Every year, approximately 50,000 girls and women are trafficked to India across Bangladesh’s western border. In India, they are forced to labor, sold into prostitution, or trafficked out to be exploited and abused in another country. Around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children from 12-30 years old have been illegally trafficked to India in the last decade.
Despite a common understanding of the problem, efforts to eradicate trafficking and repatriate victims of modern slavery are failing thousands of women and girls. Communities in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division have proven especially vulnerable to trafficking. Situated at the border with India, Khulna Division is already a high-risk community with overpopulation, extreme poverty, and remoteness of location exacerbating these risks. Criminals are only emboldened by extremely low conviction rates for trafficking cases. Even when trafficking victims are identified in India, they languish in shelter homes for years before they are able to return home.
When survivors return to Bangladesh, they remain susceptible to re-trafficking. They are often ostracized by their communities or burdened with a social stigma that hinders recovery and reintegration efforts. These challenges, combined with a lack of employment and educational opportunities, leave survivors vulnerable to further exploitation. In a recent study, our implementing partner in Bangladesh found that 30% of the survivors they currently support had been trafficked multiple times before.
As has been seen across the globe, COVID-19 takes its heaviest toll on those who are the most vulnerable. In Bangladesh’s Khulna Division, there has been no exception. According to the US State Department’s most recent TIP Report, increasingly widespread job loss, wage cuts, and poverty in Bangladesh’s rural areas and urban slums due to the pandemic has forced some children into begging and commercial sex. In 2020, NGOs in Bangladesh reported traffickers lured victims with promises of “COVID-19 free” locations.
Justice and Care, an international nonprofit, has been supporting survivors, pursuing justice, and securing at-risk communities for over a decade. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care is implementing programming in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division to provide trauma-informed and survivor-centric care, train border guards and law enforcement officials to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking, and build the capacity of government and aftercare service providers. In other words, we are working together to provide end-to-end support for survivors and to change the systems that enable human trafficking.
A holistic care model
Trafficking can take many forms and not all individuals experience trauma the same way. While working with governments and institutions to prevent further traumatization through timely and survivor-centric repatriations, Justice and Care remains focused on the individuals that experience trafficking and exploitation. When possible, the same caseworker that is introduced to a survivor in an Indian shelter supports and guides a survivor through repatriation and reintegration in Bangladesh. This individualized pairing helps establish trust between survivor and caseworker and supports a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of a survivor’s needs. In Bangladesh, a survivor is provided immediate shelter and psycho-social counseling while survivor and caseworker together draw up a longer-term individualized care plan.
Justice and Care have helped me in more ways than I can count. My family got grocery when we did not have any food during the lockdown, and I am also getting support in pursuing a case against my trafficker.
Reforming systems to achieve sustainable change
With survivors at the center of all of their programming, Justice and Care works with various stakeholder groups to ensure a coordinated and survivor-centric response to trafficking. Having piloted a successful initiative to train border guards on victim identification and care before partnering with GFEMS, GFEMS support enabled an expansion of this program. Over the last 12 months, more than 200 staff from Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have been trained to identify, intercept, and refer victims of trafficking. As a result, 40 individuals have been intercepted and identified as victims by the BGB at the border and referred to Justice and Care.
Programming does not just target law enforcement, however. Justice and Care works to build the capacities of government stakeholders as well as aftercare service providers on both sides of the border. Supporting survivors even before their return to Bangladesh, Justice and Care is committed to reforming a repatriation process that can strand a survivor in an Indian shelter for up to six years. Victims of trafficking in India, when fortunate enough to escape exploitation and abuse, find that escape is just the first step in a long journey home. A complex and bureaucratic system prolongs the process as judges require survivors to stay in country until testimony is given or Bangladeshi officials stall in confirming a survivor is a Bangladeshi citizen. Survivors must gain approvals from police, border officials, social workers, and local and federal officials before they can be repatriated.
Survivors must be a voice in determining survivor care.
Their individual stories may differ, but survivors share a lived-experience of surviving a certain type of trauma and abuse that is essential to the development of effective trauma-informed survivor care programs. In partnership with GFEMS, Justice and Care conducted a Caregivers’ Empowered training session to prepare survivors for mentorship and counseling roles.
Since October 2020, these champion survivors have conducted mentoring sessions with 44 survivors. While providing information on services and care activities for newly repatriated victims, they also assess peers’ mental and physical health and work to address any challenges that survivors are confronting. In follow-ups with participants, “the recipient survivors reported that they felt the peer mentors had understood their problems perceptively, listened attentively and demonstrated empathy- that they felt better emotionally as a result of the session and all asked for ongoing sessions.”
India and Bangladesh have taken steps to speed up the repatriation process, but survivors still wait 18 to 22 months to return home. With an understanding of the traumatic effects of a prolonged shelter stay, Justice and Care is taking steps to expedite return and ensure survivors are repatriated within 12 months. They have forged partnerships with government officials, government-run institutions, and aftercare providers in India and Bangladesh.
Furthermore, they have convened bilateral repatriation stakeholders including Bangladeshi and Indian Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation, and Integration Task Forces to sensitize them to victim-centric and trauma-informed practices, including timely repatriations. They continue to advocate with the Ministry of Home Affairs to push through the adoption of the Standard Operating Procedures to shorten the timeline for repatriations, enhance cross-border coordination, and center survivors in the process. After a recent meeting with the Bangladeshi Ministry of Home Affairs and U.S. government officials, Justice and Care was invited to provide input into a training manual being developed by the US Department of Justice for law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. Currently working with 44 referral partners in India including the Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration Task Force in Pune and West Bengal, UNODC, and the Department of Women and Child Development, Justice and Care is building a network of support that centers survivors from the point of first contact. In strengthening local capacities, they are also ensuring that that support is sustainable and scalable beyond program end.
This spring, Justice and Care hosted a special event for survivors. “Season of Wingspread” brought together 34 survivors to share their experiences and to recognize and celebrate what each had achieved towards stable recovery and reintegration. Until systems change and recovery and reintegration support is no longer needed, Justice and Care remains a model of care to replicate.