The question is, why have we reached this situation? l feel it is because for long the irregular migrants have been treated with a kind of official sympathy as if they are simply victims (in many cases they are victims, admittedly). The illegal aspect of their predicament is often overlooked. Every year large numbers of people try to illegally enter Europe by risking their lives and crossing the Mediterranean. On a regular basis many of them drown in the ocean and meet their watery death. It has become more or less a matter of statistics.
There is an estimate of what per cent of migrants will die and what per cent of them will reach their destination. And the migrants who are hell-bent on leaving the country, take this risk into consideration when they set out. There are inevitably Bangladeshis among the migrants who die and those who are rescued. The others all come from war-torn, poverty-ridden African countries. These countries have no similarity with Bangladesh.
From the government to the media, everyone expresses sympathy for these victims. Maybe there are a couple of words to castigate the criminals' rings who take them on these treacherous voyages, but there is no visible action against them. We simply wait for the next tragedy to strike.
Bangladesh's socioeconomic condition is not such that anyone should be so desperate to leave the country. Even so, they are heading overseas. Sociologists can carry out research on the matter. In the villages it is still hard to get an agricultural labourer for Tk 500 and three meals a day.
It is true that Bengalis are ambitious and courageous, often to a foolhardy degree. But there probably is another reason and that is the trend of persons in various social strata becoming extremely rich extremely fast. This large number of people attains this apparent success through illegal means. People are no longer holding on to the belief that one needs hard work and perseverance to attain success.
The youth who is unable to do anything, is trying to reach Italy by any means. He becomes the target of human traffickers. As a result, Bangladesh is becoming to be known as a source of human trafficking. And as it has failed to take adequate measures against human trafficking, it is being held accountable in the international arena. There has long been a kind of official sympathy and indirect support for those who have built up their wealth on irregular migration and migration. The attitude is -- poor guys, so what if it's illegal, they are going and sending back dollars, who cares about rules and regulations.
The VIPs are often heard to utter 'zero tolerance' against this and that. Will they actually apply this 'zero tolerance' to human trafficking so as to clear Bangladesh of this disrepute in the international arena?
Many are not aware that we have to pay a stiff price for this attitude. Broadly speaking, it perhaps began with Malaysia. This country opened the opportunity to send large numbers of workers there by legal means. But within a short time, unscrupulous businessmen took over control and started taking workers through illegal means. Malaysia was obliged to look for alternative sources. As a result, now there are more regular migrant workers there from Nepal, a country with a population of just 30 million, than there are from Bangladesh.
It is due to these criminal rings that different countries of the Middle East at various times have imposed restrictions on Bangladeshi migrants. The promising market in Korea has been destroyed too. It has never been possible to take punitive measures against these criminals. Alongside administrative corruption, these rings also maintain strong ties with political quarters. As a result, Bangladeshi workers pay the highest amount to go overseas, but receive the lowest wages.
Back to the Europe issue. We are bound by agreement to bring back Bangladeshis who have illegally entered Europe. Europe has given a list of 1500 such people. There is no reason to take so much time in identifying them, that the European Commission will lose patience. We have to decide our priorities. Are we putting more importance in seeing that these irregular migrants can stay back there? Or are we determined to keep our commitment?
We are all very well aware that even if there are a couple of Rohingya among these 1500 people, the rest are undoubtedly Bangladeshis. It is not difficult to shorten the delays in identifying them. We have our embassies in almost all countries. Just talking two minutes to these people will determine whether they are Bangladeshi or not. Many may not cooperate with their addresses in the hope that they can stay back in Europe. But if they are brought back with travel permits and those without addresses kept in camps, the problem will be resolved in no time.
The number 1500 is not large. Rather than remaining stuck in complications of the system, it is important to create this understanding in Europe that Bangladesh is a responsible country which can be counted upon to honour its agreements.
It is not just a matter of visas, though the visa issue it vital. Europe is an important partner of Bangladesh in trade, investment, technology and other sectors. It is certainly a priority to maintain smooth ties with Europe. Complications in the system or the interests of just handful of people cannot pose as an obstacle.
Lastly, effective measures must be taken with no further delay against the criminal rings involved in irregular migration and human trafficking. They are in various strata of the society. From the agents at the grassroots to the big fish, everyone must be caught. The VIPs are often heard to utter 'zero tolerance' against this and that. Will they actually apply this 'zero tolerance' to human trafficking so as to clear Bangladesh of this disrepute in the international arena?
* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir for the English edition