The police have arrested 83 migrant workers following their return from Vietnam and Qatar — 81 from Vietnam and two from Qatar on September 1. According to the reports, they are arrested under Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrCP) because they "planned subversive activities including anti-government movement" during their stay at the quarantine centre at Diabari Camp in Dhaka upon their return.
These migrant workers went to Vietnam through recruiting agencies with a release letter provided by the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET). They were promised to receive jobs at sofa factory in the destination countries. But, they were deceived, like many other Bangladeshi migrant workers in various destination countries. Few of them received short-term jobs but the rest of them remained unemployed whereas they spent between Tk4 lakh and Tk5 lakh each for jobs in Vietnam.
Being deceived they went to Bangladesh High Commission in Vietnam to protest and to demand protection of their rights as migrant workers. If this is the scenario and the reason behind their arrest, then it needs further investigation. The role of BMET and embassy should be investigated. The case could be an exploitation of labour migration where these 83 people would be proven innocent or rather victim of fraudulent employment promises. But, in this case, they were innocent until they were found protesting, that too, for their rights and against fraudulent employment.
219 more migrants were arrested and jailed after they returned from Middle East - Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain - a few months ago without any specific charges against them. The reason was -"They tarnished the image of Bangladesh".
Can we consider this issue of migrant workers getting arrested as isolated incidents? No, we cannot, because these are not. What does the nation do after they return wounded just like these 83 and 219 returnees? The concerned authorities responded with the strategy of repression and sent them behind the bars. Whereas, the real perpetrators remain unpunished.
With the dream of living a better life, and to support their families, on an average about 590,000 men and women leave Bangladesh for jobs each year. But they often end up experiencing unexpected situation and incidents. Many of them are burdened with overwork, unjust payment system, unhealthy living standard, and many become the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking. Often they are recruited for employment through agents and sub-agents with fraudulent employment promises. As a result, every year many of the migrant workers (men and women) unfortunately return home injured –mentally and physically, and empty handed.
Human trafficking in the name of labour migration is a steaming issue in Bangladesh. Some Bangladeshi labours are exploited both within the country (such as these arrest incident) and across the borders -- Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, Lebanon, Qatar, the Persian Gulf, Maldives, Malaysia, Brunei, Sudan, Mauritius, the United States, Europe, and many other countries.
A few months ago, 30 migrant workers including 24 Bangladeshis were murdered in Libya. Bangladesh police, in June 2020 arrested more than 50 agents/subagents who are accused of fraudulent employment promises and extorting money from them. It can be marked as a milestone to a crackdown on human trafficking web in the country. But, trafficking did not end.
Some Bangladeshis were among 20 lakh people who crossed the Mediterranean since April 2014. More than 19,000 of them died in accidents, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since January, at least 693 Bangladeshis have been arrested for trying to travel to Europe illegally, says a BRAC study. Considering the facts, it is to be believed that poor regulation of recruitment process is bringing harm to Bangladesh.
The government might blame these migrant workers for tarnishing the image of the country, but aren't such blindfolded action of arrest without investigation violating human rights and tarnishing the image of the country too?
Human trafficking is a process which of course operates through a chain. The actors of the chain maintain the connection with the actors of illegal forced labour. The need for labour and domestic services in the destination countries stimulates the actors to recruit male and female workers through traffickers or criminal web. Due to poor economic condition these people decide to risk their life to get better jobs and thus get deceived. They are undoubtedly the victim of the system. The recruitment of migrant workers is a complex process. Recruitment actors without license include private agents, relatives or social networks, and brokers. Because of such harmful and complex recruitment practices, many workers from Bangladesh are often deceived and become victims of human trafficking in the name of labour migration.
On the sunny side, in 2019, Bangladesh received $18.32 billion in remittance. Being a developing country of South Asia, Bangladesh depends on money sent by foreign labour force as the nation is one of the world's largest exporters of labour. Some 590,000 migrant workers left Bangladesh on an average every year from 2007 to 2017. Money sent by migrant workers is the second largest source of foreign currency for Bangladesh after the earnings from Readymade Garments industry.
Though Bangladesh government has adopted a number of measures to curb human trafficking, forced labour, slavery, and habitual dealing in slavery, human trafficking has not reduced yet let alone stopped. On top of that, such arrests are an act of encouragement to the human traffickers. It is also going to discourage the potential migrant workers to go abroad. The remittance that is making us proud, would not take long to fall if abuse of migrant returnees does not stop immediately. It is rather becoming a grave concern leaving a negative impact on the practice of safe migration. As government's efforts are not proving to be an effective mechanism in reality, it requires a great deal of attention and action in the monitoring structure before it becomes too late.
Shakirul Islam, is a migrant activist and chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP).