Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen in a recent letter to the law minister requested amendments to the existing anti-human trafficking law, backing the long-standing demand of international recruiting agencies in the country.
If the amendments are carried out to the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act-2012, police's power in raiding recruiting agencies will be curtailed, which law enforcers fear would put human trafficking on the rise.
Recruiting agencies claim amendments are required as some sections of the existing law pave the way for police to "harass and humiliate them intentionally".
"The way law enforcers launch drives at any recruiting agency is humiliating. They term the agency owners as human traffickers at the very first sight of those operations. That they pronounce us as human traffickers before any trial is embarrassing," Said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).
Shameem told The Business Standard that law enforcers also "harass the manpower businessmen intentionally exploiting the sections".
Therefore, they have been demanding amendments to the law.
Echoing the Baira leader, Foreign Minister AK Abul Momen in the letter wrote, "Sections 20 (1) and (2) of the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act empower the police with vast powers [to make arrests] without any warrant. That is why, there are allegations that this law is being misused."
The sections the minister mentioned are about preventive search and seizure – allowing police to conduct preventive search, to enter into any premises and to seize any equipment or proof or document used or likely to be used in the commission of any offence under theact.
According to Section 20(2), "Search may be undertaken without a warrant if there is reasonable ground to believe that there are equipment or materials for the commission of any offence under the act."
Momen wrote to the law minister, "You are aware that legal recruiting agencies usually are not involved in human trafficking or fraud activities. Yet, several recruiting agencies have alleged to have been harassed by the police. Complaints have been filed with the Ministry of Home Affairs in this regard. However, the harassments still continue."
Earlier in 2019, supporting the demand of Baira, Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmed also wrote to law ministry to amend sections 20(1) and (2) of the act.
Referring to that, the foreign minister wrote, "I especially request you to take measures to partially amend sections 20(1) and (2) of the act in order to stop harassment of recruiting agencies by the police in the name of combatting human trafficking."
In the meantime, rejecting the harassment claim of Baira Secretary General Shameem, Assistant Inspector General of police Mir Sohel Rana told The Business Standard that they conduct drives in compliance with the law and there is no scope for any misuse like harassment of the recruiting agencies.
He rather urged the recruiters to file complaint if they face any harassment by members of the police.
Besides, police's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) also advocated keeping the law intact.
CID Additional Deputy Inspector General Sheikh Md Rezaul Haider said, "If the sections are amended, human trafficking would be on the rise in future."
Like the CID official, Brac Migration Programme Chief Shariful Islam Hasan told The Business Standard that the current law is time befitting and quite okay. He does not agree with the amendment demand by the recruiting agencies and the two ministers.
"If any allegation of misconduct is brought against any law enforcer, it should be addressed by punishing that specific police official if the allegation is found true," he added.
Shariful Hasan also emphasised coordinating or merging the anti-human trafficking act and immigrant act.
While The Business Standard approached the foreign minister he declined commenting on this issue. He said the letter itself is his statement.
Contacted, Expatriates' Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad confirmed that he had sent a letter to law minister in 2019.
Talking to The Business Standard, Law Minister Anisul Haque said they received the letters.
"We cannot say right now whether the amendments would be carried out or not. The concerned department of the law ministry is doing their homework to review the matter," he added.
The US State Department upgraded Bangladesh in its 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to Tier 2 from Tier 2 Watch List, meaning the country does meet the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking but that it no longer faces special scrutiny and is at less risk of falling to Tier 3, which can trigger United States sanctions.
According to the report, Bangladesh has improved its efforts to combat human trafficking but must do more.
The report said, "Because a number of government officials, including parliamentarians, maintained close ties with foreign employment agencies, there were concerns that such officials had conflicts of interest in approving migrant-friendly practices, such as prosecution of abusive recruitment agencies and increasing protections for migrant workers."
In September 2019, Bangladesh ratified the "Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children".
According to the protocol, the definition of "trafficking in persons" includes recruitment, transportation and harboring of persons through fraud, deception, abuse of power, for the purpose of exploitation. According to the protocol, exploitation includes forced labour, servitude and conditions similar to slavery.