Bangladesh's slavery survivors struggle as coronavirus halts businesses

by Naimul Karim | @Naimonthefield | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 31 March 2020 10:32 GMT

Men and children work in a dockyard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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Officials worry that as survivors become desperate they can be at risk of being trafficked again

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By Naimul Karim

DHAKA, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For trafficking survivors-turned-entrepreneurs in Bangladesh - from caterers to hairdressers - the coronavirus pandemic has threatened their fresh start and left many struggling to get by.

Starting a business or securing a job can offer a lifeline for ex-slaves as they try to recover financially and mentally, yet the outbreak has brought Bangladesh's economy to a halt and driven many victims to shut up shop and seek loans to survive.

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Having been enslaved and tortured as a maid in Saudi Arabia, Dalia Akhter returned to Bangladesh in September and joined a food catering service that she helped run with other survivors.

The business started well but was forced to close last week when Bangladesh - which has seen 51 cases and five deaths from COVID-19 - announced a nationwide shutdown until early April.

"I am not educated enough to get a job and the business was all that I had," Akhter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "We earned just about enough to meet our daily needs."

"I went through a lot of pain in Saudi and I thought this (business) would help me recover," said Akhter, who broke her leg by jumping from her former employers' third-floor home in order to escape. "I have to start all over again now."

EMERGENCY FUND ESTABLISHED

Three anti-slavery charities, which provide the bulk of support to survivors with limited government help available, said several victims with businesses had asked for assistance.

Justice and Care - a charity that has helped victims open beauty parlours and get jobs in the garment industry - said it was setting up an emergency fund to help more than 100 people.

"Some of them need groceries, some need money. Some of them have given birth, so they need medical support," said Shauly Sultana, the charity's senior programme officer.

Shariful Islam, head of the migration department at aid group BRAC, said it had been a challenge to offer services to returned migrants and slavery victims due to social distancing.

"We haven't been able to bring them to our centre and guide them like we used to because of the coronavirus," said Islam, whose organisation has helped trafficking survivors to open food businesses and buy small cars in order to run taxi services.

There is no official data but thousands of trafficking victims have returned home from India and Saudi Arabia in recent years, from women sold for sex to men used in construction work.

FEARS OVER RE-TRAFFICKING

The government announced on Sunday that it would provide food and financial aid to the poor, day labourers, roadside tea stall owners and others who lead a hand-to-mouth existence.

Yet a one-off payment will not suffice for most slavery victims and they should receive a long-term package of support, said Binoy Krishna Mallick, head of the charity Rights Jessore.

"The lack of support can lead to survivors looking for loans and leave them desperate," he said. "This can lead to re-trafficking, once the impact of the coronavirus recedes."

An official at the interior ministry said she had asked its partner agencies - including the United Nations' migration agency (IOM) - to redirect funds from their existing anti-trafficking projects to support survivors based on their needs.

"The situation of survivors is always delicate," said Ferdousi Akhter, additional secretary at the ministry. "We need to take care of them or else they might be desperate ... they could be in danger of getting trafficked again."

Khadija, a trafficking survivor who was sold to a brothel in India, is looking for a loan as she is unsure if she will ever be able to get her beauty parlour business up and running again.

"Even if the restrictions are lifted, I don't think people will come to the parlour. They are too scared because of the virus," said the 26-year-old, who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals. "I don't know how I will continue."

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(Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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