Disclaimer: This report contains details of sexual abuse.
Dressed entirely in pink, the tall teenager looked out of place in the bustling Hatirjheel police station in the heart of Dhaka. Ayesha, however, was there to accomplish an important task: to submit her testimony about the gang that tricked her into prostitution across the border with promises of TikTok stardom.
Ayesha – who, like the other survivors of human trafficking in this story, is referred to under a pseudonym – had lost her job at a small fabric store earlier this year due to the pandemic. At the time, she also started dating Rifadul Islam, who was introduced to her by a mutual friend. She even went to three TikTok parties with Islam, 26, who used the handle “TikTokHridoy” on the social media app.
“He promised to make me a TikTok star in some foreign countries,” Ayesha, 18, said. Chronicles of Democracy in Asia. She said Islam, who had more than 71,000 followers on TikTok before her account was deleted, invited her last February to accompany him to a TikTok party in Kushtia, a town in southwestern Bangladesh in about 132 km from Dhaka.
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“I had no idea I was attracted to the trafficking gang using TikTok as a trap,” she said.
A poor country of some 167 million people, Bangladesh has long been known to be a hub for human trafficking. Thousands of Bangladeshis are thought to be trafficked every year, with many ending up in some form of labor or sex work in places as far afield as Turkey, Italy and Germany . Neighboring India is also a popular destination for trafficked Bangladeshis, many of whom are women and girls. Some studies indicate that up to 50,000 Bangladeshi women and girls are trafficked to India every year. But as Muhammad Tariq Ul Islam, country director of the UK charity Justice and Care, has observed, “Human trafficking is an underground crime. So many cases are happening beyond our knowledge.
These days, police and activists say traffickers are increasingly using social media to trick vulnerable teenagers like Ayesha, as well as college-aged women and even housewives so they can more later be used for sex work. In some cases like Ayesha’s, they are lured by social media celebrity promises that could mean lucrative income for them. In other cases, apps like Facebook and WhatsApp become a way for traffickers to establish false relationships with their targets and gain their trust. (According to statistics site datareportal.com, Bangladesh already had around 45 million social media users in January 2021, up 25% from the previous year.)
Traffic across the border
Police say that over the past five years, the gang that deceived Ayesha smuggled at least 1,500 women and girls into India from a porous border with Bangladesh in Satkhira district. His operations were finally exposed last May by a 22-year-old Bangladeshi woman who had escaped his clutches in India and returned to Dhaka. A video of her being abused went viral after she escaped, sparking a manhunt for the gang by Bangladeshi and Indian authorities.
“This is a new trend of crossing the border, smuggling women using social media apps,” Bangladesh’s Home Minister Assaduzaman Khan Kamal said. CDA. “(It’s) alarming, and we need to find new laws and an investigation to deal with it. (But) we have a 4,000 km border with India, which (poses) difficulties.
Bangladesh Deputy Police Commissioner Muhammad Shohidullah on his part said that powerful people are involved in human trafficking in Bangladesh and India. He added that Bangladesh has had laws dealing with the issue since 2012, but the prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators has always faced obstacles. Bangladesh police data, for example, shows that between 2017 and 2018, a total of 2,904 people were arrested for human trafficking; during the same period, only nine were convicted of the crime.
A recent study by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee’s migration department on cross-border human trafficking indicates that the crime hotspots in the country are Dhaka, Jessore, Khulna, Sathkhira, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar, Barisal, Narshingdi, Manikgong, Jamalpur, Rajbari, Narail and Hibigong. The Indian state of West Bengal is the main immediate destination for trafficked Bangladeshis, as it shares 2,250 km of land border and 259 km of river border with Bangladesh.
Traffickers also operate their sex businesses through selected hotels, massage parlors and rented houses in southern Indian cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai and Kerala.
Apart from its Indian operations, Islam’s gang also had a presence in the Middle East. On May 27, Islam was finally arrested by Indian police, along with five of his associates, in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, where they are currently being held. Two of those arrested there are women. They are all being prosecuted in India but could be taken back to Bangladesh to face further charges.
