Over 100,000 foreigners in Bangladesh, step to make visa difficult

The government is losing significant revenue from income tax due to the illegal residence of many of these foreigners, while job opportunities for local workers are also diminishing as a result, said Tofazzal Hossain Miah, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister

Many foreign nationals are residing in Bangladesh without obtaining a work permit, and they face minimal hindrance. This situation arises due to legal loopholes and the absence of a comprehensive database containing information about foreign nationals living in Bangladesh.

Consequently, many of these individuals earn income in the country but do not fulfil their tax obligations properly.

Authorities express concern over the significant number of foreign nationals remaining in Bangladesh even after their visas expire. The deterrent to overstaying is relatively weak, as the fine for visa violations is only Tk 30,000. This low penalty encourages individuals to prolong their stay, often by changing visa categories to circumvent enforcement measures.

The topics discussed in the meeting titled 'Determining what to do about foreign nationals staying in Bangladesh without work permits,' which took place at the conference room of the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) in Agargaon, in the capital.

During this meeting, it was decided to address the issue by creating a central database and implementing fines on a daily basis against foreign nationals residing illegally in Bangladesh.

Additionally, measures were decided upon to penalise those who offer employment, lodging, or housing to foreign nationals residing illegally in the country.

Chaired by Tofazzal Hossain Miah, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, the meeting saw the participation of Executive Chairman Lokman Hossain Mia, as well as secretaries from relevant ministries and departments, and other high-ranking officials.

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During the meeting, the Special Branch (SB) of the police provided information indicating that as of 31 December, a total of 107,167 foreign nationals were residing in Bangladesh, entering the country under four visa categories.

Among them, 10,485 foreign nationals arrived on business and investment class visas, some 14,399 on employment visas, 6,827 on education visas, and 75,456 on tourism and other visas. Among these, Indian citizens constituted the largest group, totaling 37,464 individuals, followed by Chinese citizens with 11,404 people.

Responding to a question at the conclusion of the meeting, Principal Secretary Tofazzal Hossain Miah informed Prothom Alo that due to incomplete information, estimates suggest that there could be between 400,000 to 500,000 foreigners in the country.

The government is losing significant revenue from income tax due to the illegal residence of many of these foreigners, while job opportunities for local workers are also diminishing as a result, he added.

Legal weaknesses within Bangladesh's policy

According to the information presented in the meeting, individuals intending to work while staying in Bangladesh must obtain permission from the government and fulfil income tax obligations. However, the current visa policies exhibit weaknesses.

The 2006 visa policy remains in effect despite the formulation of a new policy in 2019, which is yet to be implemented by the government. Additionally, foreign nationals have the option to change their visa classifications while residing in Bangladesh.

It was highlighted in the meeting that many individuals enter and engage in employment, business, and investment activities, as well as tourism, under various visa categories, without facing stringent conditions or requirements outlined in the visa policy.

Consequently, visa holders often do not adhere to the necessary procedures. Many individuals continue to extend their stay in Bangladesh, exploiting loopholes in the visa system. Furthermore, discussions during the meeting addressed instances where foreign embassies facilitate the issuance of new passports for blacklisted individuals.

Decisions made in the meeting

During the meeting, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Tofazzal Hossain Miah, announced the decision to create a central database accessible to various government entities, including the Security Services Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh Bank, National Board of Revenue (NBR), Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA), Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA), Hi-Tech Park Authority, Bureau of NGO Affairs, National Security Intelligence (NSI), Department of Immigration and Passports, and Police Special Branch (SB).

This database aims to prevent foreigners from working without permission.

The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister outlined plans to digitise and automate the visa issuance process in Bangladeshi missions. Additionally, it was decided that fines would be imposed on foreigners, who possess visas different from their intended class, hold expired visas without work permits, and stay in hotels unlawfully. Fines will be levied on illegal foreign nationals on a daily basis, proportional to their length of stay. Companies found employing illegal immigrants will also face penalties. Moreover, details of individuals blacklisted by the Security Services Department will be published on a designated website.

Tofazzal Hossain Miah expressed confidence that the decisions regarding foreigners will generate additional revenue of Tk 10 to 12 billion annually.