‘Illicit Child Labourers’: Exploring Street Children’s Involvement in Organised Crime

  • Sally Atkinson-Sheppard
Part of the Palgrave Advances in Criminology and Criminal Justice in Asia book series (PACCJA)


This chapter focuses specifically on the role that street children play in mastaan groups. It will explain how street children work for ‘mastaans’. These children are hired to carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money, commit political violence and conduct contract killings. The chapter will argue that these children are neither victims nor offenders; they are instead ‘illicit labourers’, doing what they can to survive on the streets.


Organised crime Gangs Illicit child labour Bangladesh 


There have been hardly any studies conducted in Bangladesh which explore gangs or organised crime. The reasons for this are unclear but the fact remains that while scholars have long debated gangs in the United States, Europe and increasingly in other countries, this research offers the first robust empirical study of the gangs of Bangladesh. Because so little is known about organised crime in Bangladesh, there is no way to assess what role children play in these criminal businesses. This chapter fills these lacunae.

The chapter explores the role that street children play in these criminal groups. During an extensive review of the literature, I discovered that children who become involved in armed conflict or criminal activity are commonly described as gang members, child soldiers or victims of exploitation. However, none of these terms sufficiently explain what happens to children in Dhaka. This article proposes an alternative view: street children, who operate at the bottom echelon of Bangladesh’s organised crime groups, are ‘illicit labourers’; that is, unskilled or semi-skilled workers in criminal enterprises. This chapter will consider why this proposition better explains the work children do and why they do it.

Research Findings

The study considered the labels that Bangladeshis use to describe organised criminals, the mastaans and hierarchies that exist among these groups. In 2006, Hallsworth and Young proposed that group offending occurs in three distinctive clusters: peer groups, gangs and organised crime. They argued that gangs often begin as peer groups but that some gangs become organised crime groups. I considered this hierarchy of organised crime but propose a modified pyramid: organised crime in Dhaka operates via a hierarchy consisting of three main echelons. The first echelon is mastaans, Bangladesh’s organised crime bosses. The second echelon is gangs who exist on the streets. The third level is street children, the illicit workers of these groups, who are involved in some of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

The data demonstrated that mastaan groups operate criminal businesses with clearly defined roles, responsibilities and ways to earn and divide profits. As Chap.  4 discussed, groups are headed by a mastaan who is supported by a right-hand man or assistant who controls the lower echelons of the crime group. Furthermore, mastaans operate in numerous slums in Dhaka; they control these poor areas and the people who live among them by extorting money, and in return providing slum dwellers with access to basic services. Mastaans conduct their activities in collusion with politicians, who provide them with immunity. Mastaans give politicians a share of the extortion money and provide ‘political muscle’, threats, violence and intimidation on the streets to secure votes and muster political support. Mastaans use gangs to control areas of the city and vulnerable children operate at the lowest echelon of these groups. These children are hired to conduct political violence, ‘grab’ land, carry weapons, sell drugs, collect extortion money and commit murder.

Street Children and Vulnerability

The fieldwork data illustrated two main factors, both of which are essential in understanding why street children become the illicit labourers of mastaan groups: the children’s vulnerability and their need to earn money to survive. The children in this study were particularly vulnerable and thus representative of many street children in Dhaka. Before their engagement with the centre, most of the children lived in make-shift accommodation in slums or on the streets (and still return to these places at the weekend).

In 2012, a report was produced by an American university1 as part of a review into the effectiveness of the organisation. The 2012 report stated that before engaging with the organisation the children rarely had adequate clothes and often missed meals. All of the children worked on the streets. They had never attended school and their families relied on their income to survive. The children’s jobs included: recycling, street-selling, domestic service and begging (Organisation Report 2012). Many of the children suffered from health problems, including skin disease, injuries resulting from traffic accidents, respiratory infections and hepatitis (Organisation Report 2012). Drug use and domestic violence were prevalent among their families and nearly half the young people reported regular physical abuse by a sibling, parent or guardian (Organisation Report 2012). The children also reported many instances of police brutality both in the Organisation Report and in this study. Sexual abuse was also described to be prevalent on the streets (Organisation Report 2012).

Peer Groups

Street children often join or form groups with other street children because of the risks and vulnerability they face on the streets (Conticini 2005). These groups offer solidarity and companionship and are necessary for survival. However, many of these children quickly become involved in criminality. Differentiating between groups that were involved in crime and those that were not proved difficult for the child interviewees, but they did feel that it was unlikely that crime is carried out alone.

In this instance, comparisons can be made with the ‘adolescent peer groups’ (Hallsworth and Young 2006) discussed earlier; these children are adolescents, they have ‘peers’, they operate in groups and some are involved in low-level offending. Analysis of the fieldwork data suggests that the types of crime that small groups of street children commit include pickpocketing and shoplifting. Young street children carry out robberies on pedestrians or on people riding in rickshaws. Children also fight with other children, either within their own group or with children from neighbouring areas. They take and sell drugs, such as phensedyl, an illegal painkiller, and locally made alcohol. These children have no direct relationship with gangs or mastaans.

Child Labour

Street children also carry out crime because they are hired by mastaans and gang members to do so. They have roles, responsibilities and a boss. They are exploited and are a commodity; they work for mastaans and are engaged in some of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. There are two main components necessary in order to understand street children’s involvement in mastaan groups. First, the interviewees conceptualised involvement in crime groups as work for street children rather than crime. Second, mastaan groups have clearly defined structures, hierarchies, bosses and mechanisms for sharing profit. This means that the children who work for them believe themselves to be engaged in a business.

Perceptions of Work

The interviewees were well informed about the practice of hiring children to commit crime; they described it as a normal and intrinsic part of Bangladeshi society. Children can be hired to work, which also means that criminals can hire children to carry out crime or violence for them. A community member explained further:

They are poor, this is their job. As they get older they look to see who is making the money and they see gang members earning money by selling drugs and because they need the money too, they will join. The street boys are very poor and hungry, they need to get money. They see selling drugs as their job.2

This shows that poverty draws young people in to crime and how crime is perceived. A strong theme to emerge from this study was that the participants conceptualised involvement with mastaan groups as work and made no mention of the fact that the work street children are hired to do involves committing crime. The following quotation, from a young person, explains how it is possible to rent a child to conduct a contract killing:

You can rent someone to kill someone else for you. You can hire a 10-year-old to kill someone for you! But it goes up, you can hire older children too. The age is not fixed, it’s more dependent on how much you can pay them. But it is possible to just rent someone to kill, actually, it’s really easy.3

Hiring someone to commit crime is relatively simple, but having money determines how easy this process is. Furthermore, the children involved in this study normalised this behaviour and explained that hiring children to conduct murder is part of life on the streets.

The Structure of Mastaan Groups

The structure of mastaan groups relates closely to why the interviewees conceptualised crime as labour. Divisions of work mean that people within mastaan groups have roles and responsibilities that transfer all the way down to the streets and the children who live there. The children often have specific roles such as drug runner or weapon carrier. A young person explained further:

There is a boss, a group leader and there are jobs for people, like you are going to a market and you will steal this thing and you are going to a shop and steal this. The boys steal things and then give what they stole to their boss. This is their job; in this way they earn some money.4

Other participants spoke of how labour is divided which is often based on the age and abilities of the workers:

For fighting, mastaans use children 8 to 15 years old. This is because these boys are so small. If these boys are caught and are punished and if they are beaten then they could die and this is one of the reasons why the mastaans don’t use them for killing. When the mastaans want someone to do something like stealing or murder they will use older boys because if someone tries to catch them and beat them they can run away fast and they can tolerate a beating much better than the younger boys.5

Furthermore, because mastaan groups operate as criminal businesses, they have structures to share profits and commission. A female aged 14, explained further:

