Hundreds of child slaves could be working on a protected World Heritage Site in Bangladesh, according to a researcher who discovered five previously unknown labour camps using satellite technology.
Two fish processing plants located on the Sundarbans National Park in the south west of Bangladesh were already suspected of using forced labour, including, it is claimed, children as young as nine, working for up to 40 hours straight.
The additional five camps, used to dry fish for pet food, were located by Professor Kevin Bales of the University of Nottingham using satellite technology including Google Earth.
“People are suffering here. Children are killed in these places regularly: sometimes they’re eaten by tigers, sometimes they die of disease,” Prof Bales, a specialist in contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham and author of the annual Global Slavery Index, told the Telegraph.
He found the camps by analysing current and historic satellite images of the 1,330 sq km national park.
“What look like buildings on the satellite images are not in fact buildings, but giant racks where children who have been enslaved have been doing the drying and cleaning and scraping,” he said.
Three areas of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest are certified as World Heritage Sites by Unesco, an arm of the United Nations.
Unesco did not respond to requests for comment, but said it leaves the management of protected areas to local governments.
Makeshift fish drying camps are permitted in the Sundarbans park during certain months of the year and local authorities are not aware of any malpractices, officials said.
Zahir Uddin Ahmed, the Bangladeshi Conservator of Forests, said: “We have no specific allegations on forced labour.”
Pankaj Chandra Roy, the district police chief for Bagerhat, the area in which most of the park is located, said he was not aware of the recent satellite images, but acknowledged that there were a number of fish drying camps in the Sundarbans.
He added: “If we receive any allegation from any parents, we are ready to conduct a drive against the particular location inside Sundarbans.”
Prof Bales said there was strong evidence to suggest the fish drying camps were exploiting children between nine and 14-years-old.
Children have reported harsh conditions including sleeping in the open with little food, disease and, in some cases, sexual abuse, according to Prof Bales.
Prof Bales, who has spoken to at least nine escapees from camps in the park, said one of the camps had been present since 2013, and two more since 2014.
There are environmental consequences of clearing areas of the Unesco protected site, which is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and a reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger, to make space for the camps.
“The forest that they’re cutting is the largest carbon sink in Asia,” said Prof Bales. “It’s also the largest bumper between storm surges and all of the people who live inland on flat ground.”
The Sundarbans forest protects people living further inland from storm surges
The Sundarbans forest protects people living further inland from storm surges Credit: AP
Prof Bales will present the findings to the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday. He ultimately hopes to generate support for a dedicated satellite that can monitor for human rights abuses around the world.
“I would like to establish a well-staffed global human rights observatory to process imagery related to different human rights abuses and slavery to stop it as it begins to happen, not wait until after it’s happened,” he said.
There are more than 45 million people enduring life as slaves around the world, according to the latest Global Slavery Index.
“If the slavery industry were a country, it would have the population around the size of Canada, and the GDP of a country like Angola,” said Prof Bales. “It would also be the third largest emitter of Carbon Dioxide after China and the US.”
Satellite technology has previously been used to locate refugee camps and massacre locations in Darfur, as well as mass grave sites in Bosnia and Peru. Although these trials were “very effective”, according to Prof Bales, the method is yet to be widely adopted.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “In Bangladesh, trafficking of persons for work does occur quite often. While many voluntarily agree in the hope for better wages, they end up in extremely abusive labour conditions whether in Bangladesh or India or in the Gulf countries.
“The government is yet to implement its labor protection laws to prevent abuse in the work place. Children too end up employed in the worst forms of labour.”
Courtesy: The Telegraph