The harrowing plight of migrants at sea
Bangladesh is built on the backs of its overseas workers, but we are failing to protect them
Bangladesh is one of the largest exporters of labour, with over 11 million citizens working abroad who have remitted over $174 billion (BMET, Overseas Employment and Remittances from 1976 to 2017).
Every year up to a million workers go abroad in search of new opportunities. Unfortunately, the channels to migrate are strewn with hazards, and criminal networks often capitalise on the dreams of illiterate, poor job seekers.
Md Alam was one such job seeker. From the Meherpara union of Narsingdi, he was the eldest son of a poor family. His father worked in Singapore but when he fell ill with jaundice, the company cancelled his contract and sent him back to Bangladesh. Alam was then in class IX and was forced to drop out of school.
He was in love, so he married his school sweetheart, and began a small clothing business, buying and selling salwar kameezes. When his son was born, his income was no longer sufficient so he began looking for new opportunities. His friend, Nazmul, who had moved to Malaysia five months earlier, gave him the idea of migration.
A journey through hell
Nazmul gave Alam the contact information of the dalal (middle man) who helped him move and secure a job. Feeling hopeful, Alam contacted him. The dalal asked for Tk220,000 as fees. Alam sold his business and took a loan from a microcredit institute. The dalal took him and a few others by van to another dalal in Chittagong.
Migration out of Bangladesh is still wrought with irregular practises, mainly because people do not know how to look after their own safety
Alam spent a night there, before he was passed on to a third dalal who kept him in a dark house, locked up “for their own safety” for a week. Next, they were shifted to a small boat on a stormy night. The boat crew confiscated his passport, mobile phone, bag, and sandals. The waves were so violent, Alam thought he would die.
After five hours, the dinghy reached a place where 18 trawlers were docked. Alam and the others were shifted onto a trawler with 700 other people — mostly men from Myanmar, some from Bangladesh. This trawler became their personal hell for the next few months. They were hungry, eating less than two fistfuls of rice a day.
If they spoke or complained, they were punished brutally. The crew had guns, botis and daus (large carving knives). If anyone was disobedient, they were disembowelled and thrown into the sea. These public killings quelled any rebellious spirit.
Then one night, the dalals got whiff of a police raid and abandoned the ship. The migrants wept. What would they do now out in the middle of the sea? One migrant, Tofail, said he had been trained for a few weeks by the captain, so he would be take them to shore. That night there was a huge storm but Tofail managed to navigate them to the coast of an island.
From the other boatmen there, they learned that they had arrived at Thailand. The migrants from Myanmar were able to communicate with the Thai boatmen and asked for directions to Malaysia. Several hours later, with Tofail at the helm, they reached Malaysia, what they later learned was Langkawi. By now, Alam’s shirt had disintegrated, so he walked towards his future with nothing but the pants he had left home with.
Malaysian police swiftly arrested the entire group and placed them in detention. There, for the first time, Alam was asked for his name, his home address, and was registered as number 270. Alam says his detention experience was not as bad as the boat. Food was not enough but at least the authorities, who were Muslim, did not torture them. Still, as the days slipped into weeks and then months, Alam became despondent again. He wept for hours on end. The guards told him to stop crying and pray to Allah for freedom.
After eight months in detention, Alam’s number came up. He was told that IOM (International Organization for Migration, the UN Migration Agency) had been in touch with the Malaysian government, pleaded for his freedom and purchased for him a ticket home. Alam could not believe his good luck. His friends in jail, men from Sathkhira, Barisal, Tangail, asked him to contact their families. He borrowed a pen from a warden and took their numbers.
Alam boarded a night flight and arrived in Dhaka at 7am. Someone from IOM received him at the airport, gave him money to travel home, and lent him a phone to call his family. He managed to get hold of his younger brother’s wife, and, after hanging up, he wept with shame. When he saw his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he wept even more.
He had become haggard and hairy — he had aged twenty years. How could he return home to his parents, his wife, his son, with no money? They were counting on him. He did not want to let them down, and the burden seemed hard to handle for Alam, who is still almost a child, just barely twenty years old.
Another migrant who had returned with Alam saw his consternation and took him to a barber. After a shave, and a big meal, his friend told him it was time to go home. Alam returned home and was greeted with love and joy. He realized he would much rather dwell in poverty at home than search for financial security abroad.
He got a job as ticket agent at a holiday park near home and worked for one year to pay off his debt. IOM supported him with training and seed capital to help him reintegrate. He set up a tea and cigarette shop. He tried to find the dalal who sent him on his hellish journey but the man had disappeared. Some say he was in jail.
Making migration safe
Migration out of Bangladesh is still wrought with irregular practises, mainly because people do not know how to look after their own safety. In an interview of local people in migration prone areas (Narshingdi, Sirajganj, Jhenaidah and Cox’s Bazaar) it was found that knowledge of safe migration is present but inadequate and hence not transferred into practice.
Almost all of the interviewees knew that a passport and visa are required to migrate to another country. However, many of them didn’t know how to get a passport and visa. For every part of the journey, they rely heavily on the dalals for support. Since the education level of most potential migrants is low, they need assistance from someone to navigate the process. More awareness-building and hand-holding services are required to turn knowledge into practice for safe migration.
Interviewees also said they do not have easy access to the services provided by different GO-NGO institutions on migration. Most of them said they rely on informal sources of information like returnees, relatives and dalals for migration related information as well for different types of support (financial and technical) to migrate.
Institution- level awareness-building at the national and community level is needed to discourage people from using irregular channels to migrate and build their understanding of available regular channels and sources of support.
We also need to look at the role recruitment agencies play in ensuring safe and orderly migration. Manpower agencies need to become more transparent in their pricing practices and available employment opportunities, which needs to go hand in hand with ethical recruitment, whereby the employer pays the migration cost.
The laws ensuring that human traffickers and smugglers face consequences need to be enforced.
As a country that is looking to attain middle income status in the near future, Bangladesh needs to look at the protection it can afford its migrant workers.