‘It is not impossible to recover the dues of the returned migrants’

Tasneem Siddiqui

Tasneem Siddiqui, professor of political science at Dhaka University, is presently the chairperson of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU). In an interview with Prothom Alo, she speaks about the problems of expatriate Bangladeshis, human trafficking and how these problems can be resolved.

Q :

On the way from Libya to Europe, 17 Bangladeshis drowned and died when their boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia. In the past too, many such Bangladeshis have died at sea. Many have been rescued and kept in the care of Red Cross. How can they be rescued and brought back home?

Another 17 young Bangladeshis lost their lives in their efforts to fulfill their dreams of going to Europe. Another 380 persons, including Bangladeshi nationals, were rescued and handed over to the Red Cross. They have been quarantined after undergoing Covid tests. According to IOM, from January to May this year, 760 migrants have died at sea. To bring back the survivors, first the embassies have to ascertain the nationality of the migrants. Then they must approach international agencies such as IOM or UNHCR for assistance. But first and foremost, it must be determined how many of them actually want to return. In the past it has been seen that many of them were imprisoned upon return to the country. Before bringing them back, it must be ensured that they won’t be sent to jail when they return.

Q :

Why has such migration increased during the pandemic? How would you term the way they are being taken from Bangladesh – migration or human trafficking?

Various international researches have indicated that informal migration increases whenever there is a calamity. Traffickers take advantage of the situation and create opportunities to migrate through informal routes. Needless to say, huge sums of money changes hands. The fine line between human smuggling, human trafficking and informal migration has almost disappeared in recent times. However, I still consider the stream of migrants heading towards Europe as human smuggling. The task of the smugglers is to get them across the border. Once they reach various countries in Europe, the migrants have no more contact with the smugglers.

Q :

Local and foreign rings are involved in the irregular migration process. How can the international human trafficking network be broken?

After drugs and arms smuggling, human trafficking is the third largest underground business. Its network is worldwide. Even if the traffickers of one country are in contact with a trafficking ring of another country, this is not just one set up. It is difficult to catch them, but not impossible. This requires political commitment of the international community.

Q :

Many consider the existing law in the country against human trafficking is of international standard. The government even has separate courts to deal with human trafficking. How effective has this been?

It is true that in 2012 Bangladesh enacted a strict law against human trafficking, but the special courts haven’t all been formed as yet. The rules were only framed in 2017. Over 6,000 cases have been filed, but less than 100 persons have been punished. And they are just small fry. Many are released in absence of evidence. And the godfathers remain behind the scenes.

Q :

Many countries have stopped sending female workers to the Middle East as they are allegedly abused there. But women are still being sent from Bangladesh. Many are abused there and return home. How do you view this?

Globalisation has created job opportunities and the opportunity to change for the socially and economically exploited and deprived women in the remote areas of Bangladesh. At the same time, this globalisation has also created work without security or labour rights. If effective measures are to be taken to address violence against women, demands must be raised at several multilateral forums. Pressure must be mounted on the host countries to ratify the ILO convention for domestic workers. But it would not be right to halt migration of female workers. This will simply decrease women’s security further. It may even increase women trafficking.

Q :

Women are even trafficked to India and Pakistan from Bangladesh. When a trafficking ring was caught in Bengularu recently, many Bangladeshi women were discovered there. How can they be rescued and how can this trafficking be halted?

Trafficking women to India and Pakistan has been going on for long. The SAARC convention regarding trafficking can be used in this regard. Also, those working at the Bangladeshi diplomatic missions in India, need to be ‘pro-active’, rather than ‘be active’.

Q :

Even during the prevalence of coronavirus, remittances have increased. What is the reason behind this?

For long we at RMMRU have been saying that remittance is a 30 billion dollar industry for Bangladesh. Half of this comes through formal channels and half through ‘hundi’. Last year 21 billion dollars came through formal channels because the areas where ‘hundi’ money is needed – over-invoicing or under-invoicing to evade taxes by garment and other manufacturers, expenditure by recruiting agencies for visa trading, gold smuggling, etc – were going slow last year. As a result, the demand for hundi had diminished. So the increase in remittances does not mean that Bangladeshi migrant workers are faring well in the coronavirus pandemic.

Q :

Do you think the assistance programme taken up by the government for returning migrant workers is adequate? Does the international community have nothing to do for those who have lost their jobs and returned home?

Due to Covid-19, as many as 400,000 workers returned to the country last year. The government took up a Tk 700 crore loan project for their rehabilitation. But the returning migrant workers are not too eager about these loans. They say they are not entrepreneurs. If they are to be encouraged towards self-employment, a market-oriented business model must be created for them. They must be given training. Only then they will be interested in taking loans.

An important responsibility of the international community is to ensure that the host countries pay the migrants their wages which they were cheated of during the pandemic. A recent study of RMMRU revealed that on average each worker returned home without receiving Tk 180,000 due in wages and other allowances. Steps must be taken to return this money to the workers by means of multilateral discussions with the governments of the host countries.

Q :

Workers going overseas on work through private agencies have to spend higher sums of money. Then again, going through government channels is not always successful. Workers from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal go for a comparatively lower payment. What can be done?

Our government recruiting agency is BOESL. They basically send skilled workforce. There are no allegations against them of cheating. Unfortunately, they have only managed to recruit one per cent of the workers. The others are going through the private recruiting agencies or on their own accord. If BOESL’s capacity is to be increased, it must be allowed to work independently. Its budget is to be increased. Bangladesh has the highest expenditure in South Asia for labour migration. According to BBS, a worker spends 5,000 dollars to go overseas. That is because the owners of some recruiting agencies are directly involved in politics and are members of parliament. This small ministry does not have the clout to hold them liable.

Q :

Thank you

Thank you too

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