File picture: Umngeni Community Empowerment Centre.

DHAKA - Bangladeshi border guards are painting warnings on the homes of suspected human and drug traffickers in eastern villages in a bid to curb to trafficking to India, an official said on Friday.

Houses in villages near the border with northeast India have been marked in red paint with phrases such as "this is a human trafficker's house", according to a senior border guard.

Thousands of Bangladeshis are trafficked to India each year - many of whom are sold into prostitution or domestic servitude - anti-slavery activists say, although official data is lacking.

About 1,800 victims have returned from India with assistance from the Bangladeshi government since 2011, yet Border Guard Bangladesh regional commander Golam Kabir said the country was struggling to secure justice against human traffickers.

"We arrested many of these (human) trafficking brokers more than once and there are multiple cases filed against them," Kabir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"But they still get bail and get involved in the business again. We hope our strategy (of painting homes) works well to counter this ... there needs to be pressure built against them."

Bangladesh has been on a U.S. State Department watchlist for the past three years over its record on trafficking, putting it at risk of a downgrade that would trigger economic sanctions.

The government has said it is working to resolve issues raised in the annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons report - from a failure to tackle illegal recruitment agents to a lack of probes into potential trafficking crimes against Rohingya refugees.

Yet the tactic of using red paint to denounce suspected traffickers is improper and violates the principle of innocent until proven guilty, said Tajul Islam, a Supreme Court lawyer.

"In addition to this, think of the family members of the broker," said Islam, who is also an adviser for the charity Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust. "They have been labelled as well. It will have a bad impact on them."

Anti-trafficking advocates and researchers were divided over the approach; some questioned the impact of castigating suspects who were unlikely to be the ringleaders of trafficking networks, while others said it was necessary in order to spread a message.

"We need to create social pressure since the trafficking cases are likely to run for a long time," said Shakirul Islam, chairman of migrant rights group Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program.

Nationwide, more than 4,000 cases are awaiting trial under a 2012 law that criminalized trafficking, according to police records, and only about 30 people have been convicted so far.

"The way I see it, I know the people in the villages ... who are involved in trafficking because they have been doing it for a long time," Islam added. "People need to know who they are." 

Thomson Reuters Foundation