Nearly five years ago, Jameela had left Bangladesh to work as a domestic worker in Jordan, hoping to improve the lives of her parents and younger siblings with the money she would send back home.
In Jordan, however, she faced a nightmare. After being physically and sexually abused for months by her employer, when she came back to the country, she was pregnant.
Presently, the child - four years old - lives with Jameela and her parents.
When this correspondent spoke to Jameela, she sounded tired and beaten, the struggle to survive as a single mother seemed to have taken a toll on her.
"I have no respect. I have no work, no money," she said. "The baby had a fever earlier and I could not get her treated. I do not know what to do."
Jameela's child has already reached school-going age, but neither the child's mother nor the grandparents are sure if they can afford her education at this moment. They are simply battling to manage three meals a day.
Jameela is one of 300 to 400 Bangladeshi female migrant workers who return from the Middle East every month after being tortured.
In August 2019, after investigating 111 cases, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment found that about 35% of female migrants had faced abuse in many forms, including slave-like working conditions.
Between 2017 and 2019, Brac Migration Programme found that 25 to 30 women workers who returned from the Middle East suffered from major mental disturbance and five to six of them were pregnant.
Most of the workers who come back pregnant or with a child in tow, understandably do not want to keep the child. The social stigma of giving birth while being unmarried is unimaginable for them and there are no known facilities for these pregnant women.
While some resort to abortion, others give the children up for adoption. The state-run facility for children 'Choto Moni Nibash' sometimes handles the adoption cases of children who are sent there.
This year in April, a Saudi Arabia returnee abandoned her eight-month-old baby girl at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. At the time of writing this report, the baby's adoption papers were being completed.
In Bangladesh, NGOs such as Brac and Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP) regularly deal with female migrant workers who return after facing abuse abroad.
However, concrete plans for social, financial, and psycho-social reintegration of the female migrant workers and their children by the state do not seem to exist yet. These children remain mostly undocumented and their fate unknown.
Coming back broken: Merely a statistic?
Far from fulfilling dreams of better lives for themselves and their families, overseas employment results in abuse and neglect of many Bangladeshi female migrants; and in some cases, they are left to die in a foreign land.
In the years before the Covid-19 pandemic hit world travel, over 1,00,000 women used to go overseas annually, to work, according to data from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
The number dropped to less than a fourth in 2020 and is slowly picking up again in 2021 with 28,824 women already having migrated for work, till May this year.
Although most workers migrate to countries in the Middle East, other countries include Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Italy and the UK.
Most of them return penniless, often bearing the marks of inhuman torture.
It has been a few months since Salma returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia. According to her brother, she usually spends her days locked up in a room and becomes violent if people go near her. The family cannot bear the cost of her treatment and she seems to be getting worse.
"She has been like this ever since she came back. When we received her at the airport, we noticed black marks on her wrists; she was probably tied up. There were needle marks too," said her brother, sounding upset.
Through no fault of their own, these women continue to go through extreme agony. In cases when family members - husband, father, or brother - abandon them, they have no choice but to live alone.
Salma works at a garment factory near Dhaka. She lives alone. As much as she likes freedom, she is left scarred by what happened to her while she was abroad.
"If I ever find him (her abuser), I will beat him till he forgets his name. What I faced, I wish nobody in this world had to face. I have a lot of pent up anger," she confided in this correspondent.
Rima, another female migrant worker who was abused, has two young sons. After she came back to Bangladesh, her husband left her.
"My sons ask me for money for fees or buying food. I cannot give them anything," she said as she broke down weeping.
"On top of that, I always remember those days when I was starved and beaten; the madam would hit me over silly issues. I could not understand their language, I could not eat their food. Though I did not do anything wrong, I was severely punished."
"I am unhappy all the time, there is nothing I can do, there is nothing," she said desolately.
Shariful Islam Hasan, programme head of Brac Migration Programme, believes the state's responsibility should not stop at only sending female workers to different countries. Ensuring their pre-departure training, age assessment and safety are a must.
"When our female workers go abroad, they are exploited and raped. It should not be happening at all," he said. "These children and their mothers are not just mere numbers. We simply cannot refer to them as the migrant workers who came back."
"We have been trying to help but others have to come forward too. The destination countries have to take responsibility; there should be case testimonies at the embassies and the cases have to be investigated," he added.
Without a family
At different points in time, the Brac Migration Programme has supported 12 cases where women returned pregnant or had children while abroad. One of the children, Jahanara, is currently at the Tejgaon victim support centre over a custody battle.
This year, after her mother passed away from Covid-19 in Lebanon, Jahanara was sent to Bangladesh. The identity of her father remains unknown. Her two maternal aunts are fighting to become her guardians, Jahanara's cousin told this paper.
But doubts arose that the aunts were fighting for custody just to lay their hands on Tk 3,00,000 the child is entitled to as state compensation for her mother's death from Covid-19. So the police took Jahanara to the Tejgaon centre for her own safety.
"Jahanara told me that she did not want to stay there," her cousin said. "Whatever happened should have stayed within our family. But now the child is suffering."
An NGO specialising in migration shared with us the case of a young girl who was taken to Dubai to work at a 'spa.' She was forced into prostitution and sold to five different brokers during the course of her stay.
She fell in 'love' with one of the brokers - who was also her pimp - and became pregnant. She tried to get an abortion but could not. She gave birth to the child but felt it was not part of her body or her life, and decided to have nothing to do with it. The baby was sent to Choto Moni Nibash and was later adopted by a couple.
"When these children of migrant workers are given up for adoption, they go into loving, caring families," said Jublee Ranu, deputy superintendent of Choto Moni Nibash.
The orphanage authorities make sure the adoptive parents have solid backgrounds and are financially stable. They also have regular follow-ups to ensure the children are well-cared for.
Support mechanism and state responsibility
"It's written in our laws that we have to protect our female workers but sadly that's not being done," said Shakirul Islam, chairman of OKUP. "We need a rights-based approach and our labour wings also need to play a stronger role," he added.
"While NGOs are helping those who are coming back, the government also has to help them because the women and the children are deprived of comprehensive support," he said.
He recommended that the One-Stop Crisis Centres (OCC) should include migrant workers. The OCCs established in medical college hospitals across the country provide emergency health care, police assistance, DNA test, legal assistance, psychological counselling and shelter service to female victims of violence.
Md Shahidul Alam, Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, and director general of BMET, said the government is always concerned about the female migrants and puts in solid efforts for their reintegration.
"When one of our mothers, daughters, or sisters is abused in another country, naturally we become worried and try to do as much as we can to help them," he said.
"Only recently the government took up a Tk427 crore project to support the female migrants. Under the purview of the project, we would be providing them with loans, counselling, and a lot more," he added.
"Whatever happens to our female workers is workplace violence. The destination countries must be held accountable for it," said Sumaiya Islam, Executive Director, Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra, an NGO that works to protect the rights of Bangladeshi female migrant workers.
"Unless we develop zero tolerance, these things will keep on happening," she said, adding, "in the name of work, what is happening is sex trade and slavery; these are gross violations of human rights."
(Victims' real names have been changed to protect their identity)
This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.