“They forced us to drink beer and other kinds of alcohol. Then they stripped us naked and asked us to dance. After that, all of them took turns and 'worked' on us individually.”
This is how Sahana, a 16-year-old girl from Dhaka's Tejgaon area—who was conned into going to India and later sold to a pimp there—describes just one of her many gruesome experiences last year.
Her voice quivers as she attempts to recall and narrate her story at a shelter house in Dhaka, where she has been staying since the first week of June, following her rescue. She is one of a dozen girls who returned to Bangladesh on June 5 this year. Like Sahana, most of the other girls too were forced into sex work.
The increasing number of trafficked victims returning from India in the last couple of years unveils a perilous issue that is only likely to get worse in the near future. There was a time when the number of Bangladeshi trafficked victims arrested in India was in single digits and the incidents were mostly confined to Kolkata. However, recent cases suggest that the web has spread all across our neighbouring nation.
According to the Bangladesh Embassy in Delhi, 164 victims have been repatriated in the first half of 2017 alone. That is more than twice the total figure of last year and already 33 more than the 131 sent back in 2015. Aside from the government, there are NGOs from both sides working together to send the victims back home.
One such NGO is the Bangladesh National Woman's Lawyer's Association (BNWLA) and it is in their shelter house that Sahana is currently residing.
The slight hesitation in Sahana's voice compels the shelter's caretaker, Najma, to step in and remind her that it was okay if she did not want to speak about her past. Sahana though, pauses for a bit and decides to continue. It is something that she has to do for the sake of her mother, she says later.
“I was in a relationship with a boy living in Farmgate. I used to meet him outside the parlour in Tejgaon, where I used to work. He told me to go to India with him. He promised that I would be able to work in a parlour there and earn more,” she says.
“One day, I told the owner of the parlour that I had to recharge my phone and just left. We crossed the border that day and after a long journey, reached Surat (Gujarat) in the morning.
“To my surprise, he took me to a flat where there were many men and then he disappeared. There was another girl like me over there. They forced us to drink and then two of them did their 'work' on me. After that, the other girl and I cried a lot. We cried the whole week,” she recalls.
After a week, the men took Sahana and the other girl to their first assignment. This time, the girls had to deal with 12 men. Again, they forced the girls to drink, made them dance and then raped them. It was over there that Sahana overheard one of the men saying that she had been sold.
“After they had finished, they were beating me. One of the men asked why I was getting beaten. The man who took me there said that he had bought me for two lakh rupees and that I wasn't behaving as I should. I needed to be worth the money spent,” she says.
Sahana was sent to various customers. There were times when she was hit if she was not willing to have sex with her clients.
A few weeks later, Sahana realised that the only way to escape was to contact her mother in Dhaka. With the tips that she received from her customers, she managed to buy a phone. She then called her mother, who had by then filed a case against the parlour in Tejgaon in which Sahana used to work.
A few days later, Sahana's mother contacted BNWLA and gave Sahana their emergency number.
“I got a call from an aunty at BNWLA. She gave me the number of an Indian NGO. I contacted the Indian NGO but I could not communicate with the bhaiya there because I didn't know Hindi.
“So he asked me to give the phone to my customer and I did that. The customer gave him a wrong address and immediately after that informed my dalal. My dalal then decided to sell me to someone else,” she narrates.
“By then I was really shattered. I really wanted to escape. We were waiting at the train station for my new owners and that is when I started crying very loudly. The police noticed that, took me in, and at the same time arrested the traffickers.
“It was over there that the bhaiya from the Indian NGO came, spoke to the police and explained everything,” explains Sahana.
Sahana had to stay in a hostel in India for a year because of the cases filed against 11 traffickers. Eventually, she returned to Bangladesh on June 5. However, more troubled ensued.
As the investigation into Sahana's trafficking ensued in Bangladesh, her traffickers were brought under the police's radar. As a result, her mother was threatened a number of times.
“They broke our milk and egg shop which my mother used to run. Now she is fighting alone. My mother left my father because he was a drug addict. My elder brother lives with my father and I have a sister who is younger to me. I really want to help my mother,” she says.
Dipesh Tank, project director of Rescue Foundation, an NGO in India which has helped repatriate several victims of trafficking says that more than 60 percent of the victims they find in Mumbai are from Bangladesh. This year alone, Tank claims that his organisation has helped send back 40 Bangladeshi girls.
He elaborates about the complexities of finding such victims and the dangerous inter-state networks formed because of this trade.
“There are a number of netwoks. There is one guy who will steal the girl from Dhaka and bring her till the border. There is another who will bring her till Delhi and then from there another person will bring her to Mumbai.
“Each girl is generally sold for around Rs two to four lakhs. The younger the girl the higher the cost. It’s unfortunate and sad that so many young and innocent girls are tricked into coming here and joining this trade,” says Tank.
“Bangladeshi girls are difficult to find because, well for starters they look like any one of us. Secondly, they are given fake names, fake pan cards and even fake adhar cards. So you need very special investigations to find out if this girl is a victim of trafficking or not,” he adds.
For survivors like Sahana, the ones who are rescued and brought home, the struggle is far from over. A glimpse across the shelter homes of the country gives you an idea of the pain that they have to endure after escaping their previous life.
Sukanya Roy, who is currently Sahana's roomate at the BNWLA's shelter home, is HIV positive. She was tricked into going to India for a better job at a parlour in 2015 and subsequently forced to work in a brothel for a year.
Tawhida, who used to work at a well-known departmental store in Gulshan 1, returned to Dhaka pregnant. She is due in August. She is just 19.
While speaking to the survivors, you gradually realise that most of them are trapped in a vicious circle. Yes, they are back, but they don't really know what's in store for them next.
