Citizens, not heroes: Recast the role of migrant workers
Early one morning, as two teenagers on holiday, my sister and I were crossing the empty streets of Kuala Lumpur when we had an eerie feeling of being followed. Sensing danger, we stopped in front of a local restaurant setting up for breakfast and turned to a man in uniform holding what seemed to be a portable bin with wheels. He was collecting garbage from the street.
"Are you Bangladeshi?" I asked.
He was. Hearing Bangla in the shadows of the Petronas, he had followed. Despite our shared nationality, now that we had made contact, the man seemed uncomfortable with the disparity between us. We soon parted ways. Thus ended my first encounter with a Bangladeshi migrant worker abroad.
Since then, such encounters have become a staple of my travels. At airports, I've gotten used to filling out forms for complete strangers. In planes, I translate curt cabin crew instructions into Bangla. In return, one can absorb heart-breaking stories of triumph and torture, of the benevolent manager in Mauritius, the rough Emirati immigration officer, the unhelpful embassy officials in East Asia.
When you listen carefully, what emerges is a tapestry of Bangladeshi narratives of immense human courage and hardship, hope and desperation, a portrait of what it means to be Bangladeshi in the twenty-first century. And as a people, we must reckon with these realities, ideally sooner rather than later, for our own sake.
Though it may seem like a modern phenomenon, labour migration has a long historical precedence in Bangladesh. Our ancestors left home like we do, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily as indentured workers. In Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil S Amrith estimates that between 1840 and 1940, 28 million people crossed the bay bearing our name from cities around it—one of the great mass migrations in human history. Vivek Bald's Bengali Harlem hones in on the Bengali traders and sailors who settled in the United States in the early twentieth century, setting up multicultural communities with African-American and Puerto Rican women. When a migrant worker leaves home today, whether she heads East or West, she's following a well-worn path.
Of course, modern labour migration is a different beast, one subject to turbulent political winds, to stringent immigration control, and the perils of human trafficking. And it is unavoidable. Our young population has ballooned to a whopping 50 million while the same Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, is projected to submerge 17 percent of our land by 2050. On the ground, the job market is unfavourable for youth, the political situation tenuous. When hoards of young people flock to our ports (an estimated 9.4 million have moved abroad seeking employment), they are attempting to escape abject joblessness and hopelessness that blanket our cities and villages. When you look closely at labour migration, you see a grim reality of our nation today.
Escape from Bangladesh still comes with a price: the journey can be deadly. Recently, human traffickers trusted by desperate migrants have increasingly used the coast of Libya for passage into Europe via sea—an often-fatal path. These days our embassy in Libya is imploring workers to reconsider for good reason.
Last year, traffickers crammed 64 workers onto a motorboat meant for half that number to cross the Mediterranean. Two days in, they ran out of fuel and then food. Soon the boat began to leak. When rescued, no European country would give our workers harbour; the Bangladeshi ambassador met them in the middle of the sea to convince them to return to Bangladesh. In a separate incident, a boat capsized in the Mediterranean, killing 60 hopeful migrants, most of them Bangladeshi. Heartbreakingly, when migrant workers are rescued and they realise they will be deported to Bangladesh, some choose to jump off rescue ships in a final attempt to make it: given the investment and debt, returning home alive is sometimes no longer an option.
But reaching land won't necessarily keep you alive. The deplorable working and living conditions of Bangladeshi workers around the world are well documented in the media. Female workers, in particular, are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Many return in coffins. This past decade, migrant workers sent over USD 130 billion in remittance back to Bangladesh. During this same time, the dead bodies of 32,070 workers arrived at our airports. This is also a price we pay as a nation.
Still, we should expect labour migration to continue rising in the near future as an inevitable fact. The question is how to bring the process closer in alignment with who we aspire to be as a people. We must be more vocal in asking for better, safer systems for workers, from pre-departure to return and rehabilitation. From ensuring workers have the right information at home to making sure they are safe in foreign lands, there is much our government and embassies can—and must—do. As a society, we must also do a much better job of welcoming back and integrating workers who return after years of service abroad. Many bring with them PTSD and physical ailments.
Simultaneously, let us not forget those who remain.
There are real sociocultural implications for Bangladesh from long-term migration at this scale. Think of the millions of families left behind, the aging parents and single-parent households, the children who grow up without one or both parents. Migrants don't just send home remittance; when they return, they bring with them the culture and traditions of their host countries. If you look closely, you will find their impact on our restaurants and places of worship in equal measure. And when migrants choose to settle down in foreign countries, they create fascinating spaces for cross-pollination that will define the Bangladeshi diaspora and our ties with other cultures, reshaping our own culture, society, and security, a reality we continue to discount at our own peril.
Most importantly, perhaps, deep structural changes that make lives better for those who leave and those who remain require an equally profound cultural shift in how we see migrant workers and the act of migration itself. If a migrant worker has jumped off his seat before the seatbelt sign is switched off, remember that people believe in systems (and follow them) when systems have effectively served them in the past. Instead of scoffing, consider that you are in the presence of people who, in making it this far, are already among the most successful in their communities. They didn't get here by sitting back and relaxing. They made it by hustling, experimenting, and taking immense risks. So whenever opportunity arises, consider listening to the stories of migrant workers firsthand, lend a helping hand, and acknowledge their relentless contribution to the nation.
We often call migrant workers our unsung heroes—beyond such platitudes, it is equally important to acknowledge migrant workers as fellow countrymen, citizens of Bangladesh.
Shoaib Alam is a writer based in Dhaka. He serves as the Chief of Staff at Teach For Bangladesh.