A bustling place just before the pandemic hit the country in March, the ground floor of Agrabad CGO Building-2 in Chattogram, which houses the local manpower office, is all quiet now.
Expatriates once used to form long queues at the district office of the Bureau of Manpower and Employment Training (BMET) for a processing of their documents.
But the picture has changed as manpower export has remained halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the last seven months – from April to October 2020 – only 61 people went abroad with new visas from Chattogram, according to BMET's local office.
In normal times, around 25,000-30,000 people go abroad every seven months, it added.
At the same time, the number of daily service seekers at the office has also fallen sharply to 200-250, from 1,000-1,200 earlier.
According to the Fairer Labour Migration project run by Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a non-government organisation, around 100,000 people were in the pipeline in Chattogram to go abroad with new job visas before the pandemic.
Moreover, some 25,000-30,000 expatriates, who have returned home since January 2020, got stranded in Chattogram. Their families, who mainly depend on remittances, are also in a crisis.
In April, only six expatriates went abroad with new visas, while the figure was zero in May and June, eight in July, three in August, one in September and 50 in October.
However, before the Covid-19 pandemic, over 3,000 expatriates used to go abroad from Chattogram with new visas every month.
In January this year, 3,563 people went abroad from Chattogram with new visas while the number was 3,150 in February and 3,093 in March.
Experts have blamed flight suspensions and the impact of the pandemic on the global labour market for the drastic drop in manpower export.
"I have sold my land to go to Saudi Arabia and borrowed some money at high interest and given it to one of my relatives living in the country for a visa," said Arif Hossain, a resident in the port city's Kapashgola area.
"He cannot send me a visa because of the sudden closure of his company due to Covid-19. I have no job now and am waiting to go abroad," he added.
People working in the sector said the fall in manpower export is not only increasing unemployment in Bangladesh but also causing a risk of impacting remittance inflow in future if the situation continues.
According to BMET, more than 1.5 million expatriates from Chattogram are working in different countries – mainly in the Middle East – and they send some Tk10,000 crore in remittances every year through legal channels.
Abdus Sabur, project manager of YPSA's Fairer Labour Migration project, told The Business Standard, "People who were in the pipeline to go abroad before Covid-19, are currently facing both mental and financial crises. They have spent everything they had in hand to buy visas and tickets but, for the pandemic, they cannot go abroad and start earning.
"The work permits and visas of many people are expiring, putting them into fresh trouble."
Mohammad Zahirul Alam Majumder, deputy director of BMET in Chattogram, told TBS, "The government is working hard and holding meetings with diplomats from different countries on this matter. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the global labour market has almost been closed and businesses in many countries are still shut. Many of the expatriates, who got stuck in the country, cannot return to their respective destinations as their employers are not taking them back now.
"The global labour market will take time to be normal. The government is providing the stranded expatriates with loans from stimulus packages. They are receiving Tk1-5 lakh in loan at 4% interest. In Chattogram, we have received applications from 7,000 expatriates for food support."
Abdus Sabur said that the remittance inflow is still quite good but it will be affected if the situation continues.
"The government should provide expatriates with incentives to help them bear airline fares so that they can go abroad. The expatriates should get a loan at 2% interest, like others, from stimulus packages."
In Chattogram, so far just seven expatriates have received loans from stimulus packages.
Abdus Sabur was critical of the unfriendly terms of the loans and urged the government to be more flexible in distributing the loans among expatriates.