They are not sure if their respective communities will accept them. They are not certain if they will be able to earn money once they leave the shelter homes. The worst aspect is that they can't openly talk about the torture that they went through. These factors eventually compel many of them to return to India or to a new destination, putting themselves in precarious situations.
Take for instance, the case of 22-year-old Fargin Khatun. She married a boy from her village in Jessore as a teenager. She then went to India with him, where she was forced to join a brothel in Mumbai. A few years later, her husband—the trafficker—attempted to sell her to another owner. However, before that happened, Fargin called her mother, who in turn informed an NGO (Rights Jessore) in Bangladesh. Within three days, the CID raided the area in which Fargin lived and they rescued her and two other victims.
After returning to Bangladesh though, Fargin went through a financial crisis and decided to go to Saudi Arabia to work as a house cleaner. Unfortunately, the family she worked for did not pay her for eight months, and tortured her repeatedly, until she escaped.
She stayed at the Bangladesh embassy in Riyadh for 10 months, along with hundreds of other Bangladeshi women who were tortured by their employers, before getting a ticket home from the Bangladesh government.
The challenges intensify after the survivors leave their shelter homes. At the homes, they take part in activities that help them recover and their needs are taken care of as well. However, once they leave, the fight becomes tougher.
Moyna, who was rescued and brought back from India six years ago, lives in a slum near the Khulna railway station today. She believes that victims like her need more help.
“If it wasn't for the Bangladesh Embassy in India, I would not have been alive and I am grateful for that. But my life today is quite difficult. I keep changing homes every week. All I am worried about is my next meal. And it's not just me; there are many survivors who are struggling. We need more support,” she says.
Mosharraf Hossain, who works for the Bangladesh Embassy in Delhi and has been, along with the high commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali, strategising plans for the smooth return of the survivors, agrees that more work needs to be done regarding the rehabilitation of the trafficked victims.
“A majority of the girls are tricked into working in brothels in India. However, we have also found girls who willingly cross the border. We believe that these girls know from beforehand about the kind of activity that they will have to be involved in after reaching India. There have been cases where girls, who were sent back home, came back to India to work again,” explains Mosharraf.
According to Mosharraf, visiting shelter homes throughout the nation has become a priority for embassy officials. “Our first step is to find out if the person actually belongs to Bangladesh. We generally come to know by their accent and the way they talk. After that, we take the necessary steps to give them the papers,” he says.
While the Embassy has often tried to get more information about the traffickers, they haven't been able to get past the middlemen. For the ring of traffickers to be identified, according to Mosharraf, the local leaders of each union in Bangladesh will need to play a major role.
“We can keep sending them back. But that can't be the only solution. We need a way to completely stop this flow,” he says.
While Mosharraf remains positive, Salma Ali, the Executive Director of the BNWLA is sceptical. She believes that the Bangladesh government will need to take major steps, which involve arresting influential people, to eradicate this problem.
“Before, we would find two or three victims of trafficking in jails in Kolkata. But today we find them in Goa and even in other parts of South India. The number has increased because the main culprits in Bangladesh are influential and you cannot catch them,”explains Salma Ali, Executive Director of BNWLA.
“Just look at what's happening in Thailand. Top officers are getting charged there and we have not even started our cases,” she says, referring to the 62 people who were convicted by a Thai criminal court on charges related to human trafficking. Among them was former army general Manas Kongpan, who was sentenced to 27 years in jail, as well as a provincial mayor, businessmen and local government officials.
The case in Thailand was launched in 2015 when a mass grave containing nearly 40 bodies was discovered in a jungle camp in southern Thailand. The victims were mainly from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Traffickers from these countries paid smugglers to take them across and find them work in Thailand. However, they were held in these camps and then tortured for more money. Those who couldn't pay were reportedly killed.
In June 2015, a number of Bangladeshis from these cells returned home and a few cases were also filed against the traffickers. While Thailand has already given verdicts, the mere investigation of the cases in Bangladesh is yet to be completed.
Another reason why so many traffickers find it easy to work in Bangladesh, according to advocate Salma, is the vulnerability of the Bangladeshi girls.
“In India, Bangladeshi girls are in demand in the red light districts because they are very vulnerable. Our girls are victims of child marriage, some of them are divorced, some have children and they need to take care of them, so they easily fall in the trap of the traffickers offering them a lot of money,” explains Salma.
Apart from women, traffickers also target men who yearn for a better living. “They mainly come here as construction workers. They earn around Rs 700 per day and that means that they end up getting something around Tk 25,000 per month, which is good money for them.
“Most of them stay in places where the police are unlikely to find them. Many of them actually stay at the construction sites as well,” says Mosharraf.
As far as human trafficking is concerned in Bangladesh, the recent events don't really paint a happy picture. Bangladesh was demoted to Tier 2 Watch List as per the Trafficking in Persons Report 2017 by the US Department of State. According to the report, the government did not make efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict allegedly complicit law enforcement, border, and manpower officials.
More recently, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Syed Moazzem Ali wrote to the home minister expressing his concern regarding the increasing number of Bangladeshi women in Indian brothels.
In addition, a survey conducted by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit this month states that human traffickers have deceived over 1,000 families in a single union of Tangail.
On the bright side, the government did finalise and adopt rules for implementation of the 2012 Prevention and Supression of Human Trafficking act in January this year.
According to Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, the fight against traffickers has been an ongoing process and the Bangladeshi government is taking steps to improve the situation whenever it's required.
The question remains as to whether the government will ever take a leaf out of the Thai criminal court and punish the masterminds of these criminal activities, rather than just the middlemen. Unless drastic measures are taken, the sufferings of many Sahanas and Fargins will continue.
All the photos in this article were staged.
Follow Naimul Karim @naimonthefield