The Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index 2017 puts the Bangladeshi passport ranking at 96 out of the 199 countries surveyed (a lower score means better). Our situation worsened over the course of one year (the previous year's rank was 95). The index is a “global ranking of countries according to the travel freedom their citizens enjoy.” It is prepared in coordination with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an organisation that maintains the world's largest database of travel information and one that is published annually. According to a report published in a leading English daily, Bangladesh's ranking in the index has gone down 23 ranks since 2008 and now stands at 38 (which is one point down since last year).
We can understand our position in the index when we take into account how we performed against other nations. North Korea (rank: 94), a state that is under massive international scrutiny, and South Sudan (rank: 96), which has suffered war and devastation, tied with Bangladesh, which is hardly enviable. Again, if we look at historical data over the period 2006-2018, we seem to have had a chequered past with our ranking getting better before plunging again. In 2006, we had visa-free access to 28 countries. This rose to 42 in 2010, but since then it has been on the decline. Over the same period, Indian passport holders' access has risen from 25 to 49, while Sri Lanka has done very well, i.e. its citizens can travel to 41 countries (which is nearly double the number of countries in 2006, which was 22).
So, the Bangladeshi passport is not very powerful. To think that North Koreans have more ease of travel than us is simply off-putting. Disheartening as it may sound, that is the ground reality. Countries in the region where we can go with relative ease with either e-visa or visa-on-arrival are Cambodia, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. We also have visa on entry to countries like Antigua and Barbuda, which is defined as “a sovereign state in the Americas,” two islands lying between the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. Our citizens can get visa on arrival to countries like the Comoros, which is, again, an island known as “a sovereign archipelago island nation in the Indian Ocean located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel off the eastern coast of Africa.” But the moment we need to visit countries with which we have significant economic relations—and we are not talking about India with whom we have a multi-billion-dollar bilateral trade, but any nation that is important to us economically or commercially—Bangladeshis inevitably face visa restrictions. We also face restrictions in case of countries that do not feature prominently on our economic landscape.
Bangladesh is suffering from an image crisis in the West as being a “high risk” country. Recently, a retired foreign diplomat working for an aid agency visited Bangladesh, and her movements have been highly restricted by that country's embassy. Security is of paramount importance for any foreign dignitary but given that the country has not faced any major terrorist incident for over a year now, one cannot but be surprised at the level of precautions being taken by foreign missions when it comes to their citizens visiting the country. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis, mostly economic migrants, travel to foreign labour markets in search of work, and although we now have machine readable passports, made mandatory for every Bangladeshi citizen, we have not been able to get over our “image” problem.
There are reasons why foreign countries have been less than enthusiastic about letting Bangladeshis into their countries, and it has nothing to do with the threat of terrorism. We have only ourselves to blame for the fact that there is a tendency among many of our citizens to stay back in the host countries when their visas expire. People sometimes circumvent the official channel to get into countries that require cheap labour, and this is not restricted to Europe. There are no exact figures about how many of our countrymen have overstayed their visas in foreign lands, but the net effect is a souring of moods in foreign capitals against Bangladeshis.
There have been allegations related to getting passports without proper background checks. There have been cases where stateless people residing on our soil obtained passports and travelled abroad to engage in illegal work, getting caught, and thereby giving Bangladesh a bad name. There is also the sticky issue of a section of manpower agencies who falsify travel documentation, including passports to try and get hapless Bangladeshis into lucrative labour markets in the Middle East. These are all undeniable facts and which are hardly lost upon foreign countries.
The net result of all these illegitimate actions, of course, is that ordinary Bangladeshis who have a legitimate reason to travel abroad cannot do so because of the elaborate visa requirements put up by foreign countries to deter the illegal ones. Legitimate travellers are subject to the highest scrutiny by border agencies at points of entry into foreign countries. We must suffer humiliation because the green passport we carry is looked down upon. And we are largely to blame for that.
It is really up to our authorities to crack down on the loopholes in the system if we want our rating to improve. In this age of globalised economic order, being relegated to the lower half of a well-established rating index does little for Bangladeshis who must travel abroad. And we are not talking about a few thousands going abroad for medical treatment or higher studies; millions of our citizens are working abroad and earning essential foreign exchange that help the wheels of the economy turn in the right direction, help us with our balance of payments, and give us the option to undertake major infrastructure projects. And we are letting all our citizens down because we can't seem to get our act in order, which is quite pathetic.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.