Tariqul Islam from Hijaldi village of Satkhira's Kalaroa upazila went to Malaysia as a labourer four years ago. Having lost his mental balance, he returned home in August this year.
His mental state was so bad that the 28-year-old young man was unable to walk through the airport exit on his own.
Tariqul was worried as he had lost his job abroad owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. A restless Tariqul, at one point, gave up eating food. Afterwards, his family sent money to him and brought him back with the help of his Bangladeshi co-workers.
The repatriation of Bangladeshi migrant workers has been on the rise in recent times as those going abroad suffer from mental problems due to various reasons, including: loneliness, work stress, torture, and job loss.
Although Bangladeshi workers can access some basic healthcare facilities abroad, the issue of their mental health remains overlooked due to language barriers.
Their mental problems have risen owing to the pandemic, with many workers having lost their jobs. The migrant workers, who have been stranded in the country, have also been affected by visa, working validity and air ticket complications.
Since independence, more than 1.30 crore Bangladeshis have gone abroad for employment, according to an account by the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) of the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment. Sources from various government and non-government organisations say, at present, about one crore expatriates are working abroad.
Experts said these people, who leave their families behind and stay outside the country, often need psychological support as their perennial issues are completely neglected.
Kamal Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury, an associate professor of Clinical Psychology at Dhaka University, said although many workers have been able to return home after being tortured, they have suffered speech loss. Now it is a challenge to bring them back to a normal life.
If expat workers can receive counselling before they break down psychologically, better enterprises and activities can be obtained from them. In this case, it is necessary to take specialised initiatives by the government as soon as possible, he stated.
Experts also said most of the workers fall victim to various forms of torture while many fall into the clutches of brokers and are trafficked. They add that a large number of them are women and often, the mental healthcare crisis is deeper for women.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac's immigration programme, told The Business Standard that 15 psycho-social counsellors are working regularly to provide healthcare for expatriates under a Brac initiative.
Through these counsellors, direct psycho-social assistance had been given to 2,183 people during the novel coronavirus period till September. Tele-counselling services have been provided to 2,845 people. Of these, 29 were sent to different hospitals as their mental conditions were critical. Additionally, 76 families had been given support separately.
However, the scope of this service needs to be further expanded. So, the government should launch a 24-hour hotline to provide mental health services to the expatriates, suggested Shariful.
Anis Ahmed of Beanibazar in Sylhet has recently returned home as a result of a collapse in the restaurant business in London. His elder brother, Abdul Qadir, said he was being given counselling as he lost his job and did not behave normally with his family.
SK Nizam Zahid Hussain, managing director of Shahjalal Mental Health and Research Center, told The Business Standard that many expats of the area suffer from depression due to long stays in foreign lands. Later, they recover after getting treatment.
Helal Uddin Ahmed, an associate professor at the National Institute of Mental Health Institute and Hospital, said while the issue of mental health services for the overall population in Bangladesh is largely overlooked, it is even more challenging for expatriates.
"Because, many of them do not have their families to stand by them abroad. Even if they get some basic healthcare services there, many cannot receive mental counselling due to language barriers. At present, we have introduced such services but they are insufficient," he continued.
Dr Tasneem Siddiqui, chairperson of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) and professor of political science at Dhaka University, echoed this view.
410 bodies of women workers returned from abroad in 4 years
Although there is almost no initiative of mental health support for expat workers at the government level, development agency Brac and non-government organisation RMMRU are providing services to many people, separately, at the airport after they reach the country.
However, a large number of expatriate women workers decide to commit suicide while living abroad as they cannot tolerate the physical and mental torture.
Although the tendency to commit suicide lies in both men and women for the same reasons, more often, women have killed themselves in the last four years.
According to Brac's data, the bodies of 410 women workers have arrived in the country in the last four years from abroad. Sixty-seven of the women had committed suicide.
Brac says, out of this number, many are also buried abroad and their data is not available with them.
An analysis of Brac's statistics shows that the number of suicide incidents is rising every year. In 2016, three workers committed suicide but the number rose to 12 in 2017, 23 in 2018 and 29 in 2019. Most of them had been domestic workers.