Dhaka Police Additional Assistant Commissioner Hafiz Al Farooq, who is investigating the trafficking gang, said CDA that so far, six complaints against the group have been filed with Hatirjheel Police Station. Of the 16 defendants who were arrested, 11 confessed to their crimes, he said. Ferdous Niger, the coordinator of the National Association of Bangladeshi Women Lawyers, however, noted that “the police are still investigating the cases and have not filed the (charges) in court”.
A dangerous detour
Of course, becoming a sex slave, and in another country at that, had never crossed Ayesha’s mind. She said that at first she was hesitant to accompany Islam to a party held so far from Dhaka. But, she said, he had “pleaded” it was for his career on TikTok. Instead of getting on the bus to Kushtia, however, Islam made them take a bus to the border town of Satkhira. Ayesha says: “He told me that we had taken the wrong bus by mistake and I did not doubt him.
By the time they reached Satkhira, it was already dark and they had to stay in a private house where another girl, Neha, was waiting.
“The next day we crossed the border and entered the West Bengal region of India,” Ayesha said. “Hridoy took selfies for TikTok and called it a good time.”
At that time, the teenager had realized that she was being trafficked. Ayesha recalls, “When I threatened them to go to the police, they said, ‘You don’t have a visa or a passport. If the police get to know you, you’ll be behind bars for 20 years.'”
That night, in the northern district of 24 Parganas, she and Neha were raped – Ayesha by two men, Neha by three. Ayesha was then separated from Neha and kept with two other daughters, Aaliya and Khalida, in Bangalore. According to Ayesha, the two girls had already been held captive by the gang for over a year by the time she met them.
When Ayesha learned that she was going to be taken next to a hotel in Chennai, she tried to resist which resulted in her being tortured. A video was also taken of her being raped again.
“On March 12, they transferred me to OYO hotel in Chennai and on the first day I was forced to have sex with 19 men,” Ayesha said. “That night I fell seriously ill. The hotel staff told me in Hindi that every day I had to prostitute myself with 30 men. I cried and begged the hotel staff to release me.
fleeing the horror
Ayesha ended up bleeding, forcing Hridoy to take her back to Bangalore. She says Islam tried to rape her roommate Nadia there one morning and when she came to Nadia’s defense, Islam hit her on the head with a bottle of wine. Ayesha had to have four stitches on her head afterwards.
“I was making plans in my mind to escape,” Ayesha said, “and when Nadia escaped from the hotel one night and Sumayya from the massage parlor, I also tried to escape the next day. . But I got caught. »
Her captors then began to monitor her more strictly. But as her poor physical condition made her unable to engage in prostitution, they decided to transfer her to Chennai. Ayesha said, “After a few days, I escaped from there. I went to Kolkata by train and the same day I crossed the Indian Petrapole border by bus illegally via an agent paying 500 INR (about 7 US$). I haven’t stayed in any hotel. All I wanted was to get out of India ASAP before they follow me.
Ayesha finally reached Dhaka on May 7; she had spent about three months in sexual slavery in India. She is now back home with her family, but has yet to seek help from anti-trafficking groups for fear of being branded a sex worker.
Sumayya apparently also returned to Bangladesh. But Nadia remains in India, although she is now safe in a government shelter in Kolkata. According to her father, a rickshaw driver, Nadia is a 9and grader.
“On March 17, my daughter went out for 30 minutes, she told me she had an urgent job,” he says. “But when I called her on mobile she was off.”
“I learned that some girls were trafficked by Hridoy,” he added. “When I showed them her photos, they confirmed that they had met her and she was in (Bangalore).”
He said Indian police rescued his daughter but demanded 100,000 BDT (about $1,100) to release her.
“I’m trying to bring Nadia back,” said Niger, who represents trafficked girls in their legal battle. “She is traumatized and has repeatedly asked me to take her back to Dhaka. We communicate with the Indian government through our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it is not so easy.
Haroon Janjua is an award-winning journalist covering South Asia. Based in Islamabad, Pakistan, he is a 2021 Pulitzer Center Fellow. He was also awarded the 2015 United Nations Correspondents Association price, the 2015 IE Business School Award for Best Journalistic Work on Asian Economyand the 2015 Global Media Award from the Population Institute in Washington, DC.
Harun ur Rashid is a multimedia journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, working for Deutsche Welle TV and Radio.