Migrant workers have been among the first victims of the global economic fallout of Covid-19 and latest data by the expatriates' welfare ministry shows that a large number of them have been compelled to return to Bangladesh over the last four months. At least 78,043 Bangladeshi workers returned home from 26 countries since April, according to statistics published by the ministry on August 23. Of them, 44,695 returned from nine countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Malaysia, the Maldives and Iraq, as they either lost their jobs or there was no prospect of employment in their host countries. As many as 4,732 female workers were also compelled to return home.
From the beginning of the pandemic, migration experts have been apprehensive of its impact on migrant workers, their households, communities and the national economy at large. We, too, have written at length about the plight of those forced to come back home empty-handed, in debt and/or to a life of poverty, insecurity and unemployment, and urged the government to involve all stakeholders to come up with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for these returnees. While the government created a Tk 200 crore fund for giving soft loans to returnees and the family members of those who died from Covid-19, and a separate loan package of Tk 500 crore for the expatriates who lost jobs amid the pandemic, experts note that these allocations are woefully inadequate given the far-reaching impact of the fallout on households and communities dependent on these migrants' incomes. In the proposed national budget for 2020-21, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment was allocated Tk 641 crore, which is one of the lowest allocations among major sectors.
We appreciate that the government is documenting the number of people who are returning, based on which, we hope, it will design appropriate training and rehabilitation packages for all concerned. It is also imperative that the government document the violations of labour rights in the host countries and ensure that the wages and other dues of returnees denied by their employers are recovered through diplomatic negotiations. The ministry has assured the media that they will be training migrant workers to meet changing demands in a post-Covid international labour market, but their success will depend on how well designed and accessible the trainings are and how resourcefully the ministry is able to find job opportunities abroad in the near future.
The government has so far maintained that the migration issue is "under control" but we reiterate what we've been saying all along—there is no room for complacency when it comes to such a crucial sector and the lives of millions of returnees and their families. Migrant workers and their families are yet to be included in the government's social safety net programmes, which it must revisit and address in an urgent basis.