The sickness of illegal immigrants

A few days ago, the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke vociferously about the plight of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and said both the middlemen that trafficked them and those who risked their lives to go abroad illegally, had tarnished the image of the country. 

It could have ended there, but it didn't. Employing a remarkable piece of rhetoric she continued, "Why are they going? It's not right to say all are doing this because of poverty ... it seems they're chasing the golden deer, they think there is huge money abroad ... this is a sort of mental sickness."

It pains me to say the 'mental sickness' she talks about lies at the centre of the government for their complete lack of understanding as to why thousands of Bangladeshis are willing to risk their lives for the dream of a better future.

The fact that needs to sink in is that they are willing to beg, borrow and steal a fool's ransom to be shoved into a boat with up to 400 others without so much as a meal or bathroom, for weeks on end, to travel to a country where they don't know the language or a single person, all in the hope of economic security. 

Currently, thousands of people are doing the same in the Mediterranean and the only difference is that they are fleeing wars. To put that into perspective the North Africans that are dying by the thousands trying to reach European shores are risking their lives to flee an active warzone and in Bangladesh they are doing exactly the same, except for the little fact that they aren't escaping a war. 

They aren't running from the fear of bullets and blood, they are running from structural poverty, lack of opportunity and widespread inequality. They are running from a silent war that our government refuses to acknowledge or even worse, refuses to understand. 

In 2014 the World Bank said, 47 million Bangladeshis live in poverty while 26 million live in extreme poverty. Let's not trust the flag bearers of neoliberalism and for the sake of this argument, halve those figures; that would still leave us with 27.5 million in poverty and 13 million in extreme poverty. Let's go one step further and claim the World Bank's statistics are catastrophically incorrect and halve the numbers again, leaving us with 14.75 million in poverty and 6.5 million in extreme poverty. 

The fact of the matter is that with 14.75 million living in poverty and 6.5 in extreme poverty, it certainly leaves an enormous number of people looking for the next best opportunity and for many of them that lies, both legally and illegally, abroad.

In her speech it was interesting to note that those who were leaving Bangladesh legally, the nearly 500,000 a year that head to the Middle East, Malaysia, Maldives and the rest of the world in search of legal work were not spoken of as 'mentally sick' or chasing the 'golden deer'. 

Why then are the illegal immigrants mentally sick for wanting the same opportunities, just without legal means? Is it because they are willing to risk dying and being treated like animals for the lure of a decent salary? 

Truth be told, many of those who leave Bangladesh legally may suffer the same fate as those that leave illegally. There have been reports of migrant workers being "trapped, exploited and abused" (Al Jazeera) while an unusually large number of them return in coffins as well.

In 30 years, from 1972 to 2002, a total of 3,613 expatriate Bangladeshis officially died abroad, in the next 11 years over 20,000 did. The increase in the figures of expatriate deaths is staggering and so are the causes of death that go with them. 

The number one official cause of death is cardiac arrest and in one extraordinary period of four months from January to May 2009 (Migrant Forum in Asia), almost every single expatriate body that came back to Bangladesh was put down to cardiac arrest, nearly 20 times the national average. 

For over a decade on average every single day five Bangladeshi expatriate workers die from 'cardiac arrests' and a litany of causes which often hide their dire living and working conditions. These are people, just like the illegal immigrants the Prime Minister spoke of, who left Bangladesh for opportunities they never found at home.

I'm not saying the government is to blame, they can't provide work for everyone and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can. But if they claim there is ample opportunity at home, it is they who suffer from a 'mental sickness', not the immigrants. 

The government may be shocked and appalled at the way illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are treated but they need to take a closer look at the legal immigrants who don't fare much better. But why upset that applecart if their legal remittances are what the IMF calls "the single most important informal safety net program in Bangladesh."

The IMF's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for Bangladesh 2013 (Pg 178) also shows a positive correlation between district level poverty head count rates and their share of expatriate workers and also goes on to say, "a key factor underlying the more favourable poverty outcomes in Sylhet is the large inflow of remittances." In essence saying the more people that leave and send money back home, the better off the country is. 

Bangladesh relies on its workers' remittances but is seemingly happy to turn a blind eye as to why half a million of them choose to leave the country every year and how the nearly eight million currently abroad are treated. The government never tells us why over 500,000 of her countrymen leave Bangladesh every year legally, according to her it surely can't all be because of poverty, but I'd love to know what it is then.

The answer lies in the government's myopia, it views the illegal immigrants as criminals who have opportunities at home but don't take them and while simultaneously viewing the millions of legal Bangladeshi immigrants as a source of income and pride, thus never answering the question as to why they left in the first place. If so many Bangladeshis are willing to risk being tortured, enslaved and possibly being killed abroad for economic opportunities, the problem clearly lies at home, not with them and their mental faculties.

Of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that leave legally every year many don't make it back alive and the fourth most common cause of death for legal Bangladeshi immigrants is mental stress. Yes, you read that right, mental stress. Maybe the Prime Minister was on to something after all.

The writer is a journalist currently based in New York. He can be reached at [email protected]