Thousands at Risk of Trafficking Amid Rohingya Refugee Crisis: IOM

IOM Bangladesh’s Counter Trafficking Team has produced a series of three comic books which use real life stories to illustrate the dangers of trafficking to those affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis. Photo: IOM


Cox’s Bazar – Thousands of people caught up in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee crisis are at risk of human trafficking, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, counter trafficking experts have warned, stressing that the scourge of exploitation can only be tackled if authorities, local and international agencies, and communities work together.

The call for a multi-actor approach to prevent more refugees and members of the host community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from falling victim to traffickers, came after government officials, military and police representatives, and IOM trafficking experts, yesterday joined a rally and public meeting in the town to mark World Day Against Human Trafficking.

Seventy-eight victims of trafficking have been identified and supported by IOM in Cox’s Bazar in the past ten months. Due to the complex and clandestine nature of the crime, it is recognised that this figure accounts for just a fraction of the true number of men, women and children trafficked during that period.

“The horrific prospect that thousands of people affected by the Rohingya crisis will end up in the hands of traffickers is a risk that must not be underestimated,” said Manuel Marques Pereira, IOM’s Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.

“It is encouraging that the government, military, law enforcement and other relevant agencies came together with IOM in Cox’s Bazar to mark World Day Against Human Trafficking. We need to show our commitment to working together to end this scourge. But we also need support from the global community to ensure that we have the necessary funding to help prevent people from falling victim to this terrible crime."

IOM is the lead agency coordinating the fight against human trafficking in Cox’s Bazar. It launched its programme in September 2017, just weeks after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled across the border to escape violence in Myanmar.

The influx brought the total number of Rohingya in the area to almost one million, prompting a massive humanitarian response to meet the needs of refugees and local communities, who struggled to deal with the impact of so many desperate people arriving in an area where many already lived in poverty.

The arrival of so many refugees, most of whom carried little or nothing with them in their flight from Myanmar, also created a new opportunity for traffickers to exploit some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The calls for a joint approach to ending trafficking among those affected by the Rohingya crisis came as IOM Director General William Lacy Swing described trafficking as a crime “so pervasive it can only be tackled with a global, all-hands approach.”

“A lot of abuse occurs under cover of darkness, when the presence of agencies and authorities in communities and camps is limited," said Dina Parmer, IOM's head of protection in Cox’s Bazar.  "Many of the traffickers use sophisticated methods to ensnare their victims, which means communities often struggle to protect themselves.

"While it is impossible to provide exact numbers due to the secretive nature of this crime, through our work with communities and authorities, we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that thousands are at risk from all forms of trafficking,” she added.

According to Parmer, without access to proper livelihood opportunities, people frequently fall victim to exploitation while seeking labour for survival. Women and girls are at particular risk of trafficking into the sex trade and associated gender-based violence (GBV).

“Tackling this relies of a three-pronged approach of protection, prevention and prosecution. IOM is already working on all three areas in Cox’s Bazar and we will be working closely with the authorities to significantly increase activities over the coming months and in the longer term,” she said. 

Among the key counter trafficking activities currently being conducted or upscaled by IOM’s counter trafficking team in Cox’s Bazar are:

  • Identification and safe referral of victims through a conjoined GBV and counter trafficking programme that works to provide a direct package of assistance to survivors, while working closely with communities and relevant organisations.
  • Over 500 awareness sessions and campaigns are being carried out in communities with more to follow. In recognition of the fact most Rohingya do not read or write, three cartoon stories about trafficking based on real-life cases from Cox’s Bazar have been produced to illustrate the dangers and some of the different methods used by traffickers.
  • Legal assistance to victims.
  • Capacity building on trafficking for over 250 people in the humanitarian community.
  • Working with law enforcement officers to help them to safely identify and refer victims.

“Human trafficking is an intolerable form of abuse that the whole of society must work to end. IOM here in Cox’s Bazar is determined to do everything in our power to protect people from traffickers,” said Parmer.

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