Girls in their early teens are being trafficked into prostitution in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, a BBC News investigation has found. Foreigners seeking sex can easily gain access to children who have fled conflict in Myanmar and now face a new threat.
Anwara is 14. Fleeing Myanmar after her family were killed she searched for help on the road to Bangladesh.
“Women came with a van. They asked me, if I’d go with them.”
After accepting their help, she was bundled into a car, with the promise of safe passage to a new life. Instead she was taken to the nearest city, Cox’s Bazar.
“Not long after that they brought two boys to me. They showed me a knife and punched me in my tummy and beat me because I wasn’t co-operating. Then the boys raped me. I wasn’t willing to have sex but they kept going.”
Tales of trafficking in the nearby refugee camps are rife. Women and children are the main victims, lured out of the camps and into labour and sex work.
A BBC team alongside the Foundation Sentinel, a non-profit group established to train and assist law enforcement agencies combating child exploitation, headed to Bangladesh to investigate the networks behind the trade we had heard so much about.
Children and parents told us they were offered jobs abroad and in the capital Dhaka as maids, as hotel staff and kitchen workers.
The chaos of the camps offers big opportunities to bring children into the sex industry. Offering a chance of a better life to desperate families is a cruel tactic deployed by traffickers.
Masuda, 14, who is now being helped by a local charity, described how she was trafficked.
“I knew what was going to happen to me. The woman who offered me a job, everyone knows she makes people have sex. She is a Rohingya here for a long time, we know her. But I didn’t have a choice. There is nothing for me here.
“My family have disappeared. I have no money. I was raped in Myanmar. I used to play in the forest with my brother and sister. Now I don’t remember how to play.”
Some parents wept for fear of never hearing from their children again. Others smiled at the prospect of a life bettered, despite not having heard from their loved ones.
As one mother said, “anywhere is better” than a life outside the camps.
But where are these children being taken to, and by whom?
Undercover, posing as foreigners recently arrived in Bangladesh looking for sex, the BBC investigation team set out to see if we could get access to children.
Only 48 hours in, after asking small hotel and beach cottage owners – places notorious for offering rooms for sex – we found the telephone numbers of local pimps.
With the knowledge of police, we asked the pimps if they had younger girls available for a foreigner, specifically Rohingya girls.
“We have young girls, many, but why do you want Rohingya? They are the dirtiest,” one man said.
This was a recurring theme throughout our investigation. In the hierarchy of prostitution in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya girls were considered the least desirable and the cheapest available.
We were offered girls by a variety of different pimps operating as part of a network. During the negotiations we stressed that we wanted to spend the night with the girls immediately, as we did not want to create a demand.
Pictures of different girls began to come in and we were told they were between 13 and 17. The number of girls available and the scale of the network was striking. If we did not like any of the girls in the photos, there were plenty more.
Many of the girls live with the pimps’ families. When they are not with a client, they are often cooking or cleaning.
“We don’t keep the girls for long. Mostly Bangladeshi men come for them. They get bored after a while. Younger girls cause more of a fuss, so we get rid of them,” we were told.
With the recording and surveillance done, we presented the evidence to the local police. A small team were assigned to set up a sting operation.
The pimp was immediately identified by the police. “I know him. We know him very well,” said one of the police officers. Perhaps an informant, or a known criminal, it was not clear exactly what he meant.
In preparation of the sting, we called the pimp, and asked for two of the girls we had seen in the photograph to be delivered to a prominent hotel in Cox’s Bazar at 20:00 local time.
The undercover foreigner posing as the client, a member of the Foundation Sentinel, waited outside the hotel with a translator. In the car park undercover police officers waited for the trafficker to arrive.
As 20:00 drew closer, frantic phone calls were made between the pimp and our undercover client. The pimp wanted the client to come away from the hotel – we refused. Instead, the pimp sent a driver to deliver two of the girls from the photograph we had seen.
After the money was exchanged, our undercover client asked: “If tonight is good, can we get more?” The driver nodded in agreement.
After collecting the cash, the police moved in. The driver was arrested, and childcare professionals and trafficking experts helped to arrange care for the girls.
One of the girls refused to go to a shelter, while the other, who said she was 15, went into social care.
The girls appeared torn between poverty and prostitution – they said that without the sex work they would not be able to provide for themselves or their families.
Moving women and children both domestically and internationally takes a degree of organisation. The internet provides the tools to both communicate between different members of organised crime groups and sell sex.
We found examples of Rohingya children taken to Chittagong and Dhaka in Bangladesh, Kathmandu in Nepal and Kolkata in India.
In Kolkata’s booming sex industry, they are given Indian identity cards and absorbed into the system, their identities lost.
At the Cyber Crime Unit in Dhaka, police explained how traffickers trade girls for sex over the internet. Open and closed Facebook groups offer a gateway to a child sex industry out of sight.
Amid a labyrinth of encrypted websites, we were shown a platform used by paedophiles to share information on the dark web. The goal is to share experiences of how to have sex with children around the world.
One prolific user offered a step-by-step guide on how to take advantage of children, specifically Rohingya, in a refugee crisis. He goes on to talk about the best ways to avoid detection, the lowdown on local law enforcement and the best areas to prey upon children.
Another user replies: “As this is happening now, and I feel like a vacation, any thoughts/local knowledge would be appreciated.”
The thread has since been taken down by the authorities but it offered a chilling insight into how refugee crises provide opportunities for paedophiles and traffickers to prey on people at their most vulnerable.
Both online and offline in Bangladesh a network of traffickers, pimps, brokers and transporters continue to supply women and children for sex.
The Rohingya crisis did not create a sex industry in Bangladesh, but it has increased the supply of women and children, forcing the price of prostitution down and keeping demand as strong as ever.