Taking on traffickers at the world's largest refugee site
UNHCR works closely with Bangladesh authorities to protect vulnerable Rohingya refugees from abduction and human trafficking at Kutupalong refugee settlement.
Rohingya children at a child-friendly space in Kutupalong refugee settlement in July 2019. More than half the settlement's residents are children, who are more vulnerable to trafficking and abduction than adults.
© UNHCR/Antoine Tardy
When Sara’s* seven-year-old son Mohamed* was snatched from the vast Kutupalong refugee settlement in south-east Bangladesh, she set out to find him on foot.
“For the whole week I didn’t eat. I just walked every corner of the camp searching for him. I couldn’t feel my legs,” she says.
The refugee settlement is the largest in the world. It is home to around 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees, the vast majority of whom fled a military crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017.
The dangers of abduction and trafficking are relatively small but real. So far this year, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners have intervened in more than 170 cases of missing persons, abductions and kidnappings in the refugee settlements, however the real number is likely far higher.
Rohingya refugees, as well as poor Bangladeshi families are also vulnerable to human trafficking. Many victims of trafficking end up in forced or bonded labour, domestic servitude, or are trafficked for sex.
Terrified that she would never see Mohamed again, Sara reported his disappearance to UNHCR, which immediately swung into action.
“For the whole week I didn’t eat. I just walked every corner of the camp searching for him."
Community outreach volunteers visited the family in the sprawling settlement of bamboo and plastic-sheet shelters, and informed a lawyer working for UNHCR’s partner organization, Technical Assistance Inc., or TAI. The local Bangladesh government official in charge of the camp was informed and contacted the police. By then, Mohamed had been missing for four days.
Sara was convinced his disappearance was linked to a dispute with her husband’s family. Ahmed* had left Rakhine state in Myanmar on a fishing trawler back in 2012 to seek work in Malaysia. A farmer back home, he was unable to support his family due to government restrictions on movements and access to paid work. He wants to be reunited with his family but faces difficulties without documents.
Sara believes her in laws suspected that she had money saved that Ahmed had sent her to care for their two sons. She told police they intimidated her and kidnapped her youngest son, Mohamed, in an effort to extort money from her.
When she revealed her suspicions to the lawyer and the police, they immediately questioned her brother-in-law and other family members. They finally learned that Mohamed was being held in a house in the city of Cox’s Bazar, about 90 minutes by car from Kutupalong.
Three days later, police found him tied up, but otherwise unharmed during a house search. He had not eaten properly for days. Once freed, a psychosocial support officer with TAI worked closely with Mohamed and his family.
“He was deeply traumatized. He wouldn’t even eat. We took all the steps to help him and spoke to his family. I taught the family techniques to help him recover from the trauma. He is now back attending the learning centre, and he is doing much better,” says the support worker, who asked not to be named.
The Bangladeshi camp official involved in the case said that the authorities deal with a wide range of issues every day, including domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, child protection issues and missing children.
“Women and children are the most vulnerable. In any emergency situation, people are traumatized. People prey on the most vulnerable and take advantage of those who are uneducated,” he says. “However, everyone is part and parcel of the response here. It is challenging, but the coordination works well.”
Of the 170 people reported missing to UNHCR so far this year, 106 cases have been successfully resolved, while 64 remain open. However, many likely go unreported in Cox’s Bazar district, one of the poorest and least developed in Bangladesh, where trafficking networks were firmly established since well before the mass influx of Rohingya refugees began two years ago.
"People prey on the most vulnerable and take advantage of those who are uneducated.”
In support of the Government of Bangladesh, and working closely with partners, UNHCR is responsible for ensuring refugees in its care are safe. In September UNHCR helped to set up an Anti-Trafficking Working Group, which it co-leads with the International Organization for Migration, IOM, to map and analyze incidents of trafficking and to enhance co-ordination.
UNHCR also works with various partners to provide legal counselling, legal representation, mediation, and coordination of rescue operations. Awareness raising campaigns are also undertaken within the community to enhance protection of refugees.
Taking steps to protect refugees and their host communities, by ensuring they have legal rights and access to due process, is one of the topics that will be addressed at the Global Refugee Forum – a high-level meeting on 17-18 December in Geneva, bringing together the private sector, humanitarian and development organizations and governments.
For his part, Abdur Rahman, the lawyer who worked to find and free Mohamed, is convinced that raising awareness about legal services in the camps is having a positive effect.
“It was worse before, there were more abduction cases. But now they are gradually learning the law and that there are legal avenues for them to use. More people come for legal support and this reduces the number of kidnapping cases,” he says. “You can see the change in behaviour, which is the most important factor.” UNHCR also provides messaging throughout the camps.
For Mohamed’s mother, the prompt action by different authorities to secure his recovery and safe return, meant everything.
“I fainted when I finally saw him again – from the pain and the happiness,” says Sara, who thanked UNHCR, the lawyers and the police for believing her story and acting on it.
“If they hadn’t, I don’t know where my son would be right now. I suspect that they would have sold him as I didn’t have the money to pay what they asked,” she adds, hugging her son tightly to her.
*Names changed for protection reasons.