Slavery survivors livelihood badly hit by coronavirus pandemic


Trafficking survivors-turned-entrepreneurs in Bangladesh have seen their business grind to a halt with many former victims forced to shut down shop and seek loans to survive the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the country’s economy.

Starting a business or securing a job can offer a lifeline for ex-slaves as they try to recover financially and mentally, yet the outbreak has brought it all crashing down.

Having been enslaved and tortured as a maid in Saudi Arabia, Dalia Akhter returned to Bangladesh in September and joined a food catering service that she helped run with other survivors.

The business started well but was forced to close last week when Bangladesh – which has seen 51 cases and five deaths from COVID-19 – announced a nationwide shutdown until early April.

“I am not educated enough to get a job and the business was all that I had,” Akhter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “We earned just about enough to meet our daily needs.”

Three anti-slavery charities, which provide the bulk of support to survivors with limited government help available, said several victims with businesses had asked for assistance.

Justice and Care – a charity that has helped victims open beauty parlours and get jobs in the garment industry – said it was setting up an emergency fund to help more than 100 people.

“Some of them need groceries, some need money. Some of them have given birth, so they need medical support,” said Shauly Sultana, the charity’s senior programme officer.

Shariful Islam, head of the migration department at aid group BRAC, said it had been a challenge to offer services to returned migrants and slavery victims due to social distancing.

“We haven’t been able to bring them to our centre and guide them like we used to because of the coronavirus,” said Islam, whose organisation has helped trafficking survivors to open food businesses and buy small cars in order to run taxi services.

There is no official data but thousands of trafficking victims have returned home from India and Saudi Arabia in recent years, from women sold for sex to men used in construction work.

The government announced on Sunday that it would provide food and financial aid to the poor, day labourers, roadside tea stall owners and others who lead a hand-to-mouth existence.

Yet a one-off payment will not suffice for most slavery victims and they should receive a long-term package of support, said Binoy Krishna Mallick, head of the charity Rights Jessore.

“The lack of support can lead to survivors looking for loans and leave them desperate,” he said. “This can lead to re-trafficking, once the impact of the coronavirus recedes.”

An official at the interior ministry said she had asked its partner agencies – including the United Nations’ migration agency (IOM) – to redirect funds from their existing anti-trafficking projects to support survivors based on their needs.

“The situation of survivors is always delicate,” said Ferdousi Akhter, additional secretary at the ministry. “We need to take care of them or else they might be desperate … they could be in danger of getting trafficked again.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)