Sheick Faruk Ahmed, like many other young men in his community, finished primary school but couldn’t afford to attend high school. So, from the age of fourteen, he worked to support his family. But life wasn’t easy and because he lacked qualifications, he couldn’t secure well-paid, permanent jobs and ultimately struggled to earn enough to support those who relied on him. In Bangladesh, 2.2 million young job seekers join the labour force every year but the domestic labour market cannot absorb them all. Faruk dreamed of going overseas and earning money and because he lacked the knowledge of how to migrate through regular channels, he employed the services of a middleman/broker.
The broker charged Faruk BDT 500,000 (USD 5,925) and in 2012, Faruk said his farewells and flew to Libya. For a few years he worked as painter in a factory but after the conflict broke out in Libya, his income declined, and he decided to travel to Italy to find a better paid job in a safer environment. Once again, he reached out to a broker who arranged for him to travel to Italy in 2015.
The journey was dangerous and frightening, and he never made it to his destination. While at sea, the Italy coastguard rescued him and moved him to an asylum center as he didn’t have official travel documents. Life in the Center was hard and Faruk tried desperately to secure documents that would allow him to live and work in Italy, but he did not succeed. In 2019, he decided to return to Bangladesh and on 25 April he landed in Dhaka after four years away. That very same year, over 700,000 migrants who registered their intention to travel with the Government, left the country. This figure does not account for all the men and women, like Faruk, who travelled without legal/official documents and for those who travelled with forged or invalid work permits.
Many Bangladeshi migrants travel abroad with limited information/knowledge, education, and skills, and they are vulnerable to a range of abuses, including debt bondage, forced labour, forced sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. For many lower-skilled aspirant migrant workers, the pull of money is too strong, and coupled with limited access to regular migration routes, low awareness, and understanding of the risks of trafficking and smuggling, many of these migrants agree to use the services of smugglers, and sometimes unbeknownst to them, traffickers too.
Faruk’s story is not unusual and it brings home how vulnerable irregular migrants are when they are far away and at the mercy of smugglers, human traffickers, and exploitative employers. While Faruk was able to return home, many migrants don’t/can’t. Migrants need information on safe, regular migration so they can make informed decisions. Migrants should be able to choose how they travel, what conditions they work under, and where they work. Empowering migrants with information contribute to a decline in irregular migration and human trafficking.
Due to the high costs charged by middlemen/brokers and recruitment agencies, many migrants are forced to work for up to ten months to pay off the loans they took out to travel abroad. For migrants like Faruk, whose return was sudden and untimely, paying back the debt they owe is a huge concern. When Faruk returned to his home in Khulna district, he became despondent when faced with accumulating debt and no job opportunities. To make matters worse, he was traumatized by the sea crossing from Libya to Italy. Flashbacks haunted him and he struggled to cope. He even stopped leaving the house as he didn’t want to face people from the community because he felt ashamed that he had not succeeded, and he did not want to relive the trauma every time he recounted his story.
A member of a Migration Forum, in Faruk’s town of Paikgacha in Khulna District of Bangladesh, realized that he was in dire need of support and got in contact with the Prottasha project office in the district. The Prottasha, officially known as ‘Bangladesh: Sustainable Reintegration and Improved Migration Governance’, is a Government-led, EU-funded, IOM and IOM Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) implemented project that focuses on building migration governance capacity, raising-awareness on safe migration, and supporting the sustainable reintegration of returning migrant workers. The Prottasha Project outcomes contribute to the achievement of SDG Target 10.7 - to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people.
Through the Prottasha office, Faruk was provided counselling and psychosocial support and over time Faruk recovered from his trauma. The Project also provided livelihood diversification training and supported Faruk to start his own business of shrimp fish cultivation.
With counselling, Faruk realized that his life would have been very different if he had been better informed before leaving Bangladesh. He was determined to prevent other potential migrants from facing the same hardships he did and so he joined the local Migration Forum Committee. The Forum included 15 members of the community (teachers, religious leaders, businessmen, and returnee migrants) and the role of the Committee was to sensitize potential migrants and the community on the benefits of safe migration, the importance of reintegration, and the need for remittance management. As a Forum member, Faruk is responsible for making potential migrants aware of the risks of irregular migration, improve their knowledge of their rights as migrants, and provide them with information so they can make informed decisions.
Faruk attends monthly meetings of the Committee where he regularly shares his experience and points out that he is very lucky to be alive. Faruk is engaged in the work of the Committee and actively communicates information on organizations who work for migrant workers and help people migrate safely. He also helps families manage the remittances they receive. The work of the Migration Forums is only a single aspect of the awareness-raising interventions of the Prottasha project, other activities include migration fairs, community meetings, tea stall meetings, school programmes, video show, community meeting, pot song (interactive performance through song), interactive popular theater (IPT) show, and mass media campaign.
Faruk Ahmed stated that, “I feel satisfied by helping migrant workers and people willing to migrate. I thought myself lucky to be a part of this noble activity. I don’t want any of my community brother or sister to experience what I was a victim of. That’s my only wish until my death.”
Through his volunteer work, Faruk has helped other migrants, by arranging a community arbitration to return BDT 250,000 (USD 2,962) to a migrant who was a victim of forgery, by preventing a woman migrant from paying BDT 30,000 (USD 355) to a deceitful broker, and by encouraging a returnee from Italy to invest in assets that would generate a better return than building a house.
Faruk’s involvement in the community has not gone unnoticed and according to Bebasish Torofder, a Prottasha project field organizer, “it is a great pleasure to observe one returnee migrant, who was once the worst victim, is now helping other migrant workers not to face the same situation. Faruk is not only helping us in raising awareness across the community but also making our work easier than before.”
It is through awareness-raising initiatives and the work of active migration forums, like Faruk’s, that potential migrants and their communities have greater knowledge on migration including information on cost, routes, remittance management, reintegration support, how to identify traffickers and middlemen, and the fact that the more skilled a migrant is, the better they will be paid abroad.
Through the Prottasha Project, migration forums have been established in 60 sub-districts. Since the formation of these forums and the awareness-raising initiatives through the Project, potential migrants and members of the community are approaching migration-focused organizations and government authorities (District Manpower and Employment Offices) and there is evidence to show that the bridge between returning migrants, potential migrants, communities, local government authorities, and development partners is improving migration governance at the District level and contributing to reducing the vulnerability of potential migrants to exploitation and human trafficking.