This means there is no way to keep a record of when children go missing or are abandoned or sold by their parents. The main source of information is police and media reports, but since many missing children go unreported, reliable data is impossible to gather. This leaves the young in Bangladesh extremely vulnerable to being exploited and trafficked.
The internal trafficking of children remains a stubborn problem in the country, with children commonly ending up in domestic servitude or in sectors where forced labour is used. Others are taken for commercial sexual exploitation. Girls and boys as young as eight years are forced into prostitution, frequently living in slave-like conditions in secluded environments. Youngsters often come from poorer more rural regions, where households are struggling to get by on a daily basis. A child protection specialist at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Dhaka explains that families may not report when their children have left home or are missing because of “poor economic conditions”. Sometimes when parents in rural areas split up, children are simply abandoned.
The news agency IRIN spoke to one 14 year-old who had been found in a brothel. The girl was picked up after she asked a client for someone to rescue her. Having been sent to a religious Islamic school at the age of eight, the girl had fled after being sexually harassed and was picked up by the brothel owners on the streets. She said that she didn’t remember her parents’ names or address, but admitted “I miss being at home”.
There are a number of shelters and charitable organisations in the capital (including SOS Children’s Villages) which offer youngsters like these somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to get an education. But social and aid workers worry about the many children who are abandoned or trafficked each year who slip through the net. Exact numbers are hard to estimate, but it is likely hundreds of thousands of children have ended up in brothels, either in Bangladesh or in neighbouring countries.
In 2010, in conjunction with UNICEF and the Dhaka City Corporation, the government set up a toll-free child helpline to help fight child-trafficking. This helpline led to over 300 children being rescued in 2011. In December 2011, the government also enacted a comprehensive anti-trafficking law designed to plug legislative gaps. A new anti-trafficking action plan was also approved. But until there is a systematic way to identify children who have gone missing or have become the victims of trafficking, it will remain impossible to rescue the many thousands who newly disappear each year.