Bangladesh has decided to bring back undocumented migrants as requested by some countries, once the shutdown over coronavirus ends.
It will be difficult to bring them back now as all travel is restricted, Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad said after an inter-ministerial meeting at the foreign ministry today.
The decision to bring them back comes just as the number of Covid-19 cases in the country is rising sharply. In the last 24 hours until this afternoon, 112 new cases were detected, taking the total number of infected people in the country to 330.
So far, 21 people have died due of Covid-19 and there are fears that the number will continue to rise. It has also severely affected global economy.
The global pandemic is forcing some countries with a large migrant community to consider repatriation of migrants who are either convicted or undocumented now that all economic activities except emergency services have come to a standstill.
Kuwait and Bahrain have already asked Bangladesh to repatriate several hundred Bangladeshis from their jails and deportation centres to ease congestion in those facilities.
Kuwait also wants undocumented migrants of different nationalities to be repatriated. Of some two lakh Bangladeshis in the country, about 25,000 may be undocumented there, officials said.
Maldives, which is facing financial crisis due to the pandemic, has requested Bangladesh to take back undocumented workers. The country has nearly one lakh Bangladeshi workers and of them 50,000 are undocumented.
Even Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, where there is a huge population of Bangladeshi migrants, also had initial talks on the possibility of repatriating undocumented migrant workers. There are some 25 lakh Bangladeshis in these two countries, and several lakhs are likely undocumented.
Migrant rights activists say any repatriation of migrants must be voluntary, and that it is the host countries' responsibility to ensure free screening and treatment of Covid-19 patients, if any, during this global pandemic.
If any country tries to forcibly send back undocumented workers, they will hide themselves, increasing the risks of spreading coronavirus, Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, chairperson of Migrants' Forum Asia from Kuala Lumpur, said.
Minister Imran Ahmad said the government has the responsibility to take care of the country's citizens wherever they live. The inter-ministerial meeting, therefore, discussed various ways of ensuring welfare of the Bangladeshi migrants abroad during the pandemic.
"We want to repatriate Bangladeshi migrants as needed. But we will have to bring them after the lockdown is over. Now the lockdown is until April 14, but if it is extended until April 30, we will have to repatriate them after that.
"We are also sending money to our missions so the migrants in trouble can be taken care of," he said.
He said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and he are jointly writing letters to the foreign ministers of Kuwait, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain in this regard.
"We are thanking these countries for their measures in protecting our citizens. We have said that the whole world is now facing problems and requested that they take care of our people from humanitarian perspective," Imran Ahmad told this correspondent on phone today.
Kuwait last week declared an amnesty for undocumented migrants. Under it, Bangladeshis and migrants from other countries can leave the country without paying fine, while the air tickets would be borne by Kuwait. Migrants will also have chance to return to Kuwait with legal documents later.
Bahrain's Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) has also announced an amnesty for undocumented migrants from now through December 31, 2020. Irregular migrants will not have to pay any fines to regularise their residency status or leave the country.
These are all good gestures of solidarity during the global health crisis, said Imran Ahmad.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said, "Migrants are our assets. We will ensure their welfare. We discussed in details and decided to take a number of steps to alleviate the hardships that they are going through since the coronavirus pandemic began."
He said state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam is also talking to Bangladesh missions and is trying to understand their needs at this time. "We will take all measures to ensure our peoples' welfare."
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, Expatriates' Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam, State Minister for Disaster Management Enamur Rahman and senior officials of the ministries concerned were present.