Rising incidents of torture and deaths of women migrants in recent years have mostly remained in the dark at a time when the country continues to enjoy a resurgence in remittance inflows amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, leading the economy to an easy recovery.
According to both government and non-government data, thousands of Bangladeshi women migrant workers have had to return home empty-handed, especially from the Middle East, after facing torture.
At least 487 migrant workers have returned home in coffins in the last five years. Of them, 200 women died alone in Saudi Arabia.
According to non-government data, at least 57 women migrants, in 2016, died in foreign countries. The figure rose to 102 in 2017, 112 in 2018 and 139 in 2019. As many as 77 women expatriates died even in 2020 – a year with the lowest number of migrations as international borders were sealed off due to pandemic-led situations.
Apart from the deaths, the severity of mental and physical torture on the migrant women was so high that many women returned to the country after losing their mental balance.
Further, in the name of migration, migration aspirant migrant women were tricked and sold to war-torn Syria or the luxurious city Dubai. There were also human smuggling incidents to neighbouring India.
There is no specific information available about how many women migrants returned home after being tortured or cheated. But, according to Bangladeshi missions abroad and media reports, more than 13,000 women returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia in the 2016-2019 period.
Meanwhile, migrant welfare desks at airports in the country said four lakh expatriates returned during the pandemic, and 49,924 were women.
Of the 487 deaths in five years, Brac's migration programme said: 86 female expatriates committed suicide, 167 died from stroke, 71 died in road accidents, 115 died naturally, 48 by other causes, and two were murdered.
Though the employers in many cases mention "suicide" as the cause of death, the deceased's families often claim that their nearest one was tortured to death.
In a landmark verdict on 14 February, a Saudi Arabia court handed down the death penalty to a Saudi woman – and gave different sentences to her husband and son – in a case over the murder of Bangladeshi migrant worker Abiron Begum who died in 2017.
Tasneem Siddiqui, founder chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), said Bangladesh should file a lawsuit in the host countries for each torture and death incident.
"Our country lags in legal action regarding the torture and death of women migrants. Therefore, the victims usually do not get any justice," she added. Tasneem Siddiqui also emphasised training of the migrants so that they can avail measures if they face repression.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), more than nine lakh women migrated to different countries, including in the Middle East, from 1991 to 2020.
Many women started going abroad, followed by an agreement between Bangladesh and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in 2015. According to the deal, Bangladesh would send women workers to the oil-rich country.
More than 3.53 lakh women have gone to Saudi Arabia in the last five years, which is around 38% of the total female migrations.
Around one lakh women migrated to different countries in 2019 alone. But, the number of female migrants dropped to only 21,000 in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac's Migration Programme, said, "The rights and dignity of the female remittance warriors need to be ensured through the proper implementation of women migration guidelines. Female migrants need to be given SIM cards so that they can communicate with their families."
Additionally, recruiting agencies should be brought under strict surveillance and accountability, he said, adding, human trafficking cases need to be settled quickly, so that no one dares to commit such crimes.
Children being sent abroad
Although the age limit for sending women workers abroad is 25, many children aged around 13 to 14 are being sent to Saudi Arabia.
Hailing from Cumilla, 13-year-old Nodi Akter was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2019. The child reportedly committed suicide last year. The recruiter who sent her abroad did Nodi's passport from Mymensingh, showing she was 25 years old.
Her family claimed Nodi's employer tortured her since she arrived in the country in March 2019. She even was not paid a monthly salary. Her father informed the recruiter about the issues but did not get any response.
Trafficking on the rise
According to the home ministry, at least 1,791 women fell victim to human trafficking from 2012 to 2020. As the case data shows, trafficking of women accounts for 21% of all human trafficking cases in Bangladesh.
Border Guard Bangladesh data says 303 women were rescued while crossing the border illegally in 2020 alone.
On 8 February, four women, who were trafficked to Syria, returned home. Also, media reports suggest Bangladeshi girls were trafficked to Dubai's dance clubs.
File complaint while you are in host countries: Minister
When contacted, Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Minister Imran Ahmad said female migrants are supposed to file complaints in the host countries if they face torture.
"But they do not do it. The workers reveal the incidents after returning home," said the minister.
"Labour wings at our embassies cooperate in such cases. If the victim cannot run the case and notifies the embassy, the embassy then proceeds on behalf of the migrant."
He also claimed there is adequate training for women workers in Bangladesh.