Port Vila, Vanuatu – When Bangladeshi businessman Mustafizur Shahin left for a job opportunity overseas he did not expect to be held captive on a Pacific island, forced to work without pay, physically abused when he complained and saved only after he made a daring escape.
What had promised to be a chance of a lifetime, working with a millionaire entrepreneur and his chain of clothing boutiques, turned out to be a case of modern-day slavery where the threat of physical injury and even death hung over 50-year-old Shahin.
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Shahin said he felt he was “a living dead body” when recounting events that brought him from the streets of Bangladesh to the shores of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu to toil in slavery with little food and in constant fear.
“I couldn’t speak. My heart was broken,” Shahin would tell police after his escape.
“All my dreams and expectations were mixed with dust,” he said.
Shahin is just one among more than 100 Bangladeshi men brought to the tiny nation between 2017 and 2018 as part of a scheme headed by fellow Bangladesh national, Sekdah Somon, a trafficker who posed as the owner of an international chain of fashion boutiques.
The case of the 107 Bangladeshi men would become the largest documented incident of human trafficking and slavery in the Pacific Islands region.
Yet, five years after Shahin’s and his colleagues’ abuse and torture first came to light, authorities fear countries such as Vanuatu continue to be destinations for vulnerable people seeking a better life, only to be conned and forced into illegal immigration and slavery.
Understanding how the abuse of 107 Bangladeshi men passed unnoticed for so long, despite warning signs, shows how seemingly legitimate foreign recruitment operations have come to disguise criminal networks, and the vulnerability of the Pacific Islands to trafficking operations.
Shahin’s ordeal began in June 2018, when he met associates of Bangladeshi businessman Sekdah Somon at a bus station in Tangail, northwest of Dhaka.
Somon was a “multimillionaire businessman”, Shahin was told, and ran fashion businesses around the world.
Shahin did his homework. Mr Price, the popular South African fashion retailer Somon claimed to work for, had a prominent footprint online. He saw an article, written in Vanuatu’s local newspaper just days earlier, that proclaimed “Mr Price was coming” to the Pacific country. It quoted Somon and senior Vanuatu ministers talking excitedly about the new project. It all seemed to check out in Shahin’s mind.
After taking out a loan against his own small but successful garment business in Bangladesh, and paying thousands of dollars to Somon and his associates to organise his travel, Shahin packed his bags, said goodbye to his wife and children, and boarded a flight to Vanuatu to take up a new role with Mr Price.
That was five years ago. Shahin has still not returned home.
Shahin’s passport was swiftly taken from him when he arrived in capital Port Vila, a town known as a popular destination for luxury cruise ships docking in the Pacific.
But he was held captive in a seaside bungalow, and existed mostly on cabbage and rice. His movements were restricted.
On the only occasion he was offered meat, Shahin was told to carve up a pregnant cow’s carcass if he wanted protein to eat. He believes being asked to butcher the animal was just another torment in a litany of abuse overseen by the slavery operation’s ringleader, Somon.
Vanuatu’s public prosecutor would eventually find Somon, his wife, and two accomplices guilty in 2022 of human trafficking, slavery, money laundering, threats to kill, assault and contravening the country’s employment laws.
“Sekdah Somon constantly spoke about what he would do to the victims, like running over them in his car, cutting them up and hanging them from a tree, taking them to the jungle and putting them in a freezer. Sometimes it would end up with a threat that pictures of their dead bodies would be taken and sent to their respective families,” Vanuatu’s Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek wrote, while finding the four defendants guilty in 2022.
Shahin told Al Jazeera that he had never doubted the constant threats.
On the day he arrived in Vanuatu, he was punched by Bangladeshi men acting as Somon’s enforcers on the island.
Shahin’s captors then extorted $14,000 from him in a matter of weeks.
And if the money ran dry, he was told photos of him hanging upside down, tortured and bloody, would be sent to his family in Bangladesh.
Angry, scared and hopeless, before daybreak one morning, Shahin and two other victims – as their captors were still sleeping – escaped from the bungalow where they were being held. They ran to the beach and followed the shoreline to the nearest road, where Shahin flagged down a passing van.
“Police station,” he told the motorist.
Brand stolen as front for slavery operation
In just a few months, Somon was able to traffic Shahin and dozens of other Bangladeshi men into Vanuatu without raising the suspicions of authorities. Many were told they were travelling legally to Australia, Cuba or the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia to work in Somon’s Mr Price boutiques.
Forged business documents and licences, as well as bribes, allowed the traffickers to overcome customs clearances and immigration in Vanuatu.
Somon’s victims became his slaves, working for little or nothing under the threat of violence. Once the recruited men landed in Vanuatu they were forced to work in construction, according to a news report. The workers were also forced to make and sell wooden furniture. If they refused or complained they were beaten. Their promised jobs and wages never materialised.
Investigators believe Somon had no intent to create a real business venture in Vanuatu, but simply wanted to take money from his victims and leave them stranded.
A flimsy Mr Price showroom was built in the centre of town. Investigators would later find that Somon had simply taken the brand and logo from the South African company. Hundreds of people would walk past the storefront every day not knowing that it was a front for an unsophisticated slavery operation.
When Somon was eventually arrested, he denied he was from Bangladesh, and claimed he was a Zimbabwean national, though investigators later discovered his passport was forged.
Bangladesh ranks as the sixth largest source of migrants globally, and many of them rely on expensive recruiters or “dalals” who act as informal middlemen between prospective workers and employers abroad.
The situation puts thousands of Bangladeshis at risk of trafficking each year by agents who deceive or exploit migrants with fake promises of good jobs and profits abroad. Some of the recruiters have themselves been victims of trafficking.
“In absolute numbers, Bangladeshi people are among the most commonly detected victims of trafficking worldwide,” a 2022 study on trafficked persons in Bangladesh states.
Abdusattor Esoev, chief of mission of International Organization for Migration Bangladesh, said many victims of trafficking were fed “a big lie” that they could secure theirs and their children’s lives by migrating abroad.
“Many people spend their wealth and lifetime savings and dream about going abroad, especially in developed countries,” he said.
“Some end up being trafficked, where they are pushed into forced labour, sexual exploitation or debt bondage.”
The head of Vanuatu’s transnational crime unit, Charlie Willie Rexona, says foreign workers from the Philippines and other Asian countries often tell him their passports are kept by their bosses – a clear sign of human trafficking
“Trafficking is happening. Smuggling is still happening here. But it is not being reported,” he said.
Senior Inspector Willie Rexona, who became a lead investigator in the case, believes Somon got away with the money-making scheme simply because the crime was so new in his country.
“They tried to set up his scam in other countries like PNG, the Federated States of Micronesia, they were testing lots of other countries,” Willie Rexona said, adding that the traffickers decided on Vanuatu after identifying “loopholes” in its laws.
“Our people tend to keep to themselves; they just aren’t aware of the indicators of trafficking, even amongst immigration officials,” he said.
Uncharted legal territory
The unique nature of the crime and the number of Somon’s victims posed problems during the lengthy and tedious trial in Port Vila.
The Vanuatu government did not have the means to feed and accommodate the 107 victims, who were now key witnesses.
After starving for months in Somon’s captivity, many would go hungry once again while justice took its slow course.
Then there was the difficulty in actually prosecuting Somon and his associates.
Vanuatu lacks any specific laws that define slavery and trafficking, so Vanuatu’s Public Prosecutor Josiah Naigulevu was forced to use international conventions, so far untested in Vanuatu courts, to bring his charges against the four defendants.
“What I did was I looked at what conventions that Vanuatu had ratified,” Naigulevu said.
“There was UNTOC, the United Nations Convention [Against] Transnational Organised Crime, and it had elements touching on both slavery and, and trafficking persons,” he told Al Jazeera
His legal tactic worked, and the judge ultimately accepted the charges in what would become the region’s largest trafficking case.
In June 2022, Somon, who was 37 at the time, and his 27-year-old wife, Buxoo Nabilah Bibi, and two other collaborators, were sentenced for trafficking, enslavement, money laundering, assault, threats to kill and employing non-citizens without work permits.
Somon is still in jail in Vanuatu, serving a 14-year sentence. His wife and two associates were given sentences about half as long, but were released on parole earlier this year and deported to Bangladesh after paying a fine. Director of Corrections Johnny Marango told local media at the time that it was “normal” to deport foreign detainees.
The four criminals were also ordered to compensate the 107 victims a total of more than $1m, but this amount has not been paid.
Compared with other countries, Naigulevu believes the sentences were light.
“We need to review the law in this country in terms of maximum sentence,” Naigulevu told Al Jazeera.
“Because obviously, when they created this law, they didn’t anticipate a trafficking case of this scale,” he said.
Since the trial, all of the victims have returned to Bangladesh, except Shahin.
Since he became one of the key witnesses in the case, he fears Somon and his associates could target him if he dared return to Bangladesh.
He feels it is safer to remain living in Vanuatu and he has brought his wife and children to live with him.
“I’m feeling much safer than before because I just worried about my kids,” Shahin told Al Jazeera.
Shahin’s ordeal is not yet over. His immigration status is in limbo in Vanuatu and his attempts to gain refugee status through the United Nations have been knocked back.
He still has hope, though, and his sights remain set on migrating one day to a place where he can provide a better life for his family.
But, for now, Vanuatu is a safer home than Bangladesh, Shahin said.
“I hope I can settle in Canada or Australia or somewhere because I still struggle to live here in Vanuatu.”