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After her husband left her with two children, Rahima Begum (not her real name) of Jhenidah went to Jordan as a migrant worker, seeking a means of living. Over there she fell prey to a 'supply agent' who was forcefully pushing her into the commercial sex trade. She was beaten up when she refused and then finally was given a job as a housemaid. But at the end of the month, her entire wages would go to the agent. She could no longer bear the mistreatment of her payless job and made a telephone call to the Bangladesh embassy there.

On 10 September, she finally returned to Bangladesh with head injuries. Her predicament is worse than before and she has nowhere to stay. A local journalist arranged for her to stay in a makeshift shed. "Death would have been better," she laments, speaking to Prothom Alo about her torture and the social pressure she has to face.

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There are many more like Rahima who have returned, scarred and penniless. Many of them are breaking down mentally, under pressure and suffering.

This year, till October, 28,522 women have returned, tortured and suffering mentally, losing their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some among them have returned because their contracts had ended.

According to the Wage Earners Welfare Board, in the first 10 months of last year, 1,991 women migrant workers returned to the country, empty-handed. This year, till October, 28,522 women have returned, tortured and suffering mentally, losing their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some among them have returned because their contracts had ended.

Records of the Wage Earners Welfare Board, concerning women migrants returning from Saudi Arabia, state that Saudi police rescue women migrant workers who have run away from their workplace or who have become undocumented, and place them in an extradition camp. As they do not have their passports on them, the Bangladesh embassy issues them out-passes (clearance for travel).

From January till March this year, 695 women returned with out-passes. From April to 31 October, 27,827 returned for various reasons. Women migrant workers are returning every day. Till 11 November, the most returned from Saudi Arabia, 13,270 in total. The next largest number to return was from UAE at 6,214, then 2,833 from Qatar, 2,453 from Lebanon, and 2,147 from Oman.

Bangladesh Manpower, Employment and Training Bureau (BMET) officials said that over the past five years, every year over 100,000 women migrants have been returning home. Of them, 60 to 70 per cent had gone to Saudi Arabia. Talks are regularly held between the two countries to address the issue of women being mistreated there. Some of those among the thousands that return complain of mistreatment, the officials said. The number of women returning increased this year due to the outbreak of coronavirus. Some of them are returning as there is no work and their contracts have ended.

Many women are sexually abused. Many were locked up at home and not even fed regularly for which they ran away and returned home

Director general of BMET, Md. Shamsul Alam, speaking to Prothom Alo about the matter, said that all countries have been hit by the impact of coronavirus. The labour wings of the embassies in the concerned countries endeavour to rescue the workers who have been oppressed or have been deprived of their wages. Arrangements are made to provide the returning workers with loans and training. Help is also offered to those who want to go abroad again.

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Many return with mental ailments

Farida Khatun of Mymensingh returned after a year from Saudi Arabia in August this year. Her husband Raisuddin said she had been unable to send any money back home in that year. He told Prothom Alo that she would occasionally inform them of her mistreatment at the hands of her employers, then she suddenly went missing. After she returned, they found out that she had become mentally ill and was wandering on the streets until the Saudi police rescued her and sent her back to the country.

After two years in Jordan, Ambia Khatun of Pabna returned home unwell. Her younger brother Billal Hossain said, she would speak of fear and panic over the phone. Then they didn't hear from her for a few months. When she finally returned, they came to know she was mentally sick.

According to the migration programme of BRAC, 11 workers returned to the country in the past one month with mental illness and 10 of them were women. BRAC arranged for 63 mentally suffering migrants return to their families after they came back to the country. Of them, 58 were women.

Women's security not ensured

According to Bangladesh Women Migrant Workers Association, those working in various households faced increased pressure and violence during the coronavirus pandemic. Many women are sexually abused. Many were locked up at home and not even fed regularly for which they ran away and returned home. Those who worked for hostels and messes lost their jobs at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. That is why the number of returnees has increased this year.

Director of the Bangladesh Women Migrant Workers Association, Farida Yasmin, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that oppression was simply not lessening in Saudi Arabia. The labour laws of both countries could not ensure women's safety. Women living in households were invariably mistreated. Separate accommodation must be arranged for them. An agreement must also be signed between the two countries to ensure women's safety. And awareness must be mobilised among the women and their families so that they do not falsely increase their age in the documents so as to get jobs overseas.

* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir