Raziya, who says she's around 40 years old, squats in a small shop in the quaint village of Kolma, only a few minutes' ride from Savar town. Beside her is her second husband Hossain, the owner of the shop. Hossain gruffly gives directions as she brews tea, now that it is almost four in the afternoon.
This is a very different life for Raziya, compared to just three years ago when she was still in Europe. Raziya had migrated illegally to Greece in 2007, where she remained an undocumented worker for around eight years. Recently widowed, with a young daughter to support on her own, she was living as a guest in her sister's house. She was persuaded by a friend, Nasimeh, who encouraged Raziya to go with her to Athens. There, waiting, was a Bangladeshi man, whom Nasimeh had met online, who would make arrangements for the two of them to work at a garments factory, similar to one he worked at.
Raziya and Nasimeh were accompanied on the journey by four men also making their way to Europe. The women first went to Lebanon, where they both did domestic work for several months but left because the owner was harsh. On foot, they walked through several countries, of which she could only tell me the names Syria and Turkey.
They journeyed by land and it took 14 days. “We would stay inside all day and walk by road at night,” she remembers, “At one point, we had to walk up a very steep hill scrambling up with our hands.” Often, there was no food. “The worst hardship I've endured in my life has been those 14 days.” But money exchanged hands at every border by the dalals the women didn't even talk to once, says Raziya, and they were able to cross into Greece.
While many stories of migrant workers in Europe tend to focus on the risky and expensive journey, Raziya's life in Athens illustrates the hardship undocumented migrant workers endure in Europe. She earned two euros per hour at a garments factory (“small houses with a few sewing machines, not like the big factories here” she said), as a helper. Some days, there was five to eight hours of work, but on other days, nothing. Not that Raziya made much in the first place— “Some months I would earn 100 euros, other months as little as 15 euros.”
“The only time I needed to know Greek was when I went to buy souvlaki [a popular Greek fast food],” Raziya says smiling, “But, I stopped after I realised that they used the same knives to cut the chicken or beef as they did pork.” She also remembers the delicious citrus fruits she would eat there but she didn't ever see or venture near the historical ruins and monuments Athens is famous for. “I only went to the seaside two times, [that too] at night.”
Undocumented and knowing little of the local language, she only felt safe travelling underground [in the metro]. “It was dangerous to be out in the open on the streets. I would always go to the bazaar in a hurry to avoid being seen by the police or asked for my papers.”
Her precautions at least helped her avoid detection during her time in Greece. “I lived with a woman who had been caught by the police three times,” she says. “She is still there, but I was afraid of being caught without papers and didn't know who would bail me out.” Unable to live like that any longer, Raziya went to the Bangladeshi embassy and said she wanted to return.
“Also, I came back for my daughter,” she adds, “My sister would call me to say that I should come back and make arrangements for my daughter's marriage.” Without papers, Raziya had not been able to send money home regularly through official channels. Whenever she could, she would send money to her sister and brother-in-law, in whose care she had left her daughter. But on her return to Bangladesh, her brother-in-law proved untrustworthy, unable to account for Tk 1,30,000 of her money. “But I can't say anything because they raised my daughter in my absence.”
Her daughter had been eight years old when Raziya left for Europe. Embarking on a long and uncertain journey, Raziya couldn't take many belongings besides a few clothes. All she had of her daughter was a photograph, which she bundled up in her clothes. “I always keep the photograph with me.” With the money she had managed to return with, Raziya married off her daughter with a Tk 1,50,000 dowry. “That was all the money I had left.”
Going to Europe, at any cost
Districts, including Comilla, Brahmanbaria, and Noakhali, in particular see lots of residents leaving their villages and towns to immigrate to countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe. The resilience of Bangladeshi migrant workers worldwide is well known—learning the language and adapting to life in countries very different from their own and coping with the pressure to save and/or send money home to support their families and relatives.
But as Raziya's account shows, the life they live is hardly idyllic, though it may seem so to those awaiting their turn to go abroad in search of a good life in Europe, preferred over the harsh working conditions often prevalent in the Middle East. A 2017 International Organisation for Migration (IOM) survey also found that while Europe is not the primary destination for potential migrants, 56.5 percent of the Bangladeshi respondents said that they intended to go to Europe within five years.
36-year-old Runa Akter was also in Greece, where she had gone with six other women from various districts of Bangladesh. “I couldn't find any work here,” she says about her village. Like Raziya, she went first to Lebanon, where she worked in the fields. From there, she went to Greece. Among other jobs, she worked at a farm, a restaurant, and a garments factory in Athens. At the restaurant for example, she would make around 25 euros a day washing dishes.
Both Raziya and Runa, despite having been in Greece for many years, had no legal standing. They worked for less than minimum wage and could not move around freely without police checks.
In many village households in Bangladesh, there are one or more family members who live abroad. Runa now lives here with her sister's family—her brother-in-law is a welder working in Dubai. Their neighbour, an elderly woman squatting on the uthan beside me, says her daughter works as a house help in Lebanon for Tk 12,000 (roughly USD 150) a month. Runa herself earned USD 100 a month back when she worked in Lebanon.
“I came back because of my lack of papers. I had applied twice for a red card to stay in Greece,” says Runa. A “red card” from the police would identify her as an asylum seeker which would allow her to work and move freely in the meantime. Runa returned in December last year, after five years abroad. Towards the end, