Mohammad Sayem from Tangail was determined to change his family's financial condition, and he believed he could achieve that by migrating abroad as a worker. So he went to Saudi Arabia last month, but he did not have much skill for any particular job.
Like Sayem, every hour, 84 migrant workers left Bangladesh in 2018, with a hope to spin the wheel of their fortune to the better.
According to the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment and Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), more than 12 million people—of which 750,000 were women—have gone abroad as migrant workers from 1976 to April 2019.
Bangladeshi migrants send a huge remittance of an estimated $15 billion every year, which is six times higher than the total foreign aid and it constitutes at least eight percent of the GDP. In the first nine months of ongoing 2018-19 fiscal, expatriates sent nearly $12 billion — the highest in three years. Thanks to the migrants, Bangladesh now has a foreign reserve of more than $30 billion. But despite their contributions, are migrant Bangladeshis getting proper respect and dignity? The answer is, NO.
The truth is, we acknowledge the remittance, its high volume and eagerly wait to get a progress driven GDP at the year end. But at the same time, the faces behind the numbers are simultaneously being overlooked.
All the problems start from migration cost. Most of our people are not skilled and it is not known to many of us that migration costs from Bangladesh are among the highest in the world but their earning is the lowest. Middlemen in various stages of the process charge hefty amounts, the end result of which is this high migration cost. Recruiting agencies, middlemen, fraudulent agencies, inaccurate information regarding jobs, the purchase and selling of visa at high price, availing of government permission and so on, make their life difficult. But even that is not the end of it.
Once migrant workers reach their destination, many times they face different kinds of harassments such as inhuman workload, living in dire conditions, exploitation, abuse, etc. So-called free visa also leads to the exploitation of migrant workers.
The ‘Kafala’ system—under which migrant workers in domestic and construction sectors are regulated across the Middle East—is incompatible with modern human rights laws. Under the system, every worker is virtually subjugated by his or her respective employer. This system allows the employers to take away their labourers' passports or even to withhold wages, creating easy opportunities for employers to exploit workers. Many Bangladeshi women workers reported having been treated by their employers as bonded labour.
It is also a common allegation of migrant workers that whenever they visit the embassy in times of difficulty, they often face neglect. Upon returning after long periods of time, they face harassment at the airport.
Many of our migrants are also returning with empty hand, especially women, who are being tortured, sexually abused, living abroad and returning in utter despair. No one, they found to stand beside them upon arrival.
Bangladesh lacks a proper policy for the reintegration the returnees. In the current socio-economic context, if a person is seeking loan for labour migration, there are numerous people who will support him but there will be none to support a returnee on failed migration, neither will he or she be well accepted by society. Though the government has the information on the labour migrants, it does not have proper data on the number of returnees. Every year, approximately 50 thousand people return with travel pass, in the last decade at least 200,000 people have returned. Many of these returnees faced financial, social and psychological problems upon their return due to exploitation and enduring hardship abroad. Government should take effective reintegration policy for these returnees to ensure their social and economic well-being.
Let’s have a look at another major issue. Many of our people do not know that every day, as people leave the country to work, eight to 10 bodies of migrant workers are similarly being returned to Bangladesh. As these bodies are taken out through the cargo gate, it is not seen by the mass of people. According to the Wage Earners Welfare Board, 38,169 bodies have been returned in the last 14 years, with the major cause of death being heart attack and stroke, and the age of the majority of those who have passed away being 28 to 30. Government should investigate why huge people died in countries chosen as their destination.
Let’s have a look on women migration. Since 2015, a quarter million of Bangladeshi women have gone to the Middle East, mostly Saudi Arabia, in search of a livelihood. Nearly 8,000 of them have so far returned, with many alleging torture and serious abuse. These returnees were in need of immediate medical treatment, onward travel support, etc. But there were very few initiatives to give them such support. It is very painful because when they arrived at the Dhaka airport in the middle of the night, they found no one by their side.
Human trafficking is another risk for Bangladesh, especially trafficking in the name of migration. Every year, thousands of men and women in Bangladesh become victims of trafficking. Between 2013 and 2018, as many as 5,716 cases of trafficking were filed, but the sad truth is that only 247 cases were resolved.
In the Trafficking in Persons 2018 report by the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Bangladesh has been placed in the ‘Tier 2 Watch List’, which is an indicator for vulnerability. The report suggests that Bangladesh has failed to provide evidence of increased efforts to combat trafficking. Although Bangladesh enacted the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act in 2012, the number of prosecutions and convictions under the act remains extremely low.
It is true that the government has taken various positive initiatives in the field of migration, but there is still a long way to go. Migration governance is very much important to tackle all the obstacles. Mass awareness is needed first. People need to understand that, one has to travel using regular channels and need to be skilled and possess verified information before migrating. The middlemen have to be monitored and registered and the cost of migration has to be reduced. Additionally, new destination countries must be explored for both men and women.
But before all we have to understand that migrants are not only money-making machines, they are also human beings who have to be given their due respect which is missing now.In one line, the truth is that migrants give plenty to the country and receive nothing in return. Though I am not an economist, I always say Bangladesh is running because of E, F, and G. Here E means expatriate workers, F means Farmers and G means Garments workers. These three sectors of people are the driving force behind Bangladesh, but they do not get respect from us. So, first of all we should respect them. Now the question is when will they get their dignity?
Shariful Hasan is the head of BRAC’s Migration Programme. Before joining BRAC in 2017, he worked for leading Bangla daily Prothom Alo for nearly 12 years covering government and politics, migration and development.