When last year’s rains killed two small boys in her village, Bangladeshi villager Liba Akter decided that she had to do something.
A storm had blown in off the Bay of Bengal, bringing floodwaters three feet deep in some places. A seven-year-old boy had been walking home and was swept away and died. In a separate incident, a 10-year-old drowned in his house.
Since then, Liba has become active in an effort organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) aimed at teaching local communities and refugees disaster-risk-reduction skills and mobilizing people to spread the word.
She said that her community – which is located close to camps housing almost a million Rohingya refugees – has always lived on a knife’s edge. “Severe winds and rains come out of nowhere and destroy homes and kill people. We can’t change the weather, but we can be prepared,” she explained.
In 2018 IOM specialists began training groups of 18-20 people – teaching them official warning signals and flags indicating approaching cyclones and tropical storms. Participants also learned how to identify and maintain emergency shelters, and how to avoid the waterborne illnesses that follow disasters.
The first batches of trainees have since fanned out into the community to gain new ‘recruits’ by spreading the word about disaster preparedness and encouraging attendance at future training sessions. Last week, as heavy monsoon rains again struck Cox’s Bazar, 200 people took part in the latest training. Since March 2018, a total 13,446 local people from Ukhiya and Teknaf attended disaster risks sessions.
Weather-related disasters can bring death and destruction to vulnerable communities. But trainers also point to profound social consequences, including the breakup of families and heightened risk of human trafficking.
“The reality is that natural disasters can be a tremendous opportunity for exploitation by human traffickers. Disasters cause hardship and make people vulnerable, which allows traffickers prey on them,” said IOM disaster risk reduction specialist Mohammed Ahsan Ullah.
He noted that Cox’s Bazar district faces numerous socio-economic challenges, and this makes residents particularly vulnerable to human traffickers posing as brokers. “They come in and try to ingratiate themselves with the community. Then they find the weakest and most needy and offer them incentives. The most common being an all-expense-paid journey to Malaysia where a job is guaranteed.”
When victims arrive in the destination, their passports are often confiscated, and they are held in prison-like conditions. Men can be forced to work long hours on construction sites for little or no pay, and women may be sent into forced abuse and sexual exploitation, he added.
Anwara Begum, a 30-year-old villager who took part in the training, said that understanding the dangers of human trafficking will have a real impact in her community. “We can now spot fraudulent brokers when we meet them, and we know what permits we need to go and work in another country legally,” she said.