Undocumented migrant workers are internationally recognised as victims, people falling into the trap of transnational traffickers and their local agents and enablers. There are no two ways about it—nor about who the real criminals are. Any confusion about who's who is trumped-up and criminally exploited. So it baffles us that the government has stuck to the inexplicable exercise of sending these victims to jail, while no discernible action is being taken against those who have exploited them. According to the Brac Migration Programme, a total of 416 returnee migrant workers have been arrested during this pandemic, all under the dubious Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows the state to detain those suspected of "tarnishing the country's image abroad."
The latest incident saw a batch of 32 returnee workers from Syria being thrown into jail on Monday, after the completion of their quarantine period. Earlier this month, another batch comprising 81 returnees from Vietnam were arrested, all of whom were victims of trafficking. In June, 219 returnees from Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain were also detained after they reached home. Unfortunately, no charges have been brought against any of them yet. From time to time, we hear state officials and police peddling the "country image" theory, as if that justifies arresting people who are already victims of exploitation. When asked, police couldn't offer any valid reason for the latest case of incarceration, and a forwarding letter sent by the Turag police argues that: "If these people are allowed to walk free after quarantine, there is a possibility that they will spill all over the country and engage in crimes like robbery, terrorism, murder and anarchy." Arresting someone for no specific crime and based on a "possibility", unsubstantiated as it is, is not just absurd or illegal—it also speaks of a culture in which there is no legal safeguard for migrants who were forced to return home.
It is reprehensible that these migrants, after facing injustices abroad, are being unjustly held and harassed once again at home. We urge the government to immediately release all victims of human trafficking and conduct a fair investigation into the role of recruiting agencies who exploit the vulnerability of aspiring migrants. They are the ones who deserve to be in prison, not their victims.