Switzerland has been working in the area of migration in Bangladesh for some 10 years, knowing it is very important for the country’s economy and people. It also played an important role in the run up to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) endorsed by the UN General Assembly last year. Switzerland’s Ambassador to Bangladesh, Dr René Holenstein, recently shared his views on migration and the Rohingya crisis with Porimol Palma of The Daily Star.
What’s your understanding of labour migration from Bangladesh?
I have great appreciation for Bangladesh’s efforts to address labour migration emphatically at national, regional and global levels. Bangladesh’s leadership at the global level has helped to place migration prominently in the 2030 agenda. It has been our privilege to have worked with Bangladesh in these endeavours.
What are the challenges Bangladesh face?
One is skilling of migrants—both soft and technical skills—that’s extremely important. More than 60 percent of Bangladeshi migrants are low-skilled. Second is implementation of regulatory framework at all levels. Third, to lower the cost of migration—studies have shown migration cost for Bangladeshis is relatively high. It has to come down. Then comes the importance of best use of the remittances sent by migrant workers. Remittances should be invested in families but also in productive sectors.
What’s the impact of high migration cost?
It affects poor migrants and can expose them to exploitative practices. The whole governance of migration should be administered in a way to reduce migration cost so that migrant workers don’t have to pay high rates. It is important to ensure accountability throughout the recruiting process.
We now have the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). However, we see that manpower brokers and agencies involved in malpractices are not being held fully accountable. How can GCM help here?
The GCM is relatively new and is not legally binding, but it is internationally important. It will help all stakeholders to work at local, national, regional and global levels to protect the rights of the migrants. The governments and NGOs are committed to work for the protection of migrant workers’ rights. Bangladesh is also committed to follow regulatory framework and international good practices. However, it cannot happen overnight. One important aspect is to respect ethical standards.
Labour trafficking has become a matter of concern. How can this be addressed?
Trafficking in persons is a crime. A strong framework is required to combat and prevent trafficking. I would like to commend the decision of Bangladesh to ratify the Palermo Protocol. Governments at national and local levels have to play their roles to make the framework effective. International standards have to be implemented to combat trafficking. The biggest problem is that people are being caught in the desperate peril of life when they are trafficked. Jobs and employment opportunities have to be created for two million young Bangladeshis who enter the labour market every year.
How can remittances be used in more productive sectors?
I have the impression that a big chunk of the remittances is being used in productive sectors. It is important to ensure that migrant workers are able to make informed choices as to how to use their remittances.
We see a lot of migrants returning home, but there is no reintegration programme for them. What is your opinion on this?
It is a relatively new area in Bangladesh—but has become a priority area to reintegrate people economically and socially. A tailor-made approach is needed to address this topic, which will take into account individual needs of the returning migrants. The Swiss government is committed to support Bangladesh towards this end. It is sometimes very challenging to reintegrate the trafficking victims because they face mental distress and social stigma.
Is there any new approach from Switzerland as you support the reintegration programme?
Together with Denmark and other partners, Switzerland is looking at best ways to reintegrate returning migrants. Very often their conditions depend on their localities. The new approach would be to work with the whole community in order to better reintegrate the returnees in society. Many of them have acquired skills that can be extremely helpful for the communities in society.
The Rohingya crisis appears to be a protracted one. How do you look at it?
It is really incredible to see what Bangladesh has done and the hospitality that has been extended to the Rohingyas until now. The UN agencies, international community, NGOs and INGOs are also doing good jobs not only for the refugees but also for the host community. My government stands by Bangladesh firmly during this difficult period. It’s a matter of concern that the conditions in Myanmar for voluntary, safe and dignified return have not been met yet.
Is there enough international pressure on Myanmar?
It is encouraging that regional actors are increasingly being involved in finding a solution to this crisis. It’s a political crisis, not a humanitarian one. The problem is not rooted in Bangladesh, but in Myanmar. So, strong collaboration with Myanmar and the international community through UN is crucial. More efforts are needed for voluntary and sustainable return of the Rohingyas.
What political support are you providing to Bangladesh?
In the multilateral fora Switzerland has supported Bangladesh and its positions in the context of the Rohingya refugee crisis. Switzerland continues to call for the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. One of the main objectives of the visit of then President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset to Bangladesh in February 2018 was to express solidarity with Bangladesh. The special envoy on Myanmar of the UN Secretary General is a Swiss diplomat. She’s actively involved in finding a solution.
We are supporting multinational organisations, NGOs and INGOs and also providing technical support and expertise. We will continue to work closely with Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure safety and protection of the refugees and their voluntary and safe return to Myanmar.
Rohingyas’ most important demand is citizenship and safety in Myanmar, but Myanmar is still reluctant on it. How do you see it?
Statelessness of people is a big injustice. It deprives people of their basic rights. In the long run the citizenship issue must be solved. Any relocation to Bashan Char has to be voluntary. We encourage the Bangladesh government to continue its close collaboration with the humanitarian organisations, to preserve humanitarian operational space and to enable them to function in a free and unimpeded manner and in a safe and secure environment.