Bangladesh: Interview with Prof. Zakir Hossain on Human Trafficking

Interview conducted with Prof. Md. Zakir Hossain, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Chitagong and Member, Judicial Service Commission, People's Republic of Bangladesh, in context of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) training on combating human trafficking for law enforcement officers

UNODC: Can you describe the problem of human trafficking in Bangladesh? Which forms do exist?

Prof. Hossain: Human trafficking is a crime against humanity. Trafficking in persons is nothing short of modern-day slavery. It is, therefore, not only a problem for Bangladesh but rather it is a global problem. Bangladesh along with other regional and international partners is making continuous efforts to eliminate this vice. Despite this, human trafficking is expanding at an alarming rate. The most common forms of human trafficking in Bangladesh are, among others, trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, domestic servitude, forced labour and other exploitations.

UNODC: How big is the problem of human trafficking in Bangladesh? Is this an internal or also an external problem?

Prof. Hossain: Human trafficking is now considered one of the major concerns for Bangladesh. Given the complex, organized and clandestine nature of the crime of human trafficking and deliberate reluctance and avoidance of the victim's family to report the cases of trafficking for a number of socio-psychological reasons, it is difficult to have appropriate data and statistics on human trafficking. However, various studies reveal that over one million women and children were trafficked out of the country in the last 30 years. A UNICEF report says that approximately 400 women and children in Bangladesh are victims of trafficking each month. Another study reports that approximately 300,000 Bangladeshi children and women between the age group of 12- 30 were trafficked to India alone in the last ten years. The annual report of a Pakistan based organization, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, reveals that about 200,000 young girls and women of Bangladeshi origin were sold in Pakistan. All these statistics indicate how big the problem of human trafficking is in Bangladesh.
Both internal and cross border trafficking exist in Bangladesh. In case of internal trafficking, women and children are often taken away from their homes, on false promise of a better life with good employment or by using various other criminal acts and means by the traffickers who sell them to brothels. It is mainly people from rural areas with minimal survival options and worst sufferers of the discriminatory socio-cultural practices, who are allured or deceived for a better life and more lucrative job opportunities at cities. At the cross-border level, victims are transported and/or transferred to further destinations such as India, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries on promises of a better life or by using other illegal acts and processes which ends up with the most corrosive forms of human rights violations and a life of unspeakable agony and torture.

UNODC: What according to you are the key cause factors to Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in Bangladesh?

Prof. Hossain: Poverty, social exclusion or gender discrimination, widespread illiteracy, lack of awareness and poor governance are the key factors contributing to trafficking in persons in Bangladesh.

UNODC: How does Bangladesh address TIP in its national legislation? What are the key challenges in addressing it?

Prof. Hossain: Bangladesh does not have one comprehensive law on combating human trafficking. The anti-human trafficking legal framework in Bangladesh consists of a series of penal laws which have a direct relation with human trafficking and certain complementary laws having indirect bearing on combating trafficking. The major anti-trafficking laws which provide punishments for the acts, processes and end products of human trafficking are the Penal Code, 1860, the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act, 1933, the Children Act, 1974 and the Prevention of Repression against Women and Children Act, 2000 (as amended in 2003). On the other hand, complementary laws that tend to create a preventive environment and mechanism against human trafficking are the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1980, the Primary Education Act, 1990, and the Labour Act, 2006. However, I believe that the legal framework on combating trafficking in Bangladesh needs to focus more on the victim's physical, emotional and psychological injury as well as financial and property losses sustained by the victim.

UNODC: Can you tell us your views on the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons that entered into force some years ago (2003) and what Bangladesh is doing to implement this Convention?

Prof. Hossain: Bangladesh needs to eventually ratify the UNTOC and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children in the future and be part of this international, standard legal framework to participate in the global fight on Trafficking in Persons (TIP). So far the Government of Bangladesh has made efforts to strengthen its response on TIP being a part of the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, the SAARC Convention on Regional Agreements for the Promotion of Child Welfare in South Asia, the Slavery Convention, the Supplementary Convention on the Slavery and Slave Trade, to name a few, including the International Bill of Rights.

UNODC: Are there any recommendations you would make to the existing strategy to combat human trafficking not only from a national perspective, but also from a regional one?

Prof. Hossain: Prevailing repressive strategy to combat human trafficking in South Asia must give way to the right-based strategy. A heart cannot beat without blood. Any legal regime on anti-human trafficking that complies with minimum human rights standards supplies blood to the heart of the efforts on combating human trafficking. Enactment of good laws is not enough; it has to be enforced vigorously. The proper implementation of anti-trafficking laws desperately requires sensitization and adequate training of the police, prosecutors and judges. In order to eliminate the vices of trafficking from this region and to undertake more effective regional initiatives to counter trafficking in persons, the SAARC Convention on combating trafficking needs to be improved in line with the UNTOC and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children.

UNODC: What are the critical aspects the SAARC region should focus in a collaborative manner?

Prof. Hossain: Any meaningful collaborative effort among South Asian countries requires trust among the states. When it concerns victims of cross border trafficking, South Asian countries should not blame each other. Rather they should engage in constructive dialogue to undertake more effective prevention, rescue, prosecution and repatriation of the victims. Constructive dialogue between South Asian countries will help them not only to see the problem of trafficking from the standpoint of a narrow national interest but to view it from a humanitarian perspective which in turn will automatically expand the horizon of collaboration in exchanging and sharing information, rescue operation, investigation, prosecution, repatriation and other related areas of anti-human trafficking.

UNODC: Finally, please, give us your views about the training that is being organized in New Delhi for law enforcement officers

Prof. Hossain: Human trafficking takes place both within the border and beyond borders. Countries in South Asia region act as source, transit and destination countries. Therefore, any effective and sustainable efforts to combat human trafficking must be integrated, transnational and collaborative. Present training initiative which is drawing participants predominantly from law enforcing agencies from all eight South Asian Countries is a unique example of collaborative and partnership efforts to combat human trafficking. UNODC can act as a catalyst among the South Asian states in introducing meaningful collaboration as opposed to tokenism to render services to victims of trafficking. I sincerely believe, SAARC Training of Trainers (TOTs) on Combating Trafficking is the beginning of the envisioned collaboration.

About Professor Zakir Hossain: Professor Hossain completed his LLM (Master of Laws) from the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh and went to pursue higher studies in the field of Governance and Development from the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He has worked as a resource person on human trafficking with a number of national and international organizations including Terre Des Hommes, Italy. He has contributed to the preparation of a Regional Study for the Harmonization of Anti-Trafficking Legal Framework in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a Regional Manual on Combating Human Trafficking from a rights based perspective and a training kit on Rights Based Anti-Trafficking Strategy. He is an active advocate interested in addressing the weaknesses of existing legal frameworks on combating trafficking at the national and the regional level. He is involved in introducing socially responsive legal education in South Asian Universities.