International migration is a critical and growing sector in Bangladesh both for employment generation, especially the youth, and for foreign exchange earnings.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), between 2000 and 2018, the number of migrants from Bangladesh increased fivefold—from about 200,000 to over a million—and remittance increased eightfold—from USD 2,000 million to USD 16,000 million.
Covid-19 has cast an ominous shadow on this thriving sector, though its long-term impact is still unclear.
Recently, I had the opportunity to join a field visit to get a grounded understanding of international migration, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic. With colleagues from Brac and Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), I visited Sirajganj, where international labour migration took off relatively recently, and Cumilla, Noakhali, and Munshiganj—districts with a long history of migration.
My brief exposure to the realities of the migrants made me rethink some of the popular assumptions underpinning the way we talk, see, and think about international migration in Bangladesh. These assumptions matter as they influence the discourse and eventually policies and programmes on migration. In this piece, I discuss these assumptions and provide counter perspectives based on field discussion with diverse stakeholders, evidence, and reflection.
The predominant narrative about migrants is that they are mostly uneducated and therefore lack proper information and awareness, which is a key reason for their perils. We need to have a nuanced understanding of this notion. Migration is best characterised as an uncertain rather than risky venture, not least because of the fluid and contested nature of knowledge.
However, as the desire to migrate is usually motivated by some knowledge about the destination, decisions are rarely made in full ignorance. But an aspiring migrant's perception and response to risk, in this case, is significantly shaped by individual socio-cultural background, experiences, and group identities.
What makes matters worse is the deliberate concealment of contract information and manipulations stemming from power dynamics, economic payoffs, and lack of accountability in the international migration recruitment system.
Clearly, the problem is not just about the lack of information. When a well-informed aspiring migrant receives a piece of misinformation—eg he is free to choose any job once he enters a country with a free visa—from a source he trusts, he may choose this illegal, risky path. This example illustrates that simple and generic information campaigns are unlikely to work and a focus on preventing misinformation and manipulation is essential.
A corollary of this assumption is that the migrants are victims of exploitative and evil middlemen. We often forget that this is primarily a problem of national and global governance. Intermediation is an essential service.
Unfortunately, it is laden with inefficiencies, lack of transparency, and accountability. But blaming evil middleman managed to have little impact. To address this, we need methodical political economy analysis: study the equilibrium in the existing institutional arrangements, identify entry points and winners and losers of change.
For example, recruiting agencies crucially depend on local middlemen for finding potential migrants. A centralised updated database of aspiring migrants can enable agencies to reduce this dependency.
Another popular assumption about migrants is that they are unwilling to try alternatives in the country. It was clear in the field trip that mobilising resources to migrate is relatively easy while raising money to start a business is next to impossible.
Family and friends, and even banks and microfinance institutions (MFIs) are willing to finance international migration, which is perceived as a less risky investment. When it comes to finding a job in the country, the high rates of youth unemployment and the lack of wage progression dissuade the youth.
Career progression—both wage and learning on the job—seem to be quite strong for a large group of international migrants, if not for all, even when the migrants lose their legal status, creating a strong incentive to migrate.
The third assumption is about the unproductive and wasteful use of remittance. According to research conducted by BIGD, relative to other South Asian countries, migration from Bangladesh is more expensive yet the migrants are paid lower in any given role, and on average it takes 3-4 years to pay back the debts incurred to finance the migration, leaving little scope for any productive investment.
The focus of investment, when possible, seems to be on housing and land—a sensible investment strategy, both as a longer-term economic investment and as a signal of superior social status, improving marriage prospects for the migrant men and other family members.
Nevertheless, the need for improvement in money management is undeniable. We found that the reliance on a single income source has left many migrant families particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
An unpublished research study by Dr Mushfiq Mobarak among Malaysia G2G lottery winners and losers found that while the migrant households were earning much better than non-migrants, the situation reversed during the pandemic, with the former group earning 36 percent less than the latter.
Often all working-age men in a family migrate, leaving the women in charge of money and investment management, who are less likely to have the necessary capabilities to diversify investment and income sources. We need to find smart ways of developing financial and non-financial products that help these women diversify investment and improve the resilience of their households.
Finally, the issue of female migration is intriguing. Why do women continue to migrate as domestic workers despite repeated incidences of rape, torture, and even murder of migrant domestic workers?
The recruitment here is most exploitative and targets the most vulnerable and socially isolated women. Many of these women come from migration concentrated areas which are on average doing well economically, where the government and non-government organizations (NGOs) tend to be lighter. These extremely vulnerable women, therefore, remain off the radar with little to no option at home and fall prey to the lure of employment abroad.
We cannot stop their migration, but we can try to reduce their vulnerabilities. We found that often the sufferings of migrant domestic workers originate from not being able to speak the language and to adjust to the new lifestyle. Substantive practical training targeting these issues should be useful in this case.
Additionally, in our discussion with the female migrants, the lack of access to any option to raise alarm and seek help came out strongly. The government needs to prioritise negotiating with host countries to ensure that female migrants are entitled to a cell phone and can use it freely.
Covid-19 is forcing us to examine the fractures of our systems, that we tend to paper over during normal times with average narratives. Divergences and variations become much more apparent during a crisis. International migration is no exception. We can use this to bring about practical improvements and explore future opportunities that can help us rebuild a much stronger migration sector. That is the hope that we need to coalesce around and work towards.
The author is the executive director of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.