A hero among us
Twenty-five-year-old Noyon, studying at Premtholi Degree College in Rajshahi, had no idea that his life was about to change drastically. One day, a local agent offered him a job in Malaysia which would pay Tk40,000 a month -- which was a dream salary for him.
Noyon readily agreed. The agent told him that he needed a passport, a medical checkup, and a plane ticket, all of which would cost him Tk2 lakh. Noyon scraped every single barrel he could and somehow managed to arrange the money.
A month later the agent informed him that his papers were ready, but it would cost an extra Tk40,000 before he could actually board the plane. Noyon packed and went to the agent’s office in Banani.
He was warned that, regardless of what he had paid so far, he was to tell the BMET (Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training) interviewer that he had only paid the government rate of Tk84,000.
A single word off the script and his visa would be cancelled.
Noyon chose to lie because he couldn’t afford to lose the opportunity in front of him. The same night, in a pitch dark room with no electricity, the agency shoved some documents in front of Noyon and the other migrants which were supposedly their work contracts.
When they asked why there was no electricity when all other buildings in the vicinity seemed to be well-lit, they were told that there was a problem with the electricity line. There was no time to wait for the line to be fixed, or to even read the documents carefully, because their flight was to leave in two hours.
They had just two options: Sign the documents without checking them or miss the opportunity of a lifetime. All of them signed.
Three buses shunted the migrants to the airport. While boarding their Malaysia Airlines flight, scheduled at 1:20am, it seemed to Noyon that all of the last few months’ efforts, struggles, and anxiety were finally bearing fruit. The life he had always dreamed of was just a five-hour plane ride away. However, this was not to be.
A nightmare awaited him at the other end of the flight.
The migrants were taken to a warehouse and stuffed inside like cattle in a barn -- with only one washroom facility available for over 70 people. Noyon could spot many Bangladeshi brethren at the warehouse. The next evening, six men were randomly picked for a job. Noyon was one of them. They were then loaded onto a micro bus. From the bus window they could see money exchanging hands.
After a drive that ate up most of the night, they were brought to a wooden house in the middle of a jungle. They were handed some equipment and told to cut trees. The forest was infested with ants, leeches, and even snakes. Days passed. They ate once a day, always only rice and lentils, and never enough to kill their hunger. When thirsty, they drank water from the nearby stream. When tired or refusing to work, they were beaten mercilessly. It was a nightmare that they just couldn’t wake up from.
Such days and nights of prolonged despair continued. Finally, one day the migrants decided to revolt. The only educated one amongst them, Noyon, told the supervisor in sign language that they wanted to return home. He threatened that they would commit suicide, en masse, if they weren’t released immediately. This endeavor did not improve the situation much. The next week they were taken to a warehouse similar to the last.
Noyon was not one to give up. He set a date to escape and visit the Bangladesh High Commission, and urged his fellow immigrants to join him. The news spread through whispers in the shadow of night. When the day arrived, he ran away from the construction site and went to the High Commission.
There he met 108 other Bangladeshi men who had suffered, more or less, the same fate as him. Together they recounted their misery to the commissioner. The High Commission made arrangements for them to stay at the shelter home. Soon, with the support of the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, Noyon returned home with the other immigrants.
Back in Dhaka, the ministry and BMET worked together to make the recruiting agency return Tk84,000 to each of them. Noyon and the returnee migrants campaigned strongly for the return of the remaining 108 stranded Bangladeshis in Malaysia. In due time the Bangladeshi government managed to bring back the remaining migrants, and helped them retrieve the rest of their money from the recruiting agency.
But that much success was not enough for Noyon. He began to create awareness so that no one else would fall victim again to such misery. His dedication caught the attention of the right people and he was offered a job at one of the largest NGOs in the world.
He works there now as an information officer at the migration information centre. The centre provides emergency health support, psycho-social support, and cash assistance to migrants returning to Bangladesh.
Noyon has helped over 3,500 people so far.
Like they say, not all heroes wear capes. Some, like Noyon, walk amongst us, hiding in plain sight, but ready to jump into service when needed. Estimates suggest as many as 100,000 people a year are conned by agents during their migration process.
These agents work as a criminal extortive circle, sending migrants abroad to situations where they are exploited financially, tortured and abused. Clearly, a world like this needs heroes like Noyon.
Anika Azhar is a Project Assistant, Migration Development, IOM Dhaka. Radhika Tabrez is an editor at IOM Dhaka. Shazia Omar is an activist and a writer.
The Op-Ed was first published on Dhaka Tribune, 23rd April, 2019.