By Naimul Karim
DHAKA, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh could face sanctions because of its failure to convict human traffickers, a senior official said on Wednesday, as only about 30 people have been jailed under a 2012 law.
For two years, Bangladesh has been placed on the U.S. State Department's Tier 2 Watch List in its annual global Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, one step above the worst offenders, which include North Korea, Syria and Iran, in Tier 3.
"We have been able to formulate an excellent legislation to combat human trafficking in 2012 ... but the reality is that the situation is not improving," said Kazi Reazul Hoque, head of the independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
"We are in such a position, we have to take it very seriously ... The United States, the way they have brought (Bangladesh) in Tier 2 Watch List is very serious."
The United States says Bangladesh has failed to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking, although it has committed to take action before the next ranking is published in June.
A downgrade could trigger sanctions limiting access to U.S. and international foreign assistance.
"We should think very carefully, the sanctions imposed don't just affect the government but the whole community," said Hoque, referring to U.S. sanctions imposed on the Myanmar military last year over a crackdown on the Rohingya minority.
Some 5,000 cases have been filed under the 2012 law which criminalised sex and labour trafficking but only about 30 people have been convicted since then, according to police records.
"Prosecution and trial is our biggest weakness," said Mohammad Abu Bakar Siddique, a senior government official in the home affairs ministry.
"But we are working on it. We are trying to find out a suitable way to monitor the progress of these cases."
More than 7.5 million Bangladeshis live outside the country, and at least 1 million secured jobs abroad in 2017 - the highest number ever recorded - according to official data.
Migrant workers often take on debts to pay high recruitment fees to agents who then change their jobs after arrival, the TIP said, while women and girls who migrate to Lebanon or Jordan for domestic work are sold and taken to Syria as sex workers.
Bangladesh only convicted one trafficker in 2017, did not stop illegal brokers recruiting workers and officials are often complicit in trafficking, according to the TIP.
Siddique said the main reason Bangladesh is facing U.S. scrutiny is because of its high migration fees. It is one of the world's most expensive nations for migrants, with some workers paying up to $8,500 to go abroad, the United Nations says.
The United States has also flagged up Bangladesh's failure to set up a specialist anti-trafficking tribunal, as required by the 2012 law.
Instead, cases are heard by the Women and Children Violence Protection Tribunal, which is overburdened and lacks expertise, said Shakirul Islam, chairman of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a migrants rights organisation.
"This government is doing a lot of good things. I am sure they can establish tribunals in a few districts at least. It shouldn't be too hard for them," said Hoque of the rights commission.
Lack of convictions prolong the pain of trafficked migrants like Shahinoor who was tricked into going to Syria in 2015.
"I was tortured there and I still have spots all over the body. After I came back, my mother had to go to run around the police station for 15 days before I could file a case against the broker," said Shahinoor, who declined to give her full name.
"Eventually, RAB (elite Rapid Action Battalion force) arrested the broker but he is now out on bail. I don't know what the situation of my case is. I don't want any money. I pray that nobody else faces what I faced. I just want justice," she cried. (Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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