Bangladesh has begun steps to bring home 101 trafficking victims stranded in Vanuatu after they were lured there with the promise of work that never materialised, a government official said on Wednesday.
The migrants, who include two minors, have been stuck in the remote Pacific island nation since November when four people were arrested on charges of trafficking them, and are living off handouts and rations. Details of their plight emerged last month and the government has asked its nearest high commission in Australia to verify that they are Bangladeshi.
"They will send a team to Vanuatu and begin the national verification soon," home ministry official Abu Bakar Siddique told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saying it was a first step towards bringing them home. The Bangladeshis, two of whom are under 18, have been named as witnesses in the trial of the four accused, who deny the charges.
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 overseas 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 are all male and 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 over the last two years. Lured by the promise of sales jobs in Vanuatu and nearby Australia, the Bangladeshis said they had sold the property and taken out loans worth up to $20,000 to pay for the move.
Vanuatu, with about 280,000 people spread across roughly 80 islands, is one of the world's poorest countries. Only about a third of its inhabited islands have airfields and proper roads. Harun Or Rashid, one of the 101 victims, expressed doubts they would be able to leave soon because of their role in the trial.
"We have told the local NGOs here that we want to work and earn some money because this case might go on for a long time," he said by phone from Vanuatu. "Some of the NGOs are trying to get us a work permit for at least four months. If we get that permission, it will help us a lot."
The men are currently living off the support of the local government, local charities and the United Nations migration agency. "The next hearing is on Sunday," said Rashid. "Hopefully that will bring us some positive news."
(With inputs from agencies.)