Dozens of Bangladeshis who say they were trafficked to Vanuatu with the promise of jobs are stuck in limbo and struggling to survive while awaiting justice and the option of returning home.
About 101 migrants who arrived in the Pacific island nation over the course of the last two years say they were promised decent work, but ended up being exploited by their supposed bosses – who were arrested in November on trafficking charges.
Four Bangladeshis charged with trafficking are due in court in Vanuatu next month, said the Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, a charity that is supporting the alleged victims along with the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Bangladesh officials say they have asked Vanuatu and the IOM – which is facilitating dialogue between the two governments – to provide details about their citizens in order to start the repatriation process, but have received no information to date.
Vanuatu’s interior minister, Andrew Soloman Napuat, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government would wait for a court decision before taking any steps to repatriate the group.
In the meantime, the migrants, all men and two children, are surviving on rations and handouts – and fearful for the future.
“If we stay here, there’s nothing; if we go home, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Harun Or Rashid, who was promised a job in Australia, adding that the men were worried about how they will repay loans to relatives and banks at home.
Lured by the promise of jobs as salesmen in Vanuatu and nearby Australia, the Bangladeshis said they had sold property and taken out loans worth up to $20,000 to pay for the move.
Once the migrants landed in Vanuatu, they were forced to work at a construction site building a market, subjected to beatings, and denied the money they were promised, Rashid said.
“Some in the group believe that it’s better to commit suicide here, because there seems to be no way out,” he added by phone from a house in the capital, Port Vila, where 30 of the migrants were staying and receiving support from the government.
The migrants said they are stuck in limbo as they are witnesses in the case against their traffickers but lack the right to work. Several said they would like the chance to earn money in Vanuatu instead of being returned home in the future.
One of the largest exporters of manpower in the world, Bangladesh depends heavily on remittances from abroad. According to official data, at least 1 million Bangladeshis secured jobs abroad in 2017 – the highest number ever recorded.
But this depends largely upon unlicensed brokers working in rural areas and opens the door to trafficking, campaigners say.
The 101 migrants say they were duped by a network of brokers in the central Bangladeshi cities of Tangail and Barisal, who transported them to Vanuatu via India, Singapore and Fiji.
A broker in Bangladesh was arrested last year after Harun’s family filed a complaint in Tangail, police records show.
One migrant who declined to give his name said he owned a garment factory back home and went to Vanuatu as he was told he would be able to export clothes to a market run by Bangladeshis.
When he arrived, the man realised he had been conned.
“It was just a show. The market was just a bunch of tents … constructed by the Bangladeshis who were trafficked here. I have lost everything because of the traffickers,” he said, adding that his factory had closed down in his absence.
Anne Pakoa, head of the Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, said the migrants barely had enough to eat and that pre-existing medical conditions including diabetes were going untreated.
“There is free medical treatment but it’s very basic, some of the medications required are not available in Vanuatu,” Pakoa said by phone. “Depression is mounting among the group.”
Bangladesh’s High Commission in Australia – it has no representative in Vanuatu – said it was first informed of the situation by the IOM in November but has received no details.
“If IOM can provide details that they must have, Bangladesh can ascertain their citizenship and start the process of repatriation,” a spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The IOM is providing humanitarian support to the 101 migrants at the request of Vanuatu’s government, according to spokesman Chris Lom, who said the situation was “complex”.
But for Rashid and the other Bangladeshis living in limbo in Vanuatu, money rather than food is their most pressing concern.
“How will we pay our loans back?,” Rashid said. What will our families think?”