The Cambodian nightmare
In recent years, more and more Bangladeshi nationals have travelled to Cambodia in search of better economic prospects. According to an investigative report by this daily, since 2020, more than 3,500 individuals have gone to Cambodia, with more than 2,200 people going there in 2022 alone, and 86 in the first 12 days of this year.
It is interesting to note that, despite Cambodia's GDP per capita at USD 1,625.2, being reasonably lower than Bangladesh (USD 2,457.9) – as of 2021 – or Cambodia not being a traditional destination country for migrant workers from Bangladesh, more and more people are travelling there, especially in the wake of Covid.
There could be multiple reasons for this trend. First, a lot of migrant workers were forced to return to Bangladesh empty-handed from their destination countries when the pandemic broke out, and with little hope of securing another job, they are now desperate to find alternative livelihood options.
Second, our economy took a significant blow because of the pandemic and the global economic stress due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, resulting in high inflation and low purchasing capacity, and an alarmingly high youth unemployment rate of 10.6 percent (as of October 2022). All these factors coalesced are forcing many youth to look for opportunities abroad, making specific destinations less relevant, in comparison to the amount of salary they are being offered. Thus, as Cambodia opened its doors for foreign workers, offering decent salaries, our aspiring migrant workers took the opportunity to find livelihood possibilities abroad.
But how is Cambodia absorbing so many foreign workers?
The answer lies in the thriving online cybercrime marketplace in Cambodia. One of the top corrupt countries in Asia, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2022, Cambodia provides the perfect breeding ground for sleazy businesses, including cybercrimes. As many as 100,000 could be involved with the industry, according to media reports.
And in view of the alleged involvement of the government itself, it is no wonder that the cybercrime business is thriving, and that little is being done to clamp down on the rings.
And unsuspecting, aspiring migrant workers from Bangladesh and various other countries are being lured into this vicious cycle by an extended network that is feeding this business with resources, including manpower.
The migrant workers – read former cyberslaves, as they were sold into slavery to these cybercrime gangs – who have managed to escape this vicious cycle of deceit, torture, servitude and trauma, have recounted harrowing tales of their journey into slavery and how they were forced to commit inexplicable crimes against their will, through various forms of physical torture and even death threats. And they found little help from the locals there, including the law enforcement because of their potential complicity with this crime ring. It is only after mounting international pressure that the Cambodian government cracked down on this criminal business, and rescued some of the victims – some of whom are Bangladeshis – which many experts term just an eyewash to shake off the pressure.
What is more appalling is the lackadaisical approach of the Bangladesh embassy to Thailand – Bangladesh does not have an embassy in Cambodia – in helping these trafficking victims. Some of them alleged that despite seeking help, the embassy officials have been rather slow and reluctant in their response. In fact, an administrative officer (labour wing) in the Bangladesh mission in Bangkok allegedly took bribes from the victims in exchange for help to secure travel permits or request letters for the victims to travel back to Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, when contacted, the concerned officials either denied the allegations or failed to respond at all.
The recent surge in human trafficking to Cambodia from Bangladesh raises certain questions about the intentions and capability of the relevant authorities in addressing this situation. First of all, when contacted by this daily, the additional secretary (employment) at the expatriate welfare ministry – one of the prominent actors in the workers' foreign migration ecosystem – denied having any knowledge about the enslavement of Bangladeshis in Cambodia. The director-general (Southeast Asia Wing) at the foreign ministry – another major actor in this ecosystem – said he was not aware of any such development at the Bangladesh embassy in Bangkok, although the embassy has provided travel permits or request letters for the return of the rescued migrant workers to Bangladesh. Moreover, there seems to be a disconnect between the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) – who is also ignorant about the enslavement of Bangladeshi workers in Cambodia – and the Probashi Desk and immigration officials at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, as many of the victims were able to travel to Cambodia without the mandatory BMET card or even having their fingerprints matched. If, as the BMET director-general has claimed to this daily that "no expatriate worker can get clearance to fly unless their fingerprints are matched," how could these victims travel to Cambodia in the first place?
While the government and the related development agencies should immediately roll out a mass awareness campaign to make sure that the aspiring migrant workers are aware of the situation, the brokering agencies should also be thoroughly checked with the help of intelligence agencies. At the same time, officials of the relevant ministries, departments, embassies, and other offices should be stringently investigated in order to weed out the culprits and clean up the system. By the looks of it, it is the entire ecosystem that needs a shakeup.
The government should also focus on emotional counselling and economic absorption of these rescued victims, and also take a proactive joint initiative with the Cambodian authorities to bring back the workers still trapped there.
Our migrant workers are our assets; the remittance they send home is what keeps our forex reserves strong. The least we can do is ensure they have a safe and conducive environment when they go abroad in search of economic opportunities, because clearly it is due to our own inability to provide for them that they are having to make these desperate journeys into uncharted territories. We must own up our responsibilities.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb