Bangladesh police said on Monday they have arrested three men over the trafficking of hundreds of young women taken to Dubai on the promise of jobs in hotels and then forced into sex work.
The victims were paid a month's salary up front and told they would work as housekeepers or dancers. But when they got to Dubai, many were forced to have sex for money and beaten if they refused, police said.
Among the three arrested was a man suspected to be the group's leader, who had been in hiding in Bangladesh since being deported from Dubai earlier this year.
He was arrested on trafficking charges while trying to leave the country earlier this month, said police, who described the other two men as "brokers" and said they were still looking for others.
"We have arrested the leader of the syndicate. But there are other members who are continuing this business. We will arrest them as soon as possible. Only 20 percent of the job has been done," said Imtiaz Ahmed, deputy inspector general of the Criminal Investigation Department.
"The girls they targeted were aged between 18 to 25. Some of them were garment workers, some were on the hunt for jobs. The traffickers have been working for at least eight years and we estimate that they sent hundreds of women," he added.
Bangladesh has ramped up its efforts against traffickers after 24 citizens were killed in Libya in May. Last month at least 50 people were arrested in a single operation.
But experts have warned that the country needs to increase its trafficking conviction rate if it is to curb the crime.
More than 4,000 trafficking cases were still awaiting investigation or prosecution at the end of last year and the conviction rate stood at just 1.7% in 2019, according to the latest United States Trafficking in Persons report.
"Because of poor investigation and lack of evidence, many of those who are arrested are not punished under the law," said Shakirul Islam, head of migrant rights group Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program.
"There needs to be more examples of traffickers being punished."
At least six Bangladeshis were jailed in Dubai last year for trafficking women, including minors.
Ahmed said the cross-border nature of the crime made it difficult to contain.
"We are demotivating the local traffickers by arresting them. But there's not much that we can do about those who live abroad," he said.