Good news for remittance warriors! The government plans to ensure social security for returnee migrants riddled with various socio-economic problems. It has also decided to provide aspiring migrants with easy and low-cost loans to relieve their financial stress while going abroad for jobs.
The state-owned Probashi Kallyan Bank (PKB) has decided to lower the interest rate of migration loans to 8%, which will come into effect this July. The bank – established in 2011 to support overseas job-seekers – will also simplify the lending procedure.
The steps followed the prime minister's directives to make loans hassle-free and cheaper for overseas job-seekers at a time when the country's remittance earnings have been on a declining trend for several months.
Meanwhile, sources in the government said the expatriates' welfare ministry is preparing a policy framework to help migrant workers reintegrate into economic activities when they are back home.
The state-owned Jiban Bima Corporation earlier entered into talks with a Saudi Arabian company to insure all Bangladeshis working in the Middle East against deaths and workplace injuries under its Probashi Kormi Bima.
Expatriate workers, whose hard-earned foreign currencies have enriched the central bank's reserves enough to absorb external financial shocks, were among the ones worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic as several lakhs of them were forced to come back home empty-handed after losing jobs.
The PKB, which is mandated to give loans to migrant workers, was tasked with standing by the returnee migrants who were faced with financial hardships.
But the targeted beneficiaries hardly benefited from the initiative prompting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to ask the authorities concerned to ensure easy loans from the PKB so that job-seekers do not need to resort to selling land to go abroad.
At the cabinet meeting on 7 February this year, she instructed the expatriates' welfare ministry to make the overseas employment process very transparent and carry out massive mass media campaigns to inform overseas job-seekers of the exact employment authorities and the total expense needed to go abroad.
"As per instructions from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, we have decided to ease the process of the migration loan. In the first stage, the board of the bank has decided in principle to decrease the interest rate to 8% from 9%," said PKB Chairman Ahmed Munirus Saleheen.
"The decision would come into force in July this year. We are even thinking of implementing the decision before July," he added.
Noting that many people are still not aware of the loan, he said they are now taking more initiatives to raise public awareness in this regard.
National Reintegration Policy
In spite of their outstanding contribution to the economic development of the country, expatriate Bangladeshis have not thus far been covered by any social security programme of the government in case they fall into crises of different sorts – including physical, psychological, social, and economic ones – after returning.
The government has now taken initiatives to ensure social security for these people. To this end, it has decided to formulate a "Comprehensive National Reintegration Policy".
Nasreen Jahan, joint secretary to the expatriates' welfare ministry, said her ministry has already started working on the policy, which will be universal in nature.
"Opinion is being sought from various ministries and divisions of the government for the formulation of the policy. The views of civil society members, private development agencies, and experts in the relevant fields will also be taken before framing the policy," she added.
The authorities aim to complete the policy formulation by this year, she said, adding the implementation work will start thereafter.
Economists and immigration experts see the government initiatives in a positive light.
They, however, feel there are many challenges for the authorities to successfully implement this programme for the returnee migrants who have come back home amid the pandemic as already two years have passed since their return.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said "International experiences show those who work abroad often find it difficult to reintegrate with the mainstream after they return to their native country at some stage of life.
Because of long stays in foreign countries or sudden returns to their native country, they face insecurity and economic challenges. In this context, the issue of reintegration needs to be given importance."
He said the way of providing assistance to migrant returnees should be different from the manner in which the government provides assistance to the poor, disabled, elderly, or freedom fighters under various social safety net programmes.
"Expatriate workers usually return home at an age at which they still remain active and have the capability to contribute to the economy. In this context, it is important that they get the opportunity to be employed."
Coming out of the traditional framework of providing financial or food aid, the proposed reintegration policy should call for opportunities for employment or self-employment for the returnee migrants, he suggested.
Asked what the reintegration process will be, the noted economist said, "This can be done in several ways.
"First, they can be provided with low-interest loans. This will allow them to engage in any kind of self-employment or business. Secondly, a long-term insurance scheme can be introduced against the money with which they return home from abroad."
He also suggested that an unemployment support and insurance scheme can be introduced to provide assistance to returnee migrants until they get involved in any economic activities or get a job.
Professor Tasneem Siddiqui, founding chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), said they had kept urging the government to bring the migrant returnees into the social security programmes ever since they started returning home at the beginning of the pandemic.
Mentioning that it has been almost two years since the migrant workers came back, she said it is best to bring such vulnerable people into social security programmes immediately.
She, however, expressed her satisfaction that the government, though late, has embarked on such an initiative.
Meanwhile, initiatives have been taken to train 2,00,000 migrants who have returned home amid the pandemic to build them as entrepreneurs or provide them with employment opportunities abroad under a project funded by the World Bank.
The Wage Earners' Welfare Board is implementing the project. The World Bank is providing $200 million for it.
Officials at the Wage Earners' Welfare Board said work is underway to compile a list of 2,00,000 returning expatriates in 32 districts.
Poor show of Probashi Kallyan Bank
Around 68.04 lakh Bangladeshis were employed in various countries from 2011 to 2021, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET).
Until December 2021, the PKB sanctioned Tk1,200 crore in migration loans to some 77,000 people with a recovery rate of about 86% - double the average recovery rate in commercial banks of the country, according to the bank's data.
The situation is no better for migrant returnees, who are supposed to get reintegration loans at a 4% interest rate.
The government in the budget for FY21 focused on the rehabilitation of thousands of pandemic-affected returnee migrants, but only 2.3% of them have received the reintegration loan from the PKB, according to available data.
The bank distributed Tk312.32 crore to 11,495 returnees till 9 March this year from the government's Tk700 crore special reintegration loan fund, said Md Jahangir Hossain, general manager of the PKB.
Moreover, the terms and conditions set for the reintegration loan are not as easy as they should be, alleged some returnee migrants.
One such individual is Shaheen Ahmed from Natore who was compelled to return from Malaysia in 2020. He applied for a Tk2 lakh loan to start a business.
He said although the loan was supposed to be collateral-free, the branch concerned of the bank asked him to provide documents of land and business training certificates. As he could not provide the documents, eventually he had to give up hope of getting the loan.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) in August last year, found that the existing loan terms – even after the bank eased those through amendments – are not very congenial, and permissible activities under the loan scheme are not clear to a section of potential clients, read the findings.
Besides, the bank does not have an adequate number of branches, and the existing ones do not have sufficient manpower.
Currently, it has 89 branches across the country.
CR Abrar, executive director of the RMMRU, told TBS, "Increasing the number of PKB branches is, however, not a solution to the low disbursal of migration loans. The government should instead allow other banks to operate the same types of loan schemes so that people have easy access to those." he added.
In the case of a new visa, an aspirant migrant can get a maximum of Tk3 lakh in loan from the PKB for a maximum period of 3 years.