Children in Bangladesh who have been abandoned by their parents are vulnerable to traffickers, but tackling the problem is hampered by the lack of data on missing children, say aid workers.
“We rescued a child from a brothel after receiving a call from a customer of that brothel who said the girl requested him to rescue her,” said Rahena Chowdhury, a social worker for Aparajeyo Bangladesh, a national child rights organization.
“I don’t remember my parents’ name or address, but I remember they used to love me very much and I miss being at home,” said 14-year-old Mossamat Monira Begum.
Monira was picked up on the streets and sent to a Madrassah, a religious Islamic school, at the age of eight. She fled from the school after being sexually harassed and now stays at a shelter in Dhaka owed by Aparajeyo Bangladesh.
“I don’t want to stay without my parents any more. I want to return as soon as possible,” said six-year-old Jharna Begum, who lives at the same shelter. Jharna went missing after she was seperated from her parents when the government demolished a city slum in Dhaka.
Children can stay at the shelter, where they also get an education, until the age of 18. “While they are here, we keep looking for their parents with the help of law enforcing agencies,” said Ruksana Begum, manager of the Aparajeyo shelter.
Thousands of children trafficked from Bangladesh to other countries go unreported each year, say aid workers and government officials.
“We cannot be certain about the actual number,” Michael McGrath, country director of Save the Children Bangladesh, told IRIN. “The only reliable statistics [on missing children] are those that refer to the number of children `rescued’ each year, and the number of cases opened against traffickers or traffickers convicted each year. Each of these figures is very small.”
However, according to Abdul Quader, programme manager at the UK-based NGO Plan International, an estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi girls were lured under false pretences into the sex industry in neighbouring countries over the past 10 years. Others put the figure even higher.
Little data is available on missing children in Bangladesh; police and media reports are the main source of information.
“Lack of awareness among the masses and an absence of a nationally integrated reporting system triggers a large number of missing children going unreported,” said Shabnaaz Zahreen, a child protection specialist at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Dhaka.
“Many close acquaintances of missing children do not report the missing to police,” Zahreen said, adding that the “reasons for not reporting a missing [child] could be founded in poor economic conditions of parents, whereas the split-up of parents in rural areas have seen children being abandoned by their parents.”
According to Nasima Begum, director-general of the Department of Social Service, “more coordination efforts between the Home Ministry, the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and non-government agencies should take place in order to bolster the quality of data-gathering on missing and abandoned children in Bangladesh.”
While the government is making progress in some data collection areas, for instance its attempt to register birth data online to combat high levels of child marriage, “there is clearly a need for more accurate monitoring systems, so that we can have reliable statistics,” said McGrath from Save the Children.
In 2010 the government, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Dhaka City Corporation, established a toll-free child helpline to fight child-trafficking.
Zannatul Ferdous Nishu, a social worker at Aparajeyo Bangladesh, said that since 2011 the NGO had rescued 312 children thanks to the helpline. “Any person can call 1098, a toll free number, to report a missing child,” he said.
According to the US State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons report, Bangladeshi children are trafficked internally for commercial sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced and bonded labour, including forced begging. Bangladesh does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so, the report said.