Dhaka, Bangladesh
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Bangladesh has improved its efforts to combat human trafficking but must do more to increase convictions and investigate cases involving Rohingyas, according to the US Government's annual report ranking countries on their anti-trafficking standards.

The State Department upgraded the South Asian nation in its 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, which sorts countries into four tiers based on their efforts to fight trafficking.

Bangladesh ferry migrant workers 

A ferry with migrant workers arrive at the Mawa Ferry Ghat as they are heading to Dhaka after government has eased restriction on garment factories and some other sectors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Munshiganj district, Bangladesh, on 30th April. PICTURE: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File photo.

Bangladesh moved from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2, meaning it does meet the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking but that it no longer faces special scrutiny and is at less risk of falling to Tier 3, which can trigger United States sanctions.

"We weren't happy about being on the watchlist and so we took it seriously," said Abu Bakar Siddique, additional secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs in Bangladesh.

"We have improved our capacity and are hopeful of progressing further," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the nation changed rankings for the first time since 2017.

The report credited Bangladesh with setting up tribunals to handle a backlog of trafficking cases, tripling convictions - 25 up from eight last year - and identifying 585 potential victims, which represented a 40 per cent rise on the previous reporting period.

Yet investigations were down by nearly half and the country must "significantly increase" prosecutions and convictions - particularly for labour trafficking - the US Government said. 

Bangladesh had at least 4,407 trafficking cases that remained pending investigation or prosecution as of the end of 2019, and a conviction rate of 1.7 per cent, according to the report.

Challenges ahead
Tariqul Islam, country director for the anti-trafficking charity Justice and Care, said "there was more work to do"."

"We have to renew our commitment to ensuring traffickers are pursued through the courts and to reinforce our work with other countries to handle the criminal networks," he added. 

The US Government also criticised Bangladesh for failing to investigate "hundreds of credible reports" of trafficking of Rohingyas or eliminate high recruitment fees that Bangladeshis pay to recruiters to get jobs abroad, which can lead to abuses.

More than a million mostly Muslim Rohingya reside in camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, with the majority having fled a 2017 army-led crackdown in largely Buddhist Myanmar.

Many refugees attempting to reach Malaysia by boat from Bangladesh are being held hostage by traffickers who have demanded ransoms from their relatives with threats of violence, several families and aid groups said this month.

Bangladesh earlier this month arrested more than 50 people accused of extorting money from people on false promises of jobs overseas in a major crackdown on human trafficking after 30 migrant workers were murdered in Libya.

Yet Bangladesh lacks sufficient agreements to receive evidence from foreign governments, the report found, stating that trafficking cases can take several years to progress.

Siddique said that it would be a "big challenge" to tackle global trafficking rings without cross-border cooperation.

Elsewhere in the TIP report - which warned that the coronavirus pandemic had made more people vulnerable to trafficking - Afghanistan and Nicaragua were demoted to Tier 3 while Saudi Arabia was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List.