The government's Wednesday meeting with ambassadors and representatives of five Gulf countries and Malaysia to address visa complications of stranded migrant workers have brought no good news, indicating no quick solution to the issue.
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen claimed they had a good meeting while, at the same time, said stranded Saudi-bound workers, who did not get their employers' permission, should find alternative jobs in Bangladesh.
"If the employers don't want them back, what can we do? However, we have requested the Saudi Arabian authority to settle the issue," he also said.
Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad, too, emerged with a cautionary message, "We will have to make alternative plans if the issues are not resolved."
Against this backdrop, manpower recruiting agencies have blamed a lack of coordinated efforts to resolve the problems, especially that of Saudi returnees.
The foreign minister and the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment minister briefed the ambassadors and representatives from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Iraq and the acting high commissioner of Malaysia at state guesthouse, Padma, over the issue.
After the meeting, Dr Momen told the media that they had had a "good meeting" and "requested those countries to address the workers' problems with sympathy". However, he could not specify what good results the meeting yielded for the stranded Saudi returnees who have been agitating for around two weeks over visa validity and flight shortages.
"We do not have problems to fly to these [five] countries, except Saudi Arabia, at this moment. Although Saudi has also opened flights, hundreds of Saudi-bound returnees are stuck back in the country for re-entry visa complications and flight crises," he said.
Minister Imran Ahmad said they would get a response from the countries on the discussion they had on Wednesday.
"We have conveyed our workers' problem to the diplomats. But they cannot provide a decision from here. Now, they will deliver the message to the authorities concerned."
"Still, I am hopeful of a resolution to the problem," Imran said on the Saudi returnees' issue.
However, Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), said most of the stranded Saudi-bound workers will not be able to go to their workplaces in the current situation.
"Around 60% of Saudi-bound workers would not be able to go to their workplaces. So, the foreign ministry should handle the issue diplomatically," he said.
He called for coordination among the ministries concerned to get out of the present crisis.
No good news for returnees lacking employer clearance
Over one lakh Bangladeshi migrants who came back on holiday have been stranded in the country amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Baira said around 80 percent of them work in Saudi Arabia.
The stranded workers have been demonstrating for auto-renewal of their re-entry visas and for air tickets. They also staged a demo on Wednesday before the offices of Saudi Airlines and Biman Bangladesh Airlines in Dhaka. But the foreign minister could not give them any good news.
Rather Momen said, "The stranded Saudi returnees, who did not manage employers' permission, should look for alternative jobs. They can even try to find new employers."
The government has allocated Tk700 crore for returnee migrants. If any worker fails to go back to the destination country, they can do alternative jobs here, he explained.
"Only 53 workers have complained over not getting an employer clearance yet. So, the number is not very big. All of them will go but they have to be patient," he added.
The foreign minister said 20 flights will operate weekly to Saudi Arabia from October 1, with 10 flights by Saudi Airlines and 10 flights by Biman.
"Flights will be increased. We are talking to the authorities concerned. We are asking them to talk to their government," he said, adding that around 6,000 people returned to their workplaces abroad.
But according to Dhaka airport data, only 3,318 workers have reached Saudi Arabia so far after flights reopened on September 23.
Meanwhile, the visa validity for many of the stranded returnees expired on Wednesday. Although the Saudi authorities extended the validity of re-entry visas thrice earlier, the kingdom has imposed some fresh conditions for visa renewal.
As per the conditions, for extension of a re-entry visa, a worker will require a letter attested by the Saudi foreign ministry from his employer about extension of leave, a copy of a valid Iqama and another letter from the Saudi general directorate of passports.
All these documents will have to be provided by the employers to the returnees and they will then have to submit the documents to visa processing agencies.
Saudi Arabia is the largest labour market for Bangladesh. The manpower recruitment by that country continued until Covid-19 caused a halt to it.
On the issue, Momen said, "The Saudi ambassador told us they will reissue the visas for around 25,000 newly recruited workers from Bangladesh."
These Saudi-bound fresh workers were scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia in March this year. But they have been stranded because of flight suspensions amid the pandemic.
Labour market situations in UAE, 4 other countries
Around 1.55 lakh Bangladeshis returned from abroad from April 1 to September 25 this year from 29 countries amid Covid-19.
Among them, around 51% came back from Saudi Arabia and UAE. Besides, more than 37,000 returned from Qatar, Oman, Iraq and Malaysia.
Although stranded Bangladeshis are going back to the UAE after flights reopened, the country is not recruiting new manpower from Bangladesh.
Apart from UAE, Malaysia too has halted new manpower recruitment.
Many of around 5 lakh Bangladeshis in Malaysia work in construction and plantation sectors as low-paid workers.
Over 6,600 have returned home. Recently, Malaysia eased the temporary travel ban to that country on September 10. But expatriates must be approved by the Malaysian immigration department before they enter the country.
Malaysia authorities announced that they would allow entry of expatriates and holders of professional visit pass from the 23 countries, including Bangladesh, reversing its earlier move.
Meanwhile, the recruitment in Qatar, Oman and Iraq is not halted, but the process is very congested, according to manpower recruiting agencies.
Eye on new market
Now, Bangladesh is looking for new labour markets amid the crisis.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Monday asked the foreign minister to place a comprehensive report over sending back the stranded expatriates to their overseas workplaces, how the stranded expatriate workers can be repatriated, be reemployed in proper ways, and the new overseas job markets can be explored.
The expat ministry and recruiting agencies see the prospect of new labour markets in European countries like Romania, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Thailand, Cambodia and some African countries.