March 21, 2021
Good evening, everyone. Thank you, Ayreen, for the kind introduction.
It’s an honor to join all of you to kick-off the “Unite for Change: End Human Trafficking” workshop. iCAN Foundation and the team at the U.S. Embassy and American Corner Chittagong have put together an impressive program.
I can’t think of a better time to highlight the importance of the battle against human trafficking than this week as Bangladesh celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence, the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the founding principles, values, and vison of the Father of this great nation for a Bangladesh where everyone’s rights and freedom have equal protection under the law.
I give a lot of thought to what my first official public event should be as new U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh. I wanted it to focus on one of my top priorities during my assignment. In Botswana, it was a public testing for HIV as U.S. support for that nation’s HIV/AIDS epidemic was one of our embassy’s top priorities. In Bangladesh, it was the official launch of the National Plan of Action to fight human trafficking in December 2018.
Working with all of you to fight human trafficking remains one of the U.S. Embassy’s top priorities. Our sense of urgency must be magnified by the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We know human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable and look for opportunities to exploit them. Instability and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic mean the number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers has grown.
Every year an estimated 25 million men, women, and children are bought and sold into commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and debt bondage. Traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits by victimizing people in every country around the world. Just like COVID-19, human trafficking is a global epidemic and there must be a global response.
The United States is committed to working with our global and multilateral partners – including governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, and survivor leaders to address the vast scale, complexity, and impacts of human trafficking.
Here in Bangladesh, we’re working together to better integrate anti-trafficking measures into other key policy areas including trade, migration, and humanitarian response. USAID works with shelters to enhance services for human trafficking survivors, providing support to 3,300 trafficking survivors in the past six years. Our Department of Justice team works with Bangladeshi law enforcement and the judiciary to strengthen their capacity to investigate and prosecute traffickers and hold them accountable. And our Political Section works in close partnership with many government ministries in the government and civil society to improve Bangladesh’s institutional capacity to prevent, fight, and address trafficking in persons.
For 20 years, the United States Department of State has published an annual Trafficking in Persons Report. This report arms governments with data to increase the prosecution of traffickers, provide victim-centered and trauma-informed protection for victims of trafficking, and prevent this crime altogether.
Last year, Bangladesh improved its ranking in the report from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2. This is a testament to Bangladesh’s success in taking deliberate and meaningful steps toward eliminating trafficking over the past year, including standing up anti-trafficking tribunals and moving against recruiting agencies exploiting Bangladeshis seeking work abroad.
There is more work to be done. A luta continua. The struggle continues. I was a law enforcement official for 24 years and investigated and put handcuffs on human traffickers. I know how difficult and complex this issue is. I know how sophisticated, far reaching, and dangerous trafficking networks are, as we have all seen in tragic events involving Bangladeshi trafficking victims far from home.
With a problem so vast, it may seem like a single individual has no role in the anti-trafficking movement or this is an issue just for governments or big organizations to tackle. Not true. Each of us “united for change” can help end human trafficking including the many young people I see on screen this evening.
Let me offer a few suggestions.
First, recognize the signs, the indicators of human trafficking. Does a person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship? Does a person appear to be coached on what to say? Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts? One indicator does not conclusively determine human trafficking, but we need to recognize trafficking happens all around us and victims are here among us. Individuals trapped in trafficking schemes need our awareness to see them as victims, and our compassion to help them leave their awful circumstances.
Second, make the call. 999 is Bangladesh’s emergency hotline. It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In late January, we learned of a sex worker in Daulatdia who used a customer’s phone to call 999 for help. This woman was tricked into sex work and sold to a brothel for about 20,000 taka. Her call for help brought police to the brothel and rescued not only her, but 13 other sex trafficking victims. This is amazing work by Bangladesh law enforcement. But it took that one call for help for police to be made aware of the situation. If you have concerns about a potential human trafficking situation, call 999.
Third, get involved in your community. Bangladesh has counter trafficking committees, also known as CTCs, in all districts, most sub-districts, and even some unions. These CTCs are the heartbeat of grassroots community efforts to fight human trafficking, and a best practice we in the United States can consider adopting. These committees identify trafficking schemes in their neighborhoods and prevent traffickers from tricking their neighbors. They work with each other and NGOs to evaluate protection services for survivors and ensure services remain survivor centered. They engage with local government officials to demand action against traffickers.
Fourth, spread the word! Anyone can raise awareness of human trafficking through social media platforms and sharing resources.
“Every human being,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “is an heir to the legacy of dignity and worth.”
Human trafficking, modern slavery, has no place in our world. Anywhere. Anymore.
So, keep on keeping on. Keep up the good fight. You’re heroes. Your unstoppable heroic superpower is the power to do good.
Thank you to iCan and Ayreen for organizing this workshop series and our team at the American Center in Dhaka for hosting. Thank you to all the experts who will present over the next five days. And thanks to each of you attending tonight and this week for your important individual contributions to the fight to end human trafficking.
Onek dhonnobad. Thank you.