A recent report published by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) on the impact of migration on household income, expenditure and poverty, highlights a number of interesting trends.
Now, it's not as though the issues touched upon by RMMRU in this report have never been talked about or addressed. However, the in-depth research helps understand the problems of the migrants and the changing trends in a more collective sense.
The report was based on a survey where the same households from different districts of Bangladesh were observed over a three-year interval (from 2014 to 2017). A total of 6,143 households took part in the survey, of which 2,976 depended upon international migrants, 1,736 depended on internal migrants, and 1,736 were non-migrant households.
One of the most important observations of the report was the decrease in the flow of per capita remittance. The report states that flow of remittance for male migrants decreased by 11 percent since 2014. In 2017, an international male migrant remitted Tk 193,885 per year. The same migrant, however, used to remit Tk 218,812 in 2014. If one were to adjust the earnings to inflation, the decrease in remittance would go up to 26 percent.
The above trend may not necessarily have an immediate impact on the country's overall earnings through remittance. One of the reasons behind that is that there are more people going abroad than before. For instance, in 2017, more than 10 lakh Bangladeshis—the highest ever recorded by the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET)—went abroad for work.
Yes, the overall remittance earned has been witnessing a decreasing trend in the last three years. Analysts claim that this is because many migrants prefer to transfer money through informal means.
However, the latest findings of the RMMRU suggest that the individual migrant has been hit quite hard. Most of the people who do go abroad end up investing a lot of money. For instance, workers end up spending around Tk 8 to 10 lakhs to get a visa to work in Saudi Arabia. The fall in the per capita remittance, however, suggests lower returns to the worker's investments than before and this isn't good news for the migrants who take loans and sell their lands in a bid to achieve their dreams of working abroad.
Based on the survey, the report states that international migration at the moment is not an effective longer-term insurance against poverty. It also states 32 percent of the Bangladeshis who travel to the Gulf and South East Asian countries after paying large, upfront costs of migration are either unemployed or are not receiving regular payment.
Such a scenario on most occasions can lead the worker to two directions. They can either stay abroad, no matter how debilitating the environment may be and earn money in a bid to pay off the loans, or they can just come back home—unfortunately, both these pathways often have their share of problems.
When migrants decide to stay back despite being cheated in one way or the other, they end up putting their lives at risk. And it won't be an overstatement to say that this is reflected in the increasing number of deceased bodies that return to the country every year. Bodies of around 7,000 migrants returned to Bangladesh in the last two years. Researchers say that the exact number is a lot higher, considering that the dead bodies of many workers are buried abroad.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, sends back the most number of dead bodies to Bangladesh. According to Golam Moshi, the Bangladesh Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the situation can drastically improve if migration fees are decreased. He points out that there are unscrupulous employers who do not provide workers with medical insurance—an aspect that employers need to cover according to the country's law. As per Saudi rules, the medical cost of every worker in the Kingdom should be insured. However, there are unscrupulous employers who don't provide the workers with insurance or provide them with insurance of the lowest-possible category.
“As a result, workers are scared of going to the doctors. If they have chest pains, they end up taking a pill for acidity. They have spent so much to come here. They will most definitely not go to the doctor and spend more. I believe that 50 percent of the stress can be eradicated if migration fees are lowered,” explains Moshi.
On the other hand, if a worker does decide to return to Bangladesh, he or she falls in the debt trap. The worker finds it difficult to reintegrate with society. RMMRU's report states: “Till now the government, NGOs or civil society organisations have not developed any meaningful programme for the economic and social reintegration of the returnee migrants. This study highlights the importance of the development of a comprehensive return reintegration strategy for the migrants. This will help minimise the incidence of poverty upon return.”
The unused potential of women migrants
Another key finding from RMMRU's report is that Bangladesh's women can make working abroad a more profitable venture compared to their male counterparts. For starters, while the research states that the remittance sent by the male migrants has decreased, the remittance sent by the female migrants has increased. Based on the research, a female migrant remitted Tk 111,271 in 2017 as opposed to Tk 109,652 in 2014.
However, the average income of male international migrants is significantly higher than that of females, with the gap increasing with experience. According to the report, an extra year as a migrant increases the income of male migrants by 1.7 percent and 0.8 percent for female migrants. This is because of the nature of the work that women get—they have limited scope for upward mobility.
As a result, it is only natural for male migrants to remit more money. However, when you think of the money invested, it takes women less than a year to recover the investment; for men it may take at least 39 months.
This is a field that has the potential to grow, but the protection issue can lead to a decrease in interest for women migrants. This year alone, more than 4,000 women returned to Bangladesh without completing their contracts because of physical torture and sexual harassment. If issues of protection aren't addressed at the right forums, the opportunity can never be harnessed.