In 2019, Abdullah (not his real name) was an HSC student. But exams were barely on the 19-year-old's mind. He was desperately looking for ways to go to Europe.
He did not know much about Europe, but it did not matter to him. For him, it was no less than a magical place, full of earning opportunities. "All your dreams come true in Europe", he thought.
A distant uncle living in Germany proposed to help him. He connected Abdullah to a broker, locally known as 'dalal', and even assured him of taking care of the finances.
Abdullah travelled from Gopalganj to a 'recruitment agency' in Dhaka's Gulshan where he was deemed 'the perfect candidate' for Europe.
"Ever since I was a child, all I wanted was to go to Europe. That was my ultimate goal. So when the agency in Dhaka said they were going to send me to Germany in just 10 days, I was ecstatic," he shared with this correspondent.
The broker informed Abdullah that a European visa could not be obtained directly from Bangladesh, there were no embassies here. So he had to travel to India first.
But Abdullah never reached Europe.
After leaving Dhaka, he was first taken to Kolkata via Benapole border.
From there he was taken to Mumbai, and eventually trafficked to Lomé, the capital of Togo in West Africa, via Ethiopia.
There he was locked up in an attic with many other Bangladeshi men, all aspiring migrants. Their passports and money were snatched from them.
The men were huddled together in one tiny room, and treated 'worse than animals' and tortured for days and months.
After spending two miserable years there, Abdullah, along with three other male victims, were rescued with the help of labour rights NGO Awaj Foundation, in collaboration with Solidarity Centre and ITUC-Africa (The African Regional Organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation).
The four men were repatriated with the help of an INGO, trade unions, and the Bangladeshi Mission in Morocco.
After being rescued, they stayed at a hostel in Togo for a few months before reaching Bangladesh on April 2 this year.
To get a glimpse into the trafficking situation in Bangladesh, The Business Standard reached out to these four victims, along with Awaj Foundation officials and law enforcement agents.
The problem runs deep, the trafficking rings have a worldwide network, and the 'dalals' are not always villainous characters as one might presume. They are usually a known face, a friend or a relative.
Many migrants even leave the country with legal documents from established manpower agencies but end up being trafficked. In many cases, airport authorities also remain unaware.
"I did not know where I was going; only at Mumbai airport, when I looked at my ticket, I saw that my destination was not Germany. But by that time it was too late," Abdullah said.
Each year, more than seven lakh Bangladeshis migrate abroad. Many of them are targeted and lured by unscrupulous human traffickers, and they ultimately face a similar situation like Abdullah.
According to the media, the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated the situation.
In May 2021, Libyan traffickers kidnapped and killed 24 Bangladeshis who were crossing the desert from the seaport of Benghazi in search of work. The traffickers had been extorting money from them based on false promises of overseas jobs, reported Reuters.
This July, 17 Bangladeshi migrants died while dozens were rescued after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean. They were heading to Italy from Libya.
Togo, a new trafficking route
A country riddled with poverty and having little employment opportunities, this West African country has become the new route for traffickers.
Togo offers on-arrival visas for Bangladeshi travellers, which is why the traffickers can easily take the victims there.
According to CID, trafficking syndicates are using two routes. The first is the one Abdullah was taken through – from Kolkata to Mumbai, from there to Ethiopia and then to Togo.
The other route includes Thailand, and from there to Ethiopia and finally, Togo.
The victims from Bangladesh tried to seek help from the Togo police once or twice; the police sent them back to the broker.
"One time a boy named Anwar tried to protest. He was beaten mercilessly in front of us until he screamed out for the attackers to stop. Seeing this, we did not dare to raise our voice," Abdullah shared with TBS, the fear lingering in his voice.
When Abdullah finally did not reach Germany, his uncle and parents began to frantically search for him.
His parents even went to broker Sumon's house and begged his father-in-law for help.
In return, Abdullah was beaten up by the broker and his parents were forced to ask for forgiveness from Sumon's father-in-law.
The other three victims include Saifur, Ahmed, and Yamin (not their real names). Other than Ahmed, all three are in their early to mid-20s.
Their stories are similar: A friend or a relative connected them to an agent or broker who promised to take them abroad. Each of them paid 10 to 20 lakh taka, on average, to the broker.
"My mama (maternal uncle) knew the brokers and the agency. One of them told me, bhaigna (nephew), there is a way to go to Europe, why don't you go? Money is not an issue, at first pay some amount so that we can send you to Italy," Saifur said.
All of them were fed similar information – you cannot get a European visa from Bangladesh, you have to wait in an African country for a few months before leaving for Europe.
Saifur was assured that there would be no problem at the airport, if something did happen, he would be fully refunded.
"I was put on a Thai Airlines flight from Dhaka to Thailand, from there to Ethiopia and then Togo. I was received at the airport by dalal Sumon and Idu, a member of local mafia. They treated me like a tourist and showed me around offices etc before taking my money, but I soon realised it was all bogus," a frustrated Saifur said.
When they were held captive in Togo, their families were coerced into paying a hefty amount to the dalal.
The families were threatened that their son, brother, or father would be buried in the sea if they failed to pay.
Sometimes they starved, sometimes they were given just one meal a day.
The house where they were kept belonged to the African trafficker called Idu who made them do household chores like cooking and cleaning.
Ahmed was the oldest of all the victims, he was in his late 40s. Like others, he was not an inexperienced migrant, he had worked in Malaysia for years.
A friend had proposed to send him to Canada, but first he had to go to Africa.
While talking to this correspondent, it was evident that he did not know where Canada was, he just wanted to find better opportunities. "I have a daughter with thalassemia; she needs bags of blood every month. I needed to earn more."
He was stuck in Togo for 22 months. "Have you seen how cows are crammed in a shed? We were kept like that in Togo."
The fourth victim Yamin agreed to speak to TBS in the beginning, but we could not contact him after some time.
The window of hope
"I do not know for how many days or months or years we were there. At night, three of us would sleep and three of us would stay awake, watching over the others. Such was our constant fear of being killed," said Saifur.
He was locked up for 17 months, and he was the most proactive among all the victims to get out of the hell they were confined in. The broker provided them with food, and internet connection.
The latter was provided so that victims could contact their families in Bangladesh and ask them to send money.
"I messaged someone I knew, Tareq Bhai, who lived in London, and told him about our situation. He spread the news on a migrant workers' page which grabbed the attention of Anis Bhai from Awaj Foundation," he informed TBS.
"I did not trust everyone; I only let Anis Bhai know about me and the three men that I was close with. All of us then shared our documents with Anis Bhai," he added.
"At one point, we had lost contact with them. I cannot describe the fear and anxiety that we were feeling at that moment," said Nazma Akter, founder and executive director of Awaj Foundation while describing the rescue process.
Nazma Akter and Anisur Rahman Khan, director, migration programme of Awaj Foundation were behind the entire rescue and repatriation process, which began from the end of 2020 and went on till the victims landed in Dhaka in April.
"During the initial days of the pandemic, we held quite a few migration related discussions on various local platforms. We got to know about the victim from one of our online talk shows. I immediately let Nazma Apa know and began online communication with him," said Anisur Rahman.
"We tried to reach the news of the victims to different international organisations. We are extremely grateful to Solidarity Centre and ITUC-Africa for their constant support. All of us wanted to rescue these people with utmost caution, we did not want any bloodshed between the police and the traffickers," Nazma explained to TBS.
She told the victims to slowly start packing their belongings, and look for an escape route.
There were times when Saifur, Abdullah and the others could not speak to Nazma and Anis, because Sumon and Idu were always keeping a close watch on them.
Finally on December 11, 2020, three of them escaped from the house; one could not.
Nazma and Anis, along with officials from Solidarity Centre and ITUC-Africa, kept talking to them over the phone.
They asked them to send them a picture of a landmark nearby and they sent a picture of the Lomé Post Office where they were waiting.
"We were so scared, our hearts were racing. We kept thinking the brokers were going to find us out and kill us. But a vehicle full of police and some NGO officials picked us up and took us to a safe spot," Saifur said.
The police then rescued the person who was left behind.
The time they were waiting at the post office was a nerve-wracking one for Nazma and Anis who were sitting at their Dhaka office.
Only when news of the victims being transported to a hostel in Lomé reached them, they breathed a sigh of relief. The rescue had begun in the morning and ended in the evening.
"We began our investigation as soon as we heard about the incident. Broker Sumon lives in Togo but we have alerted the immigration office at the airport, so if he tries to enter Bangladesh, he will be arrested immediately. We have already made two arrests in this case, I am hopeful we will catch more perpetrators," an official from the human trafficking unit of CID informed The Business Standard.
A case has been filed at the CID against Sumon and his companions, which includes his wife and father-in-law.
"You see, these brokers are skilled at convincing people, they know how to sweet talk and exploit vulnerable people. They tell victims that going abroad is the best way to earn a lot of money."
"We try to break up the trafficking chains so that the culprits cannot assemble. We try to always keep them on their feet, make them worried so that it affects their earning. When the traffickers are in a volatile situation, they are less likely to repeat their crimes. If they cannot collect enough people to traffic, they would not have enough money to pay to the kingpins or mafias," he further shared with us.
The beginning of another ordeal
"When the broker saw the four were missing, he went berserk. He kept calling them over the phone, he said he was going to send them to Europe but they had to come back to him. He began to make them offers on the spot," Nazma said.
There is no Bangladeshi embassy in Togo, which is why the paperwork and the process of repatriation took some time. These four were also fined by the Togo authorities because they had overstayed their visa.
"There is a funny concept in our society that if you can cross the sea and reach Europe, you will become rich. But in reality, migration rights are somewhat heading towards slavery," Nazma Akter stated.
All four had sold off lands or jewellery, or taken out bank loans or borrowed from relatives, neighbours, etc to pay the brokers. At present, other than Yamin, the others are broke and unemployed.
"Awaj Foundation is with us, CID is looking after our case. At the moment, I just need to earn enough money to survive and pay off the loans. Kintu amra lorum, apa (But we will fight, sister)," Saifur's voice quivered with emotions.