Aspiring Migrants: Uncertainty clouds fate of over 85,000 | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 19, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:08 AM, August 19, 2020

Aspiring Migrants: Uncertainty clouds fate of over 85,000

Jahangir Alam got an employment visa in late February and was preparing to fly to Saudi Arabia the following month to work as a cleaner.

But the 24-year-old man from Tangail couldn't take a flight as the government in March announced suspension of all scheduled flights to and from Bangladesh amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

This brought to a near halt the country's efforts to send fresh migrant workers abroad.

According to Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), the pandemic has either delayed or stalled the process of sending at least 85,405 aspiring migrants to different countries till mid-July. Of them, 85 percent was expected to have jobs in Saudi Arabia.

Of the workers, 22,987 got visas and completed all procedures but could not fly to their destinations.

Jahangir had borrowed Tk 3 lakh from a moneylender to pay for his employment visa. He also had to fork out another Tk 70,000 from his own savings.

"Now, I am paying interest on the debt but there is no indication of when I'll be able to catch a flight," he told this correspondent over phone recently.

Jahangir, the eldest of his parents' three children, is now unsure when he will be able to help his labourer father run the family.

Like him, thousands of low-income people have invested their borrowed or hard-earned money for "lucrative" overseas jobs. But the pandemic has thrown their plans into uncertainty.

The government last month announced resumption of international flights on a limited scale. But fresh migrant workers could not fly abroad as scheduled flights to Saudi Arabia, the largest overseas labour market for Bangladesh, and most other countries remain suspended.

Currently, scheduled flights are being operated to only 11 destinations in Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar, the UK, China, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Turkey, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) Chairman Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman told this newspaper yesterday.

Migrant rights activist Prof CR Abrar said many people in the rural areas paid either recruiting agencies or middlemen for overseas jobs. They fall in the category of migrant workers in distress.

The government should ask the recruiting agencies to return the money of such workers, he noted, adding that migrant rights groups have already raised the issue.

There is another category of intending migrants who have either applied for clearance from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) or already got clearance, Prof Abrar pointed out.

The authorities should give priority to them while sending workers abroad when the overseas labour markets reopen, he noted.

Baira data shows that 30,422 workers were waiting for visas till mid-July. At least 19,198 workers got visas this year while visa processing for 6,904 workers remained stalled from March for various reasons. Besides, flights of 3,078 workers were cancelled during the period.

The data was collected from only 328 of more than 1,200 member agencies of Baira, its Secretary General Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman said at a virtual conference on July 15.

Baira member agencies had received demands for more than one lakh jobs before the pandemic, he mentioned.

According to BMET data, no overseas recruitment was made in April and May.

The situation was similar in June, said BMET Director General Shamsul Alam.

This was in contrast to the situation in January-March when about 1.81 lakh workers were hired for overseas jobs.

The Baira secretary general voiced concern that the country's coronavirus situation might discourage foreign employers from hiring workers from Bangladesh even if the situation in the destination countries becomes normal anytime soon.

Prof Abrar said Baira should shoulder the responsibility of the workers who made full payments, and give them priority when the overseas labour markets reopen.

Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration Programme, said that if the government fails to contain the novel coronavirus effectively, Bangladesh might miss out on the opportunities in the international labour market.

"The government must give priority to containment of the virus while making efforts to send workers abroad," he added.

Talking to this newspaper over phone, Md Jahangir Alam, joint secretary (employment) at the expatriates' welfare ministry, said fresh workers could not go abroad following the suspension of flights amid the pandemic.

Besides, the expatriate Bangladeshis who returned home on vacation faced problems in going back to their workplaces, he mentioned.

The official said efforts are on to ensure that the aspiring migrants can reach their overseas destinations once the situation becomes normal. The ministry has written to different labour-recipient countries to this end. Besides, Bangladesh missions in those countries have stepped up diplomatic efforts.

He further said the ministry's activities regarding labour recruitment are going on.

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