Wednesday, June 18, 2014

When the dream of overseas jobs turns into a nightmare

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

When the dream of overseas jobs turns into a nightmare

M. Serajul Islam

The recent incident in the Bay of Bengal in which five Bangladeshis were killed is no accident.  They were among 318 in a trawler who were trying to reach Malaysia illegally and were killed when Myanmar's human traffickers fired at them. The deaths of the Bangladeshis underscore a great tragedy that has been in the making for quite sometime. It reflects the air of hopelessness and desperation in the manpower market, where the dream of many for a job overseas is shrinking.

Recently, members of my immediate family were in Saudi Arabia for the Umrah. They were in Saudi Arabia a few times before for Hajj as well as Umrah. The news they carried back was that of a sharp drop in the number of Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia. On their earlier trips, they had found the overwhelming majority of those they came across at airports, in hotels, and in other labor-intensive places of work were Bangladeshis. This time, in their hotels, they found that most of the Bangladeshis were gone. Those few who were still there told them that the Saudis were recruiting labourers from other countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar (the Rohingyas) to replace the Bangladeshis.

The number of new workers from Bangladesh to other Middle East (ME) countries has also declined but that is not due to a fall in demand. In Qatar and UAE, demand has in fact increased with the 2022 World Cup Soccer in Qatar and 2022 World Expo in Dubai. Yet in both Qatar and UAE, labour export from Bangladesh has declined - in case of UAE, much more. The reason for the decline of Bangladeshi labourers in these two countries and the rest of the ME that no one talks about is the way politics has been conducted in the country since the Awami League (AL) came to power in January 2009, and its reflection in foreign relations. The demand of the secular groups in Bangladesh that Awami League ban Jamaat-e-Islami has been one reason for the declining numbers of migrant workers. Added to that has been the demand in the country for the trial of those who are alleged to have been involved with war crimes in 1971.

The ME countries have not expressed any views on the two issues. They had no reason to do so because what Bangladesh does at home is Bangladesh's business. Nevertheless, the Jamaat has deep links with at least one of the countries in the ME. Therefore, before the AL-led government had decided to hold the war crimes trials and taken an ambivalent stand on banning the Jamaat, its foreign policy team should have explained, for reasons of economic diplomacy, to the ME countries its compulsions on both the issues. On her first trip to Saudi Arabia soon after assuming power in January 2009, the Prime Minister had explained the issues in her audience with the King. Unfortunately, the government ended messing up both the issues, in which the Shahbag Movement, that the government supported, also contributed significantly. Although the Jamaat has not been banned and just one of the war criminals has been hanged, the government ended up giving negative perceptions to the ME countries providing them enough excuse to believe that Islam was being victimized on the two issues.

The impact of the perceptions in the Middle Eastern countries is now emerging. Remittance figures have shown that in the 2013-14 financial year, remittance flow to the country would fall by over US$ 1.0 billion. With no new labourers being recruited to offset the numbers of workers being sent home from Saudi Arabia and many ME countries, the remittance figures are certain to drop further in the future.

The way Bangladesh conducted relations with the UAE also has had a negative impact on the remittance flow. Last year, Bangladesh for reasons no one has explained, voted against UAE in its successful bid to hold the Expo 2018. Bangladesh had instead voted for Russia that lost its bid. The result was, not only did UAE stop recruiting labour; at one stage it had even stopped granting transit visas to Bangladeshis using UAE airports for travelling to Europe and the USA.

The government, unfortunately, is in denial over the shrinking ME labour market. That is not the case in the villages of Bangladesh. There many hundreds of thousands have been encouraged to dream that one day, they too would follow the hundreds of thousands of their brothers/friends/relatives to work in the Middle East. However, lately the dreams of many began to fade as many were returning home with few leaving for their dream jobs. The conflict between the ministry of expatriates' affairs and the BAIRA, the association of manpower agents, has further added to the declining trend in manpower export.

The new BJP government in India has threatened to "push back" millions of alleged Bangladeshis in India.  Although Bangladesh disputes the huge figure that the Indians claim, the fact is that there are a large number of illegal Bangladeshis in India who went there, among other reasons, for a route to the Middle East. Human traffickers cheated them and abandoned them. That was years ago. These days, the human traffickers cannot smuggle Bangladeshis with the promise to send them to their dream jobs in the foreign lands through India, because meanwhile India has raised the impenetrable barbed wire fence along the Bangladesh-India border.

The tragedy in the Bay of Bengal is the result of what is happening in rural Bangladesh. The dream of overseas jobs has been forcing people in the rural areas to take desperate ventures with the temptations coming from the same traffickers who once led hundreds of thousands to a miserable life in the slums of India's Mumbai while promising them jobs in the ME. They are now misleading the new generation of rural Bangladeshis to brave the dangers of the high seas for dream jobs in Malaysia. No one in authority in the country seems to bother about educating these people that since there were no jobs in the Middle East for those who had been eventually trapped in India, likewise there were no jobs in Malaysia for those who were daring the dangerous seas to reach there.

Bangladesh's economy stands on two pillars: the ready-made garment (RMG) sector and foreign remittance. While the RMG sector has deep links with the power structure, the remittance earners are unfortunate who get honourable mention and little else. They are left literally at the mercy of the elements. At the time of going abroad, many of them fall victim to unscrupulous manpower agents for which they end up paying a lot more money for going abroad than the labour force in comparative jobs in the Middle East from other countries. In their place of work, many of them suffer inhuman cruelties with little support from the Bangladesh embassies to deal with their sufferings.

The country's domestic policy that has created misperceptions in the Middle East added to the miseries of the expatriate workers in that region. The consequences have created desperation in the villages of Bangladesh leading thousands to the traps of the human traffickers. Therefore, closing the net on the human traffickers alone would not improve the dangerous situation; for the sake of economic diplomacy, the country's foreign affairs team must go back to the drawing board and re-write their script for successful economic diplomacy with the manpower destination countries, particularly in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the relevant authorities must alert the people in our villages that instead of their dream coming true in Malaysia, there are no jobs at all in that country for illegal immigrants, and for those who risk the dangers of the high seas of the Bay of Bengal to reach Malaysia, a living hell awaits them there.

The writer is a career Ambassador. His email id is

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