29 Mar 2019

Dozens of trafficked Bangladesh migrants stranded in Vanuatu

6:09 pm on 29 March 2019

Shahin Khan came to Vanuatu chasing his hopes and dreams, and a means to provide for his family in Bangladesh.

A group of Bangladeshi men stuck in limbo in Port Vila.

A group of Bangladeshi men stuck in limbo in Port Vila. Photo: Supplied

Instead, he said he was duped by human traffickers, who enslaved and tortured him and dozens of other migrants who were promised work.

"It's a very horrible situation actually, our heart is burning," said Mr Khan, 47, in an interview from the capital Port Vila.

He is one of 101 Bangladeshi men now stuck in limbo under government protection after they were rescued from the trafficking scheme in November.

By that point, many of the migrants had been working unpaid for several months, given little food - often only rice and boiled cabbage - and kept in squalid conditions, according to rights groups and victim statements.

Vanuatu's Public Prosecutor, Josaia Naigulevu, has told local newspaper the Daily Post it could be the biggest case of human trafficking in the Pacific.

The scheme, which dates back to 2017, lured dozens of vulnerable and desperate men in Bangladesh with promises of construction work in Vanuatu paying up to $US5000 per month plus expenses - nearly 50 times the national average in Bangladesh.

The men paid between $US14,000 and $US25,000 to get there, often scrounging and mortgaging their homes in order to raise the funds, said Mr Khan.

Once in Vanuatu, however, they were crowded into small properties and forced to work long hours, before being locked up at night under guard.

A group of Bangladeshi men stuck in limbo in Port Vila

Photo: Shahin Khan

Anne Pakoa, head of the Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, said if the migrants spoke out, the punishments by their captors were brutal.

"They would take them outside of town and bash them up, like really, really bad," she said.

Four people in Vanuatu have been arrested and charged in connection with human trafficking and are now before the Supreme Court, said Ms Pakoa.

The public prosecutor's office and the public solicitor's office could not be reached for comment.

The arrests followed a November police raid, which freed more than 100 men, according to Shaheen Khan, who was able to escape and alert local authorities.

A recent court hearing was adjourned until April because the defendants said they needed a translator, said Ms Pakoa.

But the case has been tied to the fate of the migrants, who have been placed under government care pending a decision by the Supreme Court, she said.

Unable to work legally in Vanuatu, and facing crippling debts back home, many migrants have said they would rather find work locally rather than be sent back to Bangladesh.

Shaheen Khan said he, like many others among the migrants, feared he would be killed by loan sharks if he returned home.

"If we go back now, what will we do? We have nothing to do except commit suicide," he said.

Rights groups are also concerned about the welfare of the migrants' families, who lack financial support in Bangladesh.

Shahin Khan (front in black tshirt) with the group

Shahin Khan (front in black tshirt) with the group Photo: Shahin Khan

"Their kids are not in school, their families don't have enough to eat," said Ms Pakoa.

Elsewhere, the Vanuatu government is facing pressure to take action over the men, who have been under its care for more than four months.

Opposition MP, Ishmael Kalsakau, said the government needed to repatriate the group and strengthen Vanuatu's immigration laws to prevent further incidents.

The International Organisation for Migration is providing humanitarian assistance to the Bangladeshi men, a spokesperson said in a statement.

New Zealand, through its High Commission in Vanuatu, had put nearly $NZ7000 in support towards the installation of a water tank and basic hygiene supplies, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.