When there is already too much stress due to the pandemic, some grim reports have added to the nation's woes. A lawmaker detained in Kuwait; the country's ineligibility for Schengen visas; restriction on travel to South Korea and Japan, and headlines in Italian media for wrong reason -- all have come as heartbreaks and also put Bangladesh's image at stake abroad. In light of these developments, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen talks to The Daily Star's Golam Mortoza on the challenges the country is facing on the global stage.
The Daily Star (TDS): Lawmaker Shahid Islam has been arrested in Kuwait on charges of human trafficking and money laundering. What steps have you taken in this regard?
AK Abdul Momen (AAM): If the Kuwait authorities inform us, if we can gather information that he was involved in human trafficking and money laundering, then we will take legal action against him.
TDS: Is there any other way of collecting intelligence, in case Kuwait doesn't provide the information?
AAM: The ACC [Anti-Corruption Commission] has started an investigation. We may get information from there.
TDS: How damaging is this for a country when its lawmaker gets arrested abroad on such serious charges? Is there anything we can do right now?
AAM: Of course, our image has been tarnished and we have zero tolerance for such crimes.
TDS: You recently said he was arrested as a businessman, not lawmaker. What did you mean by this?
AAM: According to our information, he was not travelling with a diplomatic passport. Our ambassador was aware that he was doing business in Kuwait. I did not say he is a Kuwait citizen.
When a lawmaker travels abroad, they usually carry a diplomatic passport. I don't know why he did not do that.
TDS: Regardless of the type of passport being carried, doesn't the identity as a lawmaker give one's actions some level of significance?
AAM: A lawmaker, elected by the people, is a respectable person. They have responsibilities. It is really unfortunate when such a responsible person gets involved in corruption. We have a zero-tolerance policy against human trafficking and money laundering.
TDS: You are talking about zero-tolerance. Is there any legal action being taken against Shahid Islam alias Papul?
AAM: You better ask the law ministry. The foreign ministry is involved here because he is now in a foreign country.
TDS: It is happening at a time when Bangladeshi expatriates are facing difficulties. Around 2.5 lakh of them face the grim prospect of being deported from Kuwait. You have spent most of your time abroad over the years. As the foreign minister, what will you do to overcome this crisis?
AAM: We are doing a lot. Most of our expats, nearly 80 percent, are in the Middle Eastern countries. We, along with the expatriates welfare and other ministries, have taken a number of steps. Firstly, we have talked with the expatriates, and told them to stay put despite the difficulties posed by such trying times. We told them better days will come. We talked to the government of those countries. We requested them to ensure that these people do not die of hunger during the pandemic. They agreed to provide healthcare and food support [to our workers]. We have also sent money and relief goods for them.
TDS: How much money has been distributed so far?
AAM: Several crore Taka. Besides, the embassies have also distributed food…. during lockdowns. Our migrants -- both legal of illegal ones -- never register their contact details with our foreign missions. Our mission officials worked day and night to reach as many people as they could and distributed the goods.
TDS: Bangladeshi expatriates largely remain detached from our missions across the world.
AAM: It is the responsibility of every migrant to register their name with our mission office in the country they have travelled to. For example, if you are an American and have travelled to another country, it is your responsibility to inform the mission office how long you will be staying there.
TDS: The US embassies take their citizens' responsibilities. There are allegations that our embassies do not do that.
AAM: I think that is an exaggeration. You go to any of our foreign missions. You will get respect from them. The allegations are baseless. Anyways, let's talk about what we actually are doing. We have told the government of those countries that if a worker gets fired, make sure the worker gets six months' salary and other benefits. And if possible, employ the workers in other jobs. After the pandemic, food crises might become an issue. Our workers can be employed in farming.
TDS: Please name the countries you have talked to and the ones that agreed to give what you asked for.
AAM: I have talked with most governments of the Middle Eastern countries. Talked with Malaysia and Singapore. We have also talked with countries where there is a large number of Bangladeshi expats.
TDS: I have recently talked with some Bangladeshis in Italy. They appeared to be embarrassed because some Bangladeshis tested positive for Coving-19 when they returned to Italy. Our national flag carrier was termed a 'coronavirus-carrying-bomb'. What is the reason? Do we lack the precautionary measures?
AAM: Ask the people who are sending them to the airport. I'm really embarrassed, it is unfortunate. We do not have strict surveillance at our airport. Rather, we try to get landing permission in that country.
TDS: But, some responsibilities fall on you because you are the one who will do the negotiation.
AAM: Recently, it was decided that only the IEDCR's Covid-19 negative report will be accepted from a person wishing to travel abroad… I believe it will work.
TDS: But the number of Bangladeshi expats ready to travel abroad is around a few lakhs while the daily testing capacity of IEDCR is limited. How is it going to help the expats?
AAM: We will look into the matter. We will have to start somewhere and it is not possible to solve all the issues overnight.
TDS: You have talked about citizens staying connected to the foreign office. When some expats in Vietnam went to our foreign office, it was alleged that the expats tried to seize the facility. Did they really go there to seize the foreign office? Or, did they go there to press their demand to return home?
AAM: Those who turned up at our embassy in Vietnam went to that country with visitors' visas. According to our mission office, it was a Friday and 11 Bangladeshis were returning home from Vietnam on a flight that day. At that time, 27 Bangladeshi expats turned up to our small embassy office where only six officials were posted. They told that they will not leave the embassy if their demand for a special flight to return home was not met. They placed their demand through a video conference and gave a 24-hour deadline. Our mission then informed us of their demand. The ministry responded by saying that the rules for the arrangement of return is applicable only for those legally working as expatriates. We don't offer the same service for those who work there illegally. It agitated the expats present there and they demanded that an arrangement must be done for their return.
They went there with visitors' visas and their visas expired six months or so ago.
TDS: Were they stuck in Vietnam while travelling?
AAM: They were working there. I have heard that they did not like the job they were offered and fled from their workplaces. They also demonstrated in front of a police station, prompting the law enforces to follow them. Then they took shelter at the mission.
TDS: If they had taken shelter there, why was it alleged that they tried to seize the mission office? DUCSU VP Noor also appeared in discussions about the allegations.
AAM: They told the mission officials that they would not leave the premises. Before that, they said in a video conference that they would take hold of the mission office. They also said that an expatriate rights body was also with them.
TDS: Do you think it is believable that a student leader can seize a mission office by instigating the expatriates?
AAM: No, I don't want to believe it. But the information came from there.
TDS: Bangladeshis for the time are not eligible for Schengen visas. Italy has suspended flight operations from Bangladesh. Is it the beginning of the world closing its doors to Bangladesh citizens?
AAM: Only 44 out of 193 countries have come into the purview of the Schengen visa. They said it is a temporary measure. Only a few countries outside the European Union have got the permission. They told us they were updating the list. Some of our neighbouring countries were also not granted the permission. Besides, not many people in our country will be interested to travel to Europe during the pandemic. We will get permission, if we can contain the coronavirus outbreak.
TDS: Do you think the recent incident in Italy puts us in more trouble?
AAM: There is a chance. Those who are travelling also need to be more responsible. They can think of travelling only after making sure they do not have the coronavirus. Those who are sending them also cannot deny their responsibilities. It is not only with Italy. Before that, four passengers who travelled to Japan under the supervision of the Japanese government tested positive there. Three consecutive flights to South Korea saw coronavirus positive cases among the Bangladeshis.
Those who are travelling have responsibilities. Why were they travelling knowing that it was forbidden?