Kyla Raby is an Australian Red Cross aid worker who has spend the past six months in Bangladesh. This is her experience of preventing trafficking in the world’s largest refugee camp.
When a mother excitedly shared with us news her daughter had been offered work in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, my team-mate had a very different reaction. Far from excited, he was deeply concerned.
The mother was attending a Red Cross and Bangladesh Red Crescent hygiene promotion activity in the world’s largest refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, which has just marked the three-year anniversary since an influx of over 850,000 people fled conflict in neighbouring Myanmar. With COVID-19 containment and control strategies severely restricting movement within the camp, opportunities for families to support themselves have never been more limited. So the mother was excited at the prospect of someone in her family earning an income.
However in Bangladesh, people from Rhakine State don’t have the legal right to work and there are only limited opportunities for them to contribute in community work within the camps in exchange for small allowances. Movement outside the camps is also heavily restricted. So this news raised a red flag for our Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteer. He spoke with one of our colleagues, who had also been trained in understanding and responding to human trafficking, and together they sat down with the mother to explain what the potential risks might be for her daughter in accepting this offer.
The situation in the camps has created a perfect storm for human trafficking
Almost a million people, many of whom are women and children, are in a country where they have no legal migration status and no real prospect of being able to safely return home, and therefore are heavily dependent on humanitarian agencies. Before a global health pandemic hit, the camps were already high-risk areas for human trafficking including sexual exploitation of women, child marriage of girls and labour exploitation of boys and men. The onset of COVID-19 has only dramatically increased these risks through further restricting the ability for people to meet their basic needs, making them prime targets for those looking to exploit others for their own gain.
I have spent the last six months working with the International Federation of the Red Cross, supporting the Bangladesh Red Crescent led response in Cox’s Bazar.
I arrived in Bangladesh at the start of March, with a mandate to support the implementation of protection, gender and inclusion minimum standards within the population movement operation.
However within three short weeks, the whole world had changed, and on top of an already protracted protection crisis, we were also responding to a public health and economic crisis, then later during monsoon season, the worst flooding the camps have seen to-date.
In amongst this, as countries around the world closed their borders and ordered their citizens to return home, many international aid workers were pulled out of their humanitarian work and their missions moved to that of providing remote support. I was one of them and leaving Bangladesh at the time of their highest need was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
The year 2020 has taught us many lessons so far, one being that adaptability is an absolutely essential skill, so my team and I did just that. With many of our local staff and volunteers also working remotely from their homes trying to protect their own families as much as possible from the virus that was quickly spreading across Bangladesh, Zoom meetings and WhatsApp group chats became our new ways of connecting and coordinating.
While supporting my field team to train local volunteers and deliver awareness sessions, I worked with UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations within the Cox’s Bazar protection sector to design and deliver an interactive online training on human trafficking to develop the sector’s capacity to respond to this ever increasing protection issue. At the same time, I worked with a close colleague in the British Red Cross to help Red Cross National Societies around the world better understand and respond to the global impacts of COVID-19 on trafficking in persons.
Midnight meetings, hundreds of WhatsApp notifications and Zoom selfies became regular features of my week, and despite the distance, I was incredibly privileged to experience first-hand the compassion, dedication, skill and resilience of the Bangladesh Red Crescent staff and volunteers working tirelessly to respond. Through their efforts, mothers like the one who approached our volunteer during the hygiene promotion session became more aware of ways in which people were looking to exploit them and their children, and could consider these risks to avoid further loss, harm and trauma.
Through our efforts to adapt, and despite our work being severely limited by restrictions imposed in the camps, we managed to initiate a cloth mask making tailoring project, building on work that we had undertaken in the past to offer training opportunities in tailoring for young women’s and girls at high risk of human trafficking, child or early marriage and sexual and gender based violence. We invited the daughter to join the program, to learn a new skill and earn a small remittance in return, allowing her some opportunity to support herself and her family.
The risks, vulnerabilities and needs in the camps have never been higher, but the beating heart of the response has never been louder.