Can we hear the howling of migrants? – Jahurul Islam Jewel

Issue, National

Sukhi Begum, 23, a resident of Chandpur village under Faridpur district. A local broker painted a rosy picture for her with an offer of 900 riyals a month (around 20000 Tk). The job was to take care of a baby in Saudi Arabia. The broker informed her that she only had to pay 45,000 Tk as her expenditure. She took the plunge; leaving behind her family in Dhaka on 27th September 2019 she went to Saudi Arabia. Soon afterwards, she woke up to the harsh reality: long working hours, brutal behavior and physical torture by the owner. However on November 23rd she somehow managed to flee from that house and informed the Saudi police about the incident. After that she returned to Bangladesh with the help of Bangladeshi embassy in Saudi Arabia. However all the migrants’ fate is not alike Begum, some even faces harsher reality.
“I perhaps won’t live longer. Please save me. They locked me up for 15 days and barely gave any food. They hit me and then burned my arms with hot oil,” Sumi Akter, another victim of inhuman torture, told the above mentioned traumatizing tale to her husband that became viral on the social media recently. “Just take me away from here,” Akter pleads in desperation.
However the most poignant aspect of it all is that their stories are far from an isolated one. In the last two years, almost two thousand women in situations similar to Sumi, Sukhi have returned to Bangladesh, totally drained of the hope and optimism with which they had left the country in search of that ‘dream job’. After the 2015 accord between Bangladesh and Saudi authority till date 300,069 female migrants departed to Saudi Arabia, among them 131 returned home dead, source Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia. According to non-governmental sources the amount would be much higher than government statement.
Bangladesh foreign ministry has unquestionably failed to uphold the basic rights of its citizens in abroad, especially in Saudi Arabia. Bangladeshi embassy in Saudi Arabia even has not protested against the Saudi sponsors’ alleged torture and human rights violation and Saudi authorities’ negligence regarding the matter. The protection of torture is a jus cogens or peremptory norm of international law, which means that States have an obligation to enforce the prohibition of torture, even if that State has not ratified a relevant treaty. Additionally, Article 2(2) of the Convention against Torture states that a State may never cite exceptional circumstances, including war or a public emergency, to justify torture. Both Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia are the accession State of the convention.
In October 2013 Bangladesh government enacted the ‘Overseas Employment and Migration act-2013’. The section 25 of the act states, ‘(1) The Government may conclude memorandum of understanding or an agreement with another country with a view to increase opportunities of migration by the Bangladeshi citizens for overseas employment, improving management of labor migration, repatriation and reintegration of the migrant workers in the home country, and to ensure welfare and the rights of migrant workers including the members of their families. (2) Any memorandum of understanding or agreement under the Subsection (1) shall be concluded on the basis of, among others, the following principles:— 12 (a) protection of the rights, safety and human dignity of all migrant workers within the country or while overseas; (b) protection of labor and other human rights of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the concerned country, and assuring conditions at work are compatible with the international standards; and (c) assurance of the migrant workers’ right to information and the right to redress if their rights are violated in the concerned country.’
But it seems that Bangladesh authorities are not willing to take any legal initiatives against KSA or other destination countries, which are continuously violating international laws, to protect its citizen’s rights. The example of Indonesia can be worth mentioned here, the country protested Saudi Arabia’s execution of one of its citizens, a domestic worker, saying the Kingdom failed to notify her family or the Indonesian government beforehand. However after Indonesian government’s stance KSA authority promised to provide better protection and working environment for Indonesians there?
Another concerning issue is that almost 50,000 migrants are forced to return home per year from various destination countries. 32,000 Bangladeshi have registered with the Mahathir government’s declared ‘back for good’ program, maximum of them already have returned from the country, said Bangladesh Mission in Kuala Lumpur in a press briefing recently. From January to till date around 8000 female migrants have returned from KSA alone. Bangladesh authorities have even failed in negotiation with Saudi authority about determining its citizen’s remuneration. Bangladeshi migrants’ salaries are the lowest comparing with other manpower exporting countries. Bangladeshi migrants get only 800-1000 Saudi riyal where as Nepali migrants for example get 1600 Saudi riyal, and a Filipino gets 1800-2000 riyal per month. Bangladesh is one of the largest exporters of manpower, and the money send back is the second-highest source of foreign remittance earnings to Bangladesh after exports of readymade garments (RMG). In 2019, up to November Bangladeshi migrants have sent remittance amounting Tk 140,761.79 Crore, source Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
Last year, however Bangladesh’s remittance income hit an all-time high, giving a breather to the country’s ongoing foreign exchange crisis. Remittance is one of the main drivers of the country’s economic growth, accounting for 5.4 percent of the gross domestic product in the year. That’s why Bangladesh government must take an effective measure to mitigate migrants’ problems.

The writer is a human rights activist
and freelancer.