Fourteen Bangladeshi workers, who have been stranded jobless in Iraq for nearly a year, yesterday began a hunger strike demanding immediate repatriation.
"We stopped eating today [Saturday]. We won't eat until we are given air tickets home," Shafiqul Islam, one of the stranded migrants, told The Daily Star over the phone yesterday.
"This is impossible. How long can we suffer this way? We would rather die here," Shafiqul said.
Shafiqul, along with 13 fellow ill-fated workers, have been "confined" to an accommodation in the Iraqi city of Najaf, 160 kilometres south of Baghdad for about a year.
A total of 27 workers were sent to Iraq between January and February last year on promises of construction jobs at M Kodia Co General Trading with a monthly salary of $350.
Four recruiting agencies -- Meghna Trade International, Morning Sun Enterprise, East Bengal Overseas and Idea International -- charged each of them Tk 4 lakh for the overseas recruitment.
However, upon their arrival in Iraq, the employers could not provide them with jobs and kept them confined to the accommodation facility. Though they can use telephones, they are not allowed to step outside the facility.
Two of the migrants managed to escape the confinement. They, however, did not return home and nobody knows their current whereabouts.
Following a series of demonstrations and pleas of the families and relatives of the migrants in Dhaka since July last year, M Kodia Co General Trading sent 11 workers home on November 30 last year.
Upon return, they filed a human trafficking case the next day, which led to the arrests of Joynal Abedin, chairman of Bangladesh Migrants' Foundation for its involvement in the migration process and Nasir Khan of Meghna Trade International.
The returnees staged demonstrations in Dhaka on December 14 last year and January 22 this year demanding immediate repatriation of the 14 stranded workers.
After failing to press the government through the demonstrations, Shaon Ali, one of the returnees, managed to hold a meeting with Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain on January 22.
"The minister had ordered the officials concerned to repatriate the 14 workers in four days. He also had said if the employer does not provide them with tickets, the government will do that for them," Shaon told The Daily Star.
Ten days have passed since the assurance of the minister and the stranded workers are yet to be brought home.
Dr Zafar Ahmed Khan, secretary to the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, said the repatriation process requires some time.
"We cannot do everything so quickly even if we want," he told The Daily Star yesterday, adding that it had taken a month for the government to bring the 14 workers back home.
While talking to this correspondent over the phone, Shafiqul Islam also said all of the workers there were getting weak -- both physically and mentally. Some of them even had fallen sick and no medical care was available.
"None would care if we die here. So, we stopped eating," Shafiqul said from Najaf.
Meanwhile, one Haider, who works with M Kodia Co General Trading, yesterday visited them yesterday and said he would provide air tickets to them a month later, Shafiqul added.