It took only a few weeks for the authorities in Bangladesh to enact the third episode of a series that could be aptly titled as "Hatching conspiracy, tarnishing image". Quite like the previous two instalments, the script remained unchanged and so did the principal protagonists representing the state and the performance sites. The rest of the cast was replaced by 32 returnee migrant workers including two women from Lebanon, a country ravaged by civil war in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
This latest group of migrants came back to Bangladesh on September 13 after they were detained in Syria. Quite like their predecessors from the Gulf states and Vietnam, who were housed in Diabari quarantine centre and subsequently Kashimpur jail, they too were transferred to the detention facility without prior notice following a magistrate's order. They were charged under the nebulous Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The police convinced the magistrate that the crimes they committed were grave and the details of that would soon be unearthed. Sticking to the script, the police argued that for the greater good of the society, the accused needed to remain incarcerated.
Desperate to escape the violence-prone Lebanon, these migrants tried to go to Italy. Returning home (if indeed it was possible under the Covid-19 circumstances) was not an option for them, as they had already spent fortunes to migrate. They turned to human smugglers to facilitate their travel to Europe. Little did they know that they still remained under the spell of god Shonee. Thus not only were their attempt to migrate to Europe botched, upon return home they were detained too. Their eagerness to enjoy the warm hugs of their loved ones remained elusive.
Along the lines of the previous episodes, the ordeals of this cohort of migrant families have only begun. To secure their release, they travel to Dhaka and Kashimpur to gather more information, scour for money from relatives and friends to pay for lawyers to arrange bail, and wait out in police station and court premises.
They fail to understand in what way have their returnee family members "tarnished the image of the country" and why would they engage in "hatching a conspiracy" at a time when they were too distraught by their failed migration experience, too eager to share their disappointment with and seek solace from their loved ones. After all, if they had to blame anyone for their predicament, it would be the recruiters, dalals, traffickers and perhaps their luck. The families fail to reason what prompted the authorities to think that the accused held grudges against the omnipotent state and, even if they did, why not even an iota of evidence was produced before the court and the people. They wish someone in the administration would care to respond to their queries. After all, it is too trivial a matter to be an item on the agenda for deliberations in the much-celebrated national parliament.
Empathising citizens both at home and abroad are perplexed about on what legal grounds the returnee migrants were detained in batches and what gains the state stands to derive in persecuting them. They wonder if this would be the fate of all returnee migrants in irregular status. They speculate the magic wand that police exhibit for the magistrates not only to grant initial order of detention but subsequent extensions without any new evidence for the alleged grave crimes, that too in breach of the High Court's directive allowing a maximum of 15 days under Section 54.
While batches of returnee migrants are assigned new roles in subsequent episodes of the Diabari-Kashimpur play, a new drama has unfolded in Gulshan-Shonargaon Road- Segunbagicha precincts. In this saga, migrant workers wishing to return to work in Saudi Arabia face hurdle after hurdle in accomplishing their goal. At every step of the process—conducting Covid-19 tests, securing flights and renewing their work permit and visa to gain re-entry into the kingdom—they face uncertainty, lack of information and clear guidance from Bangladesh authorities, concerned airlines and the embassy of the concerned country.
A prompt initiative of both governments of Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia led to auto-renewal of the visa and work permits of the workers who got stranded in Bangladesh following the outbreak of Covid-19. The misfortune of the migrants began when Saudi authorities refused to auto-renew visa and work permit after September 30. This meant workers had to secure the explicit consent of their kafeels (sponsors) and that entailed submission of a number of authenticated documents at the Saudi end.
This decision put the workers in a quandary. While those working for ethical employers and big companies could meet the criteria with the support of the dedicated Human Relations department of the concerned companies, the vast majority of workers, employed by small companies and individual kafeels, were in a limbo. It is little wonder that the kafeels of thousands of "free visa" holders—who sponsored the workers and renewed their documents in the past against payment of hefty sums ranging from USD 1,200 to USD 1,700 (an illegal act under the Saudi law but is widely practiced with impunity)—have either refused or been reluctant to take the initiative for renewal. This is because they feel there is no guarantee of their payment even if the workers landed on the Saudi shores.
The sudden Saudi decision of not going ahead with the auto-renewal arrangement came as a bolt from the blue for the workers. As the September 30 deadline was looming large, those fortunate to secure visa and work permit rushed for air tickets only to find a handful of seats available. Having no other redress, they took to streets demanding government intervention. This appeared to have yielded an immediate result when the ministry of foreign affairs announced that Saudi authorities had agreed to extend the deadline to October 24. Little did the workers know that it was only a verbal arrangement and that until it was formalised, they were required to secure the documents from their kafeels.
On advice of the Saudi embassy, those without visa and work permit rushed to embassy-approved visa agents only to be informed that the latter had no advice on the matter. As pressure of the visa-seekers mounted, an ethical agent explaining the circumstances urged workers to wait until clear instructions arrived and that if the workers wished, they could leave their passports (by getting a receipt) without having to make any payment, while unscrupulous ones demanded USD 350 to USD 470 as upfront fees, the regular charge being a little more than a hundred dollars.
It is believed that visas of 50,000 of the 80,000 workers stranded had expired on September 30. The future of these workers hangs in the balance. Given the current arrangement of taking an average of 300 passengers per flight, the 52 flights that are scheduled to take off from Dhaka to Saudi Arabia in October will only be able to carry 15,600 workers (PA 30.09.20).
Securing flights and travel documents were not enough to put the mind of these workers to rest. They had to wage yet another battle to get the Covid-19 certificate. The stiff stipulation of the Saudi authorities for the migrants to secure such certificates within a very short time presented a fresh challenge. A number of cases were reported in which passengers had to rush to Mohakhali for collecting Covid-19 clearance certificates after picking up air ticket from Kawran Bazar to catch flight within a span of two to three hours. In some instances, they found the Mohakhali office closed at 5pm and in other cases, as power supply to the testing facility was disrupted, the reports were handed out many hours later, making passengers miss the scheduled flights. On September 26, 32 passengers were barred from leaving Bangladesh on the ground that their tests were not conducted in designated government hospitals. The passengers claimed that while collecting tickets, the airlines authorities told them that tests at private facilities would be acceptable, only to find at the airport that the information was not correct.
It may be recalled that a hasty decision of the government earlier put thousands of workers in dire situation as Covid-19 clearance certificate was made mandatory for all travellers within a stipulated time prior to their travel, irrespective of the need of the destination countries. Only 14 centres were selected and the fees for testing was raised from Tk 200 to Tk 3500—a staggering 1,750 percent increase. Subsequently, the health minister lowered the testing fees to Tk 1,500 for migrant workers, while for all others it was reduced from Tk 200 to Tk 100.
The above narrative establishes that there is a clear absence of policy coherence with regard to the return of migrant workers both in countries of deployment and origin.
The Saudi government's abrupt decision not to extend auto-renewal of work permit and visa, its reticence to resume regular flights at higher frequency (despite the burgeoning demand) with reciprocal arrangement with Bangladesh, and its Dhaka mission's inability to timely communicate clear instructions with its own approved visa agents have exacerbated the plight of the migrants.
Likewise, through immediate and unconditional release of all migrants who are yet to be charged of any serious crime and have remained incarcerated for an indefinite period, charting out a clear departure strategy for returnee migrants by timely negotiating modalities with its Saudi counterparts, creating a congenial and hassle-free 24-hour Covid-19 testing and report delivery service, ensuring better coordination among various ministries (expatriates' affairs, foreign affairs, home affairs and civil aviation) to effect smooth return of workers and, most importantly, by creating a dependable channel of communication of updated, credible information with the migrants and the media—the Bangladesh government can minimise preventable hardship of the migrants.
Some members of the cabinet have expressed concern that through their collective action, protesting migrants "may be jeopardising their chances to migrate". Others have advised the migrants "not to be misled by politically motivated vested quarters". Those in authority need to acknowledge that at a time of crisis, migrants could hardly rely on any state institution for support, guidance and direction, and hence were forced to take to the streets. The ministers must also note that migrants have their own agency and have the ability to think for themselves. Finally, those in authority must internalise the fact that peaceful protest is an integral part of a democratic polity and migrants are merely exercising that right.
C R Abrar is an academic with an interest in migration and rights issues.