Girls Sold into Forced Labour Largest Group of Trafficking Victims Identified by IOM in Bangladesh Refugee Camps

Rohingya refugees watch a street performance aimed at raising awareness of the risks of trafficking in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. Photo: IOM 2018.

IOM/YPSA’s street performers in action as they raise awareness of trafficking. 

Cox’s Bazar – Young girls sold into forced labour are the largest group of trafficking victims identified by the UN Migration Agency (IOM) in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps.

IOM counter-trafficking experts warn that more than a year into a crisis that has seen the number of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar soar to almost a million, more desperate families are sending their young daughters off into dangerous work situations because most households have no other way to earn money in the camps.

“There is a very limited number of jobs in the camp and for women there is almost nothing. That’s why I went outside of the camp,” explained one young Rohingya woman, who ended up being forced to work extremely long hours for very little pay in the fish processing industry.

Latest figures show that women and girls lured into situations of forced labour account for two thirds of those who have received support from IOM in Cox’s Bazar after escaping or being rescued from exploitation.  Another 10 per cent of identified victims were women and girls who suffered sexual exploitation.

Bangladeshi security agencies have reported stopping up to 60 women and girls a day attempting to leave the camps in small groups, many of whom appeared to have been coached what to say, but who, when questioned further, appeared unclear about issues such as who they are supposed to be travelling to meet.

IOM experts stress that adult men and boys are also the target of traffickers, accounting for around one in three of those found to have ended up in forced labour.

“We are struggling to meet our everyday needs and there is no scope to get any job inside the camp. So, we [agreed to go] outside of the camp to work,” said a Rohingya father, who ended up receiving no payment after working long hours and being physically abused by an employer.

“The stories we commonly hear are of vulnerable people being approached by traffickers with false promises of work and a better life. Some people simply do not realise the risks. Others may be aware it is dangerous, but feel their situation is so desperate that they are willing to take extreme measures, perhaps sacrificing one family member for the sake of the rest of the family,” said Dina Parmer, IOM’s head of protection services in Cox’s Bazar.

“Men, women and children, are all at risk of exploitation from traffickers. But in this situation, the demand for girls and young women to work as domestic maids, means they are often targets. Once trafficked, their youth, inexperience and isolation leave them particularly vulnerable to abuse,” she added.

IOM offers support to survivors, including physical and mental health assistance, legal counselling, safe shelters, emergency cash assistance, and access to safe livelihoods, including cash for work programmes.

Counter-trafficking and protection staff with IOM have now helped almost 100 people who have escaped trafficking situations and returned to Cox’s Bazar since the Rohingya refugee crisis began in August 2017. But according to Parmer, the numbers represent just a fraction of those who have fallen victim to traffickers over that period.

Despite limited data due to the clandestine nature of the crime and widespread reluctance of victims to come forward because of stigma and fear of retribution, the figures provide the clearest guide yet to the main forms of trafficking being perpetrated against Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and give important insights into those most at risk.

Nearly a million Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar after violence in Myanmar last year sent over 700,000 people fleeing over the border into Bangladesh. The vast majority live in bamboo and tarpaulin shelters in what has become the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Barred from leaving the refugee settlements, and entirely reliant on aid for survival, other than a limited number of cash-for-work programmes with humanitarian agencies and small-scale trading opportunities within the camps, the refugees are easy prey for traffickers, who promise transportation and access to lucrative work opportunities elsewhere. Other refugees resort to unsafe jobs for subsistence wages or end up in forced or early marriages.

Out of 99 cases of trafficked and exploited refugees identified under IOM’s counter trafficking programme in Cox’s Bazar in the past year, 35 were girls, 31 women, 25 men and eight boys. Of those, 31 girls and 26 women ended up in forced labour situations, as did 25 adult men and four boys. Five women and four girls ended up in situations of sexual exploitation, while four people were trafficked, but managed to escape before they became victims.

According to Parmer, brutal life experiences and lack of education due to long-term discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar, along with widespread illiteracy, make the refugee community extremely vulnerable. “To make sure messaging is effective, it needs to be culturally and socially appropriate and we need to be creative in how we raise awareness,” she said.

IOM Bangladesh has been working with partners to produce innovative ways of spreading messages about the dangers of trafficking to the refugees.  A series of comic illustrations featuring real-life stories of trafficking victims are being used by trained caseworks to raise awareness in the camps.

An IOM NGO partner, Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), has also been using street drama and music in the camps to raise awareness of the risks – drawing large crowds as they spread their message.

“Combatting human trafficking requires a joint effort. The authorities, UN agencies, local partners, and communities have to work together and support each other in recognizing and addressing the risks,” said Parmer.

Since September 2017, IOM has carried out more than 50 outreach sessions, ensuring almost 1,000 refugees have been made aware of trafficking with messages that they can then share with others in their community. IOM experts have also supported other agencies in their counter-trafficking messaging and activities. In addition, over 100 Bangladeshi law enforcement officers in Cox’s Bazar have taken part in IOM counter-trafficking trainings.

IOM’s counter trafficking activities in Cox’s Bazar are supported by the Governments of Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.

Further information about IOM’s counter-trafficking activities and approaches are available here.

See IOM/YPSA’s street performers in action as they raise awareness of trafficking here.

For more information please contact Fiona MacGregor at IOM Cox’s Bazar. Tel. +88 0 1733 335221. Email: