Around one lakh migrant workers who returned home before the virus outbreak are still stranded in Bangladesh owing to visa expiry and travel bans.
The highest number of Bangladesh's returnees has been from Malaysia. Workers back from other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also narrated their ordeals, prompted as they were by their prolonged stay away from their workplaces.
Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment say they are continuing negotiations with the countries about re-entry by the workers, the returnees question the sincerity of the ministries.
Hailing from Natore, Md Shaheen was a welding worker in Kuala Lumpur. He returned home in January last year.Amid the pandemic-led flight suspension, Shaheen's visa expired on 30 May that year.
Like him, 25,000 Bangladeshi workers who used to work in Malaysia failed to return to Malaysia. Shaheen said that 90% of them had already lost the validity of their visas.
"Although some other countries are in negotiations with the Malaysian government on visa extension, the Bangladesh government did not respond to the matter adequately," he claimed.
Shaheen said the returnees had met officials of the expatriates' welfare ministry several times. But their return was still in limbo.
Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, the immediate-past secretary-general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), said the Malaysian authorities were currently not allowing workers from countries with more than 1.5 lakh Covid cases.
Noman said if the workers could not return to their workplaces in Malaysia anytime soon, the wait might get prolonged further.
After returning home, around 2 lakh Bangladeshi migrants from different countries got stuck amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Of them, 1 lakh workers have already returned to their workplaces, according to the recruiting agency association.
Noman said of the stranded returnees, around 1 lakh were from Saudi Arabia. But 80% of the Saudi returnees had already returned to their workplaces.
The remaining migrants have demonstrated in the capital several times, urging the government to ensure their immediate return.
A double whammy
Miraz Al Mohammed of Faridpur was a salesman in Qatar. He returned home in February last year on a two-month vacation.
After the resumption of airline flights, the Middle-Eastern country is now allowing workers back into the country. But many workers to the oil-enriched country, like Miraz, claimed they were not getting re-entry permits from the Qatari authorities.
Moreover, as Miraz has had no income since last year, he has been struggling to make ends meet.
Nazmul Huda, a returnee from Malaysia, said he had run out of his savings, and now supported his family by borrowing money from relatives.
What do officials say?
An official of the High Commission of Malaysia in Dhaka told The Business Standard that though the Southeast Asian country was now allowing expatriates and professional visit pass holders from Bangladesh, stranded workers would have to wait further for their Temporary Employment Visit Passes.
During a telephone conversation with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on 19 January requested him to take back Bangladeshis who had got stranded at home due to the pandemic.
The foreign minister thanked the Bahrain government for regularising 30,000 irregular Bangladeshi expatriates under an amnesty programme. He also requested an extension of the amnesty for Bangladeshi expatriates.
On 31 January, Saudi Arabia reduced entry ban to 3 years for visa-expired expats.
Saudi Arabia's General Directorate of Passports said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) would allow expats to enter the country again three years after their visas had expired.
The ban previously was for five years. However, this will not be applicable to those who come back to their previous employers with new visas, reports the Jeddah-based English daily Saudi Gazette, referring to the Jawazat.