April 29, 2002

Child Traffickers Prey on Bangladesh


DHAKA, Bangladesh — Nuru Miah's hands show the hazards of his vocation: a small scar on the back of his right palm marks where a camel once sunk its teeth.

Nuru, now around 10, spent two years as a camel jockey in the Dubai desert.

How his parents were persuaded to send him to the Persian Gulf is unclear, though promises of a better life, perhaps a little money, are the conventional sales pitches. What is known is that he was sent from his home, a village south of here, when he was about 7.

Once he arrived in Dubai, his meals were rationed to make sure he did not gain much weight. He was whipped when he was disagreeable. Still, he was luckier than many of his peers. Other little boys with whom he worked, he recalled, tumbled from the camels and broke their bones.

Nuru, the son of landless peasants, is among an untold number of children who are taken out of this country each year by traffickers. Some are kidnapped, others are sold.

Boys, some as young as 4 or 5, are mostly put to work as camel jockeys in the Persian Gulf. Most girls are sent to India and Pakistan to work as prostitutes and maids. Sometimes, parents are compensated for their labor; sometimes, the money dries up in a few months. Children are known to have been ferried away for as little as 3,000 Bangladeshi takas, less than $75.

Their young minds can be both blessing and curse. Many simply forget their homes, the faces of their parents, the sounds of their native language. "Are they dying? Disappearing? Getting lost? We don't know," said Salma Ali, executive director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, one of this country's main antitrafficking organizations. "We're not seeing many of them come back."

On any given week, the association's offices see a stream of hapless parents, occasionally bearing pictures of a long-lost boy or girl.

Employing children as camel jockeys is illegal in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. But a picture of the ongoing trade emerges from the rare testimony of boys like Nuru who do make it home.

Bangladesh is considered one of the most vulnerable spots on the global trafficking market, a product of the desperate poverty here and the demand for cheap labor elsewhere.

The problem has begun to draw government attention. Bangladesh now has a trafficking law, with stiff penalties. But most of those who have been arrested are low-level operators: a relative, a neighbor, a migrant worker looking to gain an advantage by ferrying along a child. Court cases generally rely on no more than the testimony of a child.

The kingpins have eluded the authorities, specialists say. What is more, government efforts to protect the prime victims of trafficking, women and children, have had unintended consequences.

Bangladesh now effectively bars women, though not men, from working overseas legally, except for skilled professionals. Women continue to go illegally, though, taking jobs as domestics, factory workers and, unwittingly or not, as prostitutes.

An ambitious public education campaign against trafficking is under way, with plans for an advertising campaign, village meetings and special training for police and border guards.

But even those who are part of this effort say they doubt it will do much to combat a hugely lucrative business. A crackdown by Western countries on immigration, they say, only makes the passage more perilous and the smuggler's job more lucrative.

"If there's a demand, if there's a supply, and if there are no regular channels" for migration, said Shahidul Haque, the regional representative at the International Office of Migration here, "people will take advantage of smugglers."

In the case of a little boy named Rubel Hussain, the smuggler — or, as Rubel's mother insists, the abductor — was a neighbor in a Dhaka shantytown, a woman named Najma, who made a lean living fixing lunch boxes for rickshaw pullers. Najma had a son, Babul, who was Rubel's playmate. Each was about 4 years old. One night, Rubel was invited to sleep over.

Rubel's mother, Amena Begum, remembers the next morning in chilling detail. She awoke to a bad dream, rushed over to Najma's home and found it empty. Neighbors said she left with the two boys in the middle of the night. Word spread they had gone to Dubai. Both boys, it turned out, were bound for lives as camel jockeys.

It would not be inconceivable to think that Amena Begum, a woman with two other children to feed, no husband, and a crumbling lean-to, could have sent away her eldest child voluntarily. Indeed, she had received offers to do so — and, she insists, rejected them in no uncertain terms. "I will beg for a living," she said. "But I won't sell my children."

Rubel remembers waking up on an airplane and asking for his mother. Najma told him they were going on a one-day holiday. He was instructed to tell strangers she was his mother.

In Dubai, Rubel panicked at the sight of a camel. He screamed and wept when he was forced on. It turned out to be his salvation. He was put to work tending goats instead.

His co-workers, he still remembers, suffered far worse. He saw a Pakistani boy fall off a camel and get trampled. Babul, Najma's son, broke his arm. His friend, Nuru, the boy bitten by the camel, was always hungry. "If he ate any more," Rubel explained, his arm around his friend's shoulder, "he would put on weight and then he wouldn't be able to sit on a camel."

Last year, Najma came back to Bangladesh with both Babul and Rubel. Word spread and last May, local police, accompanied by Rubel's mother and investigators from the Lawyers Association, raided Najma's home. But the mother-child reunion was not all they may have hoped for. When Amena Begum rushed over to embrace her son, the boy turned to Najma and asked, in Arabic, "Who is this?" He did not recognize her. He no longer spoke a word of Bengali. He had been gone six years.

All through the bus ride from Najma's village back to Dhaka, Amena Begum regaled her son with tales of their past. She told him about their shanty, about how she had looked for him for weeks, about his little brother and sister.

Najma has been in jail since last May, awaiting trial on trafficking charges. Judging by the backlog in the Dhaka courts, her case is likely to languish a long while. And even though others arranged for the fake travel papers, bought her tickets and employed Rubel, no one else has been charged.

Both Nuru and Rubel live in a children's shelter run by the Lawyers Association. The shelter is home to some two dozen unschooled boys, some of them former camel jockeys, others simply orphans. For the first time, they are learning their letters.

More than 120 women and girls, many of them pulled out of brothels, live on the shelter's upper floors. Those who run the shelter say they hope to send the girls home one day, but reintegrating girls who have worked in the sex trade, an increasing focus of antitrafficking groups here, is a formidable task: the girls are usually shunned once they return home.

Amena Begum's existence has not improved. City authorities are razing the shantytown where she lives. The pittance she makes as a part-time maid is not enough to send either of her two other children to school.

On a recent afternoon, she was lying down on a blanket on the ground, coughing and nursing aches. Flies buzzed around a bowl of fish curry. Her two children cuddled next to her. She said she could not imagine offering Rubel a better life than the one he has at the shelter.

Still, she considers herself blessed compared with some of her neighbors. One woman in the same slum lost her boy to kidnappers 10 years ago.

"At least I got my son back," Amena Begum said. "She's been waiting for 10 years."

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