.04 million BDT ($279,530) in compensation in 2020; MEWOE did not report whether any complaints involved forced labor. MEWOE also operated a desk at the Dhaka airport, providing up to 5,000 BDT ($58) and information on available NGO services to returning female migrant workers, including trafficking victims. Because the government did not consistently initiate criminal investigations into migrant workers exploited abroad and civil remedies remained inadequate, civil society organizations ran alternate dispute resolution systems to assist labor trafficking victims in obtaining some financial remedies.