Jailed in God's own country
Abraham Sarker believes God has given him a second chance to start his life over. His wife, Utpola Sarker, who went missing in 2010, was recently found in the most unlikely of places.
She was one of the 45 undocumented Bangladeshis found in Kerala last month. Abraham is now desperately waiting for the Embassy to begin the process of his wife's return.
Utpola and Abraham, both of whom hail from the Senhati Christian Colony in Khulna, got married in 1995. They had two children, in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Unfortunately, in 2010, Utpola was diagnosed with a mental disease. She became quieter and would often indulge in shockingly violent behaviour. In a bid to get her better treatment in Dhaka, Abraham took her to Savar and kept her at his sister's place. Abraham's plan was to make her stay there for a month and then take her to Dhaka after he received his salary.
However, a few days later, he learnt that Utpola had disappeared and was nowhere to be seen. There's a high chance that Utpola was trafficked into India. She was eventually found in a mental hospital in Kerala.
Along with Utpola, there were several other illegal Bangladeshis the Embassy met in jails located in Thrissure and Calicut. Their stories though are signficiantly different. Most of the men went all the way down to the Southern state, looking for construction work.
Mosharraf Hossain, an official from the Bangladeshi Embassy in Delhi, has been constantly working on easing the system to send back Bangladeshis who have either been trafficked or have crossed the border illegally looking for work.
According to him, the group of 45 Bangladeshis he found in Kerala is the highest cluster that the Embassy has seen in recent times.
“As per our initial investigation we have found that they are all Bangladeshis. They are mostly from Kushtia. They went to Kerala because there is a demand for construction workers there and they can earn around Rs 7000 to 10,000 per month. It works out well for them,” he explains.
“But now that they have been caught and sent to jail, they all want to go back home. It's not possible to send them home immediately because there are cases filed against them. It will take some time,” he adds.
While Bangladeshi trafficked victims and those looking for work have traditionally been found in various parts of Northern India, finding them in the southernmost parts of the country is a relatively new trend.
Anil Kumar, a prison superintendent of a jail in Calicut, explains that Kerala has gradually gone on to become an attractive place for labourers from all over the country over the years. He jokingly calls it the "Dubai" of India.
“Of the three crore people in Kerala, 15 lakh are from outside the state. 80 to 90 percent of the construction workers are from outside Kerala and they get paid a lot more than their hometowns here.
“In my opinion a large number of workers who say that they are from West Bengal are actually from Bangladesh,” says Anil.
According to Anil, who had met officials from the Bangladeshi embassy last month, there isn't an effective way to repatriate the Bangladeshis who are present in the jails of Kerala.
“I have had cases where 11 Iranian people were jailed and they were sent back in two weeks' time. I have also found Pakistani people in jail and they too were sent back quickly. We don't have an effective system to send back the Bangladeshis here and that is a problem. A system needs to be devised with the help of the Embassy,” says Anil.
According to CR Abrar, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka and researcher in the field of migration, the immigration issues with regards to South Asia is an aspect that goes beyond the concept of state laws.
“There is a mismatch between the concept of state sovereignty and people's aspiration to move. It is their right to earn money and the wage differential will compel people to move from one place to another, be it internal or cross-border.
“Sometimes, there is an official policy of non-admittance, so, India may officially say that no, they can't come in, but unofficially they might let them in because it will benefit them,” explains Abrar.
“The ground reality in India is that because of all the movements at the root level over there, many of them are aware about minimum wages and rights. Bangladeshis can go to these places and work because they are indispensable and employers don't have to maintain the minimum work conditions for them.
“These workers are contributing to the national economy of India. The flats which the Bangladeshi workers are working on are obviously getting sold at cheaper rates. It just goes to show that there are niches in the economy, which demand low-paid workers. If you don't acknowledge it, then it's not fair. There is a strong case for liberalising the regime here,” he adds.
Furthermore, he also believes that the Bangladesh government shouldn't be defensive while addressing this issue. “There should be more acknowledgement that this is an integrated labour market,” he says.
The latest case in Kerala suggests that migration is an issue that requires urgent attention. The local authorities there feel that the Bangladesh Embassy needs to create a more effective mechanism to repatriate the illegal migrants.
However, this can at most be a short-term solution. Cases from the past suggest that many have the accessibility to return to India to work despite being deported. It's obvious that the current situation requires a bout of dynamism from both sides of the border. For the sake of the workers, one hopes that that spell comes soon.