They work together and when they get something or when they earn money they have to give it to their boss and then their boss gives them some commission. And then they share it within their group and this is the way they earn money.6

The fieldwork data demonstrated that street children who work for mastaan groups always have a boss. One young person explained that children commit crime because ‘they do it like a job, the boss orders them and they have to follow them. Just like a job.’7 The boss controls the group and is distinguished from other members because he often has weapons that he may use to threaten or control the group: ‘the boss has the gun, the power. That’s why the juniors obey him. That’s why he is the boss.’8 Younger members are often fearful of their boss:

They are scared. The boss makes them do things: he shows them the power and shows that he has the gun, so they have to do what he says. The boys do their duty, they commit crime and they give the boss the money.9

Nevertheless, the fieldwork data also illustrated that some children actively choose to join gangs because of the earning potential these groups provide:

Boys do it to earn money, they don’t sell flowers because it is more profitable to sell drugs, that is why the 15 to 18-year-old boys join bigger groups, then they make bigger plans for crime and earning money.10

In making these decisions, children exert agency over their lives and consider which jobs are most likely to help them survive.

Street Children for Hire

This section considers the types of crime that mastaans hire children to commit. It begins with a discussion of land grabbing, and then moves on to deliberate street children’s involvement in political violence. However, street children are also hired by mastaans to sell drugs, collect extortion money and commit contract killings so this section also explores the ways in which these offences occur and the role that street children play in these crimes.

Land Grabbing

Bangladesh has struggled for years with land ownership conflicts (Feldman and Geisler 2011). In many instances, the term ‘land grabbing’ is used to describe ‘involuntary land transfer’ (Feldman and Geisler 2011, p. 3) but land grabbing is a contested term (Borras and Franco 2010). However, Feldman and Geisler (2011) argue that whatever it is called, land grabbing disproportionally affect the poor.

Land grabbing often occurs in slums where ‘violent disputes over land result in eviction, arson, loss of property and lives’ (Shafi 2010, p. 138). This leads to a breakdown in security in these areas and affects poor people who struggle to protect their land (Shafi 2010). Street children are often hired by mastaans to ‘grab land’ by occupying a piece of land to which they have no legal right. Young people, on the direct orders of mastaan bosses, literally occupy space in slums. They remain there until the landowner is forced to give the land up. This physical presence and threat of a mastaan means that people are often quickly coerced into relinquishing their land. The plot can then be sold or occupied by slum dwellers. One young person was particularly well informed about this practice:

Sometimes they hijack the land. Say a man has land and the documents are in his name then a mastaan will go to the man, with his group, and say ‘give me the land otherwise we will beat you’. Then what is the man supposed to do? He has to give his land to them. If he refuses the mastaans use young street boys to stay on the land and fight for it. The mastaan always wins.11

Another participant, an adult, agreed and explained how land grabbing occurs:

If there is some land that I have purchased but I am not using the land they [the mastaans] can get the land forcefully and since I don’t have power then I cannot get them out of my land. It is a huge business. They use street boys because it is easy. If the opposition is stronger and there is a killing while occupying the land it doesn’t matter because they kill the street children, not the mastaans.12

This indicates the vulnerability of street children and the consequences of their involvement in land grabbing. Many discussions held about the Worst Forms of Child Labour highlight the importance of protecting children from work that harms them (The Hague Global Child Labour Conference 2010). Street children face many risks when engaging in land grabbing because mastaans know that in the event of a dispute, it will be the children who will face the repercussions.

Political Violence and ‘Hartals’

Bangladesh has a chaotic political situation and political parties often call ‘hartals’ (enforced political strikes) to bring the country to a standstill. Hartals are conducted for days and even weeks on end, including mass political rallies and a shutdown of public transport (‘Violence marks Jamaat’s Hartal’ 2012). Hartals are widely feared among Bangladeshis because they repeatedly result in violence on the streets. It is common practice for people to stay at home during these demonstrations, rather than go into work or school, to avoid the unrest. The fieldwork data illustrated that street children are hired by mastaans to work on behalf of politicians to cause disturbance at political demonstrations, burn buses and throw bombs:

When there is a call of hartal then street children are hired because they can easily set fire to a bus, it doesn’t matter to them. Because they are living by the rules of others, they don’t have their own resources to live. They think there is no difference in going to jail or living on the streets.13

This quotation highlights that these children are a vulnerable, cheap and easily accessible labour force. It also demonstrates the predicament of these children and their state of mind by highlighting how prison is not a deterrent due to their living conditions on the streets. Furthermore, street children rarely have any specific association within politics, despite engaging in political violence as another participant explained:

They [the children] have no political ideology; they are the bottom of the criminal pyramid. They are often killed, taken to prison and because they have no direct political backing they are often sent to jail. Their motivation is purely monetary to survive. They are for sale, to the biggest bidder.14

This quotation outlines why it is important to conceptualise street children’s involvement in mastaan groups as illicit labour, rather than crime. Vulnerable children need money to survive and one way to earn it is to become involved in political violence. There is no consideration for the rights or safety of these street children. A journalist aptly described these children as ‘the pawns in the political situation’.15

Drug Dealing

Bangladesh is an Islamic country and prohibits the use of alcohol. However, reports suggest that wine and spirits are produced illegally, and that alcohol is abused (UNODC 2005). Opium, heroin and cannabis are regularly consumed in Bangladesh but the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, which often enter from India, pose the country’s largest problem (UNODC 2005). Analysis of the fieldwork data showed that mastaan groups play an important part in this drug market, smuggling drugs into the country and selling them on the streets.

Street children often act as drug dealers, sometimes for small groups, but more often as the runners for mastaan groups. One participant explained this in more depth:

A mastaan buys drugs at a wholesale rate and then he sells it. By doing this he earns huge money but it is boys aged 18 to 20 who do this, the smaller ones just help them, they just carry the drugs and the bigger ones sell them.16

In terms of the division of labour, it is common for gang members to hold different positions and have varying responsibilities related to selling drugs:

There are different roles for different people in the group: one is a supplier, one is a look out, one is for home deliveries. Now people don’t want to go to the spots, so they get drugs delivered to their homes. There are lots of altercations regarding distribution of profit.17

The current study found that children’s involvement in drug dealing is conceptualised, by many young people, as a job and a viable way to make money on the streets. Children act as the workers of crime groups; they sell drugs for a share of the profit. Their bosses are gang members, who act on behalf of mastaans.

Extortion and ‘Toll’ Collecting

As Chap.  4 discussed, mastaans are involved in large-scale extortion where they exploit slum dwellers and force them to pay a ‘toll’ or ‘tax’. Because the areas in which they carry out extortion are so large—slums with often millions of inhabitants—they hire gangs and street children to collect the money for them, an example of one of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The children were well informed about this practice as the following quotation explains:
  • There are so many sources of earning money. Mastaans collect money from stalls and stores, they collect tax, they say give me the money or you cannot open your shop; and if you don’t give them money then you are not allowed to open your shop. There are so many hawkers, people selling things on the footpath, and they take money from all of them. In our language we call this ‘chanda’. It’s like a tax or a toll.

  • Researcher: Who do they collect the money for?

  • They collect the money for the big mastaan.18

The practice of toll collecting can occur within a structure of organised crime but the participants also gave other examples of how young people use it as a source of earning and as a way to control and exploit others. A young male participant provided an example of how this occurs:
  • A few days ago, I was near a pond which is close to where I live. In the pond there are many fish, so me and my friends went to catch them. After catching fish, we always sell them. We were sitting on the road and boys kept coming to us and saying give me the money, give me the chanda.

  • Researcher: What is chanda?

  • Toll collecting, they are always collecting the tolls. It’s like a rent. The mastaans say if you want to sit here you have to give me the rent. I didn’t want to give them the rent so I just sat there and thought I won’t give them money because it is mine. A few minutes later I saw the big boss who I know because he is from the same area as me. Every day I see him and give him the salute. The boss asked me: ‘What’s the matter?’ and I told him that I was just sitting there, and the boys asked me for chanda. The boss said to the mastaans, ‘he is a nice boy, leave him alone’ and the boys didn’t take the money from me.19

This quote is important for several reasons. First, it outlines how life in slums, on all levels, is controlled by criminality and that extortion impinges on every part of life. Second, it illustrates how having connections and influence can help a young person to navigate such situations and why these connections are necessary for survival and mobility on the streets.

Contract Killings

The media have documented the rise of contract killings in Bangladesh. Newspapers allege that organised criminals use young gang members to commit murder for them as a way for older members to evade criminal prosecution (Khan and Shaon 2014). The current study considered the role of mastaans in contract killings and how they conduct these acts. Analysis of the fieldwork data suggests that individuals hire street children to carry out revenge killings. However, in many cases it is necessary for a mastaan to hire a child. A police officer explained: ‘They do murder or ransom, they are hired killers; they kill on the instruction of their boss.’20

One particularly worrying aspect of this research emerged during discussions held about child killers. Several participants used the term ‘chocolate boy’ to describe a child who is hired to commit murder. An interviewee explained further:

It is a 14 to 16-year-old, they have guns and are working for the mastaans, who will show them a picture. They will have a beautiful face and they will follow the person, to and from their work. They will be waiting at the victim’s home, but the victim will not be worried because they will have a smiling face and a smart shirt and tie. But they will take the gun and they will shoot and kill them. This is the chocolate boy.21

The appearance of the child is important; as this quotation illustrates, the chocolate boy is a particular type of child killer who dresses and looks a certain way and helps lull the victim into a false sense of security by providing them with a gift, such as a box of chocolates. The child then shoots the victim. This is associated with Aptekar’s (1988, p. 47) argument that ‘smaller [street] children are often more economically productive than the older ones because younger children are seen as less threatening and because they have a “cute image”’. It is improbable that older mastaan group members could fulfil the role of a chocolate boy in the same way, as the victim would be more likely to react to their appearance and perceive them to be hostile. The example of the chocolate boy demonstrates how street children are hired because of their appearance, their age and demeanour, thus showing how these children have unique characteristics, associated with age, which are exploited by mastaan bosses.

Actively Seeking Protection

This study was plagued with issues of moral agency. For example, if street children commit crime on behalf of mastaans, where does the culpability of these children lie? Are they victims, offenders or both? This study considered the ways in which mastaans actively recruit street children into their groups and coerce children into crime using the threat of violence. Mastaan groups also prevent street children from working in other jobs, leaving them immobile and unable to make choices about employment on the streets. This then encourages street children to engage in organised crime as a way to secure an income. Additionally, mastaans work in collusion with the police to recruit children by threatening young people with arrest; the young people are then forced to turn to mastaans for protection. Finally, the fieldwork data demonstrated that street children are often recruited into mastaan groups while incarcerated in one of Bangladesh’s three juvenile correctional centres or in adult jails. These centres and prisons fail to protect the rights of children and leave them vulnerable to the advances of mastaan group members. All of these examples contribute to a victim perspective and demonstrate how street children are coerced into organised crime. However, this victim lens does not explain the whole story of the child labourers of mastaan groups. While these children lack autonomy and control over their own lives, they do exert some agency over the decisions they make, and at times these decisions involve committing crime.

Some children actively participate in gangs because of the earning potential these groups provide. The child interviewees explained that crime often pays more than other jobs and that income is paid more frequently, particularly compared to jobs, such as selling flowers or chocolates on the streets. Additionally, mastaan groups use weapons and engage in disputes over territory and drugs which makes them comparable to many gangs around the world and demonstrates the often violent behaviour of their members.

So, if street children who work on behalf of mastaan groups are neither victims nor offenders then how is it possible to understand the work that they do? What these children seek is protection, and their involvement with mastaans is primarily driven by their need to secure an income, build connections and ensure their survival on the streets.


Vulnerable children are hired to work within mastaan groups and are tasked to commit a variety of offences, including political violence, land grabbing, contract killings, drug dealing and extortion. The children interviewed perceived crime as work. Furthermore, the organisation and structure of mastaan groups support the conceptualisation of crime in this way: these groups have clearly structured hierarchies, a division of labour and ways to share profits and commission. Street children perceive that they are working within a business, albeit a criminal one.

The current International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour is inadequate because it fails to include a specific mention of children involved in this type of organised crime. This oversight means that vulnerable children and young people—possibly numbering millions—are not being protected. However, amending the ILO definition is only the first step. Children involved in organised crime must be made more visible in policy and legislation. Extensive reforms are needed to better protect street children, something discussed in greater depth in Chap.  7. These reforms should ensure children’s safety, protect their rights and guarantee their access to education. A crime prevention policy, closely aligned with the thinking and practice of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC ), could be developed in Bangladesh and incorporated into wider child protection policies and the new Children Act 2013. Furthermore, families should be supported to become more resilient against poverty. Recent reductions in the number of child workers worldwide suggest that it is possible to reduce child labour, but this requires policy changes, global commitment and a real understanding of the problems child workers face (ILO 2013).

There is a lacuna between criminology and development studies. As a result, little is known about street children’s involvement in organised crime. By expanding the boundaries of criminology to include concepts such as social protection and child labour, the understanding of organised crime can be significantly enhanced. Associations between these disciplines should be widely encouraged and collaboration ought to occur so that we can learn more about street children’s involvement in crime and violence to better inform law, policy and practice.

Questions of moral agency remain unanswered. Children who operate at the lowest echelon of mastaan groups should be conceptualised as illicit labourers, but what happens if these children progress on to become gang members or mastaans themselves? The term labourer is only useful to describe young people on the fringes of mastaan groups, because it accurately describes the types of work that these children do (which is often menial, unskilled or semi-skilled and on the instruction of a boss). When the work becomes more skilled, young people stop being labourers and become gang members or perhaps the skilled workers of a crime group. Where does the culpability for these young people lie? The focus must be on prevention to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent child labourers from becoming the mastaan bosses of the future and to halt the spread of organised crime, issues considered in greater depth in the proceeding chapters.


  1. 1.

    The names of the university and of the report have been intentionally excluded from this book to protect the anonymity of the participants and the organisations. Thus, the report is referred to as Organisation Report 2012 in the text.

  2. 2.

    Semi-structured interview 2.

  3. 3.

    Group interview (number 5) with the children.

  4. 4.

    Group interview (number 1) with the children.

  5. 5.

    Group interview (number 5) with the children.

  6. 6.

    Group interview (number 5) with the children.

  7. 7.

    Group interview (number 6) with the children.

  8. 8.

    Group interview (number 6) with the children.

  9. 9.

    Group interview (number 3) with the children.

  10. 10.

    Group interview (number 3) with the children.

  11. 11.

    Group interview (number 8) with the children.

  12. 12.

    Semi-structured interview 18.

  13. 13.

    Semi-structured interview 17 (case study of a man who lived on the streets as a child and was involved with a criminal gang).

  14. 14.

    Semi-structured interview 5.

  15. 15.

    Semi-structured interview 5.

  16. 16.

    Group interview (number 1) with the children.

  17. 17.

    Semi-structured interview 5.

  18. 18.

    Group interview (number 2) with the children.

  19. 19.

    Group interview (number 3) with the children.

  20. 20.

    Semi-structured interview 11.

  21. 21.

    Semi-structured interview 9.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sally Atkinson-Sheppard
    • 1
  1. 1.King’s College London The Dickson Poon School of LawLondonUK

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