Business Is Booming for Traffickers Trading in Women and Children
By Leela Jacinto
LEAD STORY: ABC
May 15 — When Ibrahim Mohammad, now around 6 years old, fell off a camel in Dubai and fractured his shoulder last year, he says he broke into a sobbing fit and pleaded with his handlers not to strap him onto the back of a camel ever again.
But as he well knew, no amount of sniveling, whining or weeping could save him from the camel-racing track. There was a lot of money at stake, there were no adults who would intercede for him, and the skinny little Bangladeshi boy was just pushing his luck.
As a camel jockey in the United Arab Emirates' glitzy port city, Ibrahim was just a tiny cog in a vast, popular sports industry, and like the other 20-odd boys in his dormitory, he was a child slave. Protests were treated with a sound whipping with the sticks used for the camels, and then it was back to the races for the tiny lads.
Ibrahim was one of innumerable, mostly South Asian children smuggled out of their homelands to work as camel jockeys in several Persian Gulf states. But unlike most of the unfortunate children, he was rescued from Dubai and repatriated home to Bangladesh earlier this year after his handler died and authorities found the abandoned boy.
"I didn't like camel racing," he says slowly in a frail, high-pitched voice during a recent phone interview with ABCNEWS.com from the shelter in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka that he now calls home. "I was very scared of riding camels."
Medical experts at the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, the country's main anti-slave-trafficking organization, estimate Ibrahim is approximately 6 years old. But Salma Ali, BNWLA executive director, says it's hard to believe he is that old — he's tiny, malnourished, timid, and three months after he arrived at the shelter, he still suffers from severe emotional trauma.
On the top floors of the shelter where Ibrahim currently lives, Shabana Khatun, 16, is finally getting a basic education a year after she was repatriated from Calcutta, India. She had been smuggled there and sold to a brothel — joining the untold number of women and girls trafficked annually across international borders and sold into a brutal but thriving global sex industry.
In Rome today, representatives from five continents are attending a conference on international trafficking in human beings. It aims to bring together members of the diplomatic corps, law enforcement agencies, rights groups and religious groups as well as policy planners and victims of global trafficking.
Titled "21st-Century Slavery — The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings," the conference is hosted by James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, in conjunction with the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Nicholson got the idea of hosting the conference not long after he took up his post in Rome in October 2001. "You don't have to drive far in Rome to see victims of trafficking on the streets," says Nicholson. "We decided to hold this conference to increase the awareness and educate the diplomatic corps, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the media about the extent of this horrific problem."
Trafficking in human beings is one of the world's fastest-growing organized criminal activities. The combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialism's state securities and the loosening of East European borders, coupled with a persistent chasm between rich and poor nations, has seen an increase in the resolve of people trying to flee their countries and of unscrupulous criminals ready to make a financial killing out of their desperation.
A 2001 report by the U.S. State Department estimates that at least 700,000 persons are trafficked each year across international borders. But some international observers put the figure at 2 million.
Europol, the European law enforcement agency, estimates the human-trafficking industry is worth several billion dollars a year, and the U.N. International Drug Control Program warns that human trafficking is "the fastest-growing facet of organized crime."
The sheer numbers, according to Marco Gramegna, head of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration's counter-trafficking division, has helped put the issue on the international spotlight.
"One of the reasons for the surge in awareness of the problem is that the impact of the increasing number of victims in countries of destination is evident," says Gramegna. "In cities like Paris, London and Rome, nationals see people who are obviously victims of trafficking on the streets. There is not a single region of the world that is not affected — either as a destination, origin or transit point."