Last year, the international media was awash with reports that a significant number of illegal migrants headed to Europe were Bangladeshis. That came as a surprise to many of us. But data coming out of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that our citizens are coughing up an enormous amount of money, anywhere between USD 8,000 and 9,000, to get to Libya, and the passage across the Mediterranean to Italy, according to the Washington Post, takes another USD 700 per head! These people are economic migrants and the risks involved with taking illegal migration routes to Europe, fraught with danger, have done little to dissuade thousands of Bangladeshis from taking the journey.
So, why are Bangladeshis taking such enormous personal risks especially when there is absolutely no guarantee of a safe landing on mainland Europe? Bangladesh is not some failed state or a war-torn nation like Libya. We are not facing famine here. Bangladesh has, in fact, cut its poverty rates from around 44 percent in 1981 to about 18 percent in 2010. What we often overlook is that we are a very densely populated nation where about a third of the population is crammed up in the major urban centres (Dhaka alone accommodates 20 percent, and 40 percent of the formal jobs are concentrated here). When we couple that with climate-induced changes, a pattern begins to emerge—in which people are being driven inland from the coastal areas. Urban centres are already bursting at the seams. Dhaka, for one, was never designed to cater to so many millions of people. Its utility services are heavily taxed and there aren't enough economic opportunities to go around as well.
We already have millions working abroad. Legal expatriate workers number in the millions, especially in the Middle East. However, that region has all but dried up for our workers and now the push is being redirected to Europe. There are a substantial number of Bangladeshi communities in many European countries already and this is acting as a catalyst for many of our people to brave seemingly insurmountable odds to reach Europe. Bangladesh has benefitted enormously from foreign remittance, but the human cost remains largely in the shadows. Finding work in the country is a daunting task for the average unskilled worker. The country suffers from weak regulatory mechanisms when it comes to ensuring safe working conditions in many of the emerging sectors in the economy, and when we take into account the fact that millions of people face an uncertain future—living in the sprawling urban slums—migrating to the West for a “better future” becomes every prospective migrant's dream. In the 70s, it was the Middle East, now it is Europe.
The lure of emigration is a strong one for other reasons too. Districts and regions that have a history of communities going abroad tend to be richer than others. Most of the foreign earnings tend to be repatriated back home through informal channels and they get injected into the rural economy. Although there is little in the way of research on how the money is spent by families back home, the general standard of living in these areas are much better than the rest of the country. It is not uncommon to find elaborately ornate houses and mosques built with the money earned abroad. This extends to consumer electronics and motor vehicles and a stark contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” is all too apparent.
The horrendous sums charged by recruiters have earned Bangladesh much infamy the world over. Still, millions have no hope of entering the job market as they lack the necessary knowledge and skills. There is growing frustration even amongst the educated youth because while enrolment and retention in the schooling system have increased, the economy has been unable to generate enough jobs to cater to them.
Indeed, this was pointed out by the Centre for Policy Dialogue's (CPD) pre-2017-2018 budget brief by Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya that “job creation has also slowed down to about 4.7 lakh each year, same as the labour force, while unemployment rate remained almost unchanged at 4.2 percent in FY 2016.” A survey by CPD in 2016 on the readymade garments sector found that the industrial sector, which had been a major employment generator between 2000 and 2010, employed a mere 300,000 people in the seven years till FY 2016-2017. On average, the sector created 42,857 jobs a year during the period. In the previous seven years till 2010, it created 8.71 lakh new jobs, the survey said. As a result of this reversal, the industrial sector's share of employment fell to 20.4 percent in 2016-17, down from the highest 23 percent recorded in 2013. The share of agriculture in the job market also dropped. On the other hand, the service sector created the highest number of jobs. Such a trend is unexpected in a country that has an abundant labour force.
These are unfortunate truths of Bangladesh, something the policymakers do not wish to talk about. It is imperative that we pay greater attention to the reasons that are breeding frustration and fuelling this almost uncontrollable urge to join the bandwagon of thousands leaving their homes to take the perilous journey to new lands.
Back in May 2017, the UK's The Independent newspaper covered the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean on flimsy boats, including rubber dinghies. It stated that “in the first three months of last year, just one Bangladeshi arrived in Italy, but the number for 2017 stands at more than 2,800, making the country the largest single origin of migrants currently arriving on European shores.”
While Bangladesh undoubtedly has made great strides in disaster preparedness, extreme weather events will continue to adversely affect communities with cyclones, storm surges and other such climate-related extreme events. These incidents will continue to damage infrastructure, disrupt food supplies and crops and affect the communities' livelihoods. If Europe wants to see less people arriving on its shores, then the world must step up with necessary climate funds to help countries like Bangladesh to mitigate the effects of freak weather events. Only when we are able to protect our people can there be a hope for the thousands facing uncertainty, so they can stay back and not embark on these hopeless journeys across hostile territory and waters.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.