Bangladesh is the fifth highest labour sending country in the world, but it is also among the top 10 countries from where people migrate across the Mediterranean Sea on boats. The country earns USD 15 billion a year in remittance, but that is a success story that comes at a high price.
On this World Refugee Day, people all over the world will affirm their commitment to humanity, from the global to the local level. Refugees are the most vulnerable people on earth and experience every suffering that is possible. Perhaps the greatest pain is that they left a home behind and have no land to call their own.
Waiting at an airport on my way home from a trip to Malaysia, a man walked up to me hesitantly and asked if I could help him fill out his immigration card. He was a Bangladeshi man in his mid-40s. While filling out his documents, we started talking and I learned that he was on a migrant worker’s visa and used to be a chef at a resort. When I asked him if he was headed home for a vacation, he informed me with a stoic expression that he was being deported for being Hepatitis B positive.
Jannat is not your typical microfinance client. Like an increasing number of BRAC’s microfinance clients, she is not a member of a women-only savings and borrowing group, and did not take a loan to set up a micro-enterprise. Instead, her and her husband are part of new sphere of microfinance clients that is starting to catch on - migrant workers.
As of 2014 there are more than nine million Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad. These migrants are not only supporting their family at home but they are significantly boosting Bangladesh’s national GDP. Eight percent of the total GDP of 2014 was a direct contribution of migrant remittances.
Every morning I am woken by Hawa. In Bengali, hawa means breeze, but that’s not what I am referring to. I’m talking about my part-time domestic worker called Hawa. Hawa migrated from Mymensingh to Dhaka with her mother and sister in 2009. They came to Dhaka to work as domestic workers to provide for their family, while the men in their family stayed back in the village. Hawa never went to school. She cannot read or write.
There are 232 million people living outside their country of origin, and Samina Begum from Bangladesh was almost one of them. There is an estimated 8 million Bangladeshis working abroad, sending back remittances of around 12bn USD. This year alone, another 1.4 million – almost 1 percent of the country’s population – joined them.
Moksedul, a Bangladeshi migrant worker who resided in Qatar for three years, almost believed that his voice was never to be heard; that his stories would remain untold. In fact, it almost came as a shock to him when he was asked to get up on stage and speak up, and speak up he did.
“Apney to okhon ashchen, amra bhor choy-ta theika boisha asi, okhono ailo na” (You’ve just come, but we have been waiting here since 6 am and he still hasn’t come) said Polash’s mother. It was almost 10.30 and I was waiting for half an hour outside the airport for my colleague to bring an entry pass. I didn’t know the lady sitting on the floor with two small children - Polash’s mother and his siblings – who came and waited there everyday from 6 am till the last flight arrived in the hopes of seeing her son. She last spoke to him about a week ago, when he said he was waiting for his turn to get a seat on the much coveted charter flights being arranged for the Bangladeshi workers living in UNHCR refugee camps at the Tunisian border. She said to me, “everyday, before leaving for the airport from my home in Dholai khal, I cook Palash’s favourite dishes because he is only getting a single meal each day at the camps”. There was little I could say to comfort her, except tell her to hold on to her faith and patience. I gave her the phone numbers of my colleagues who were working round the clock inside the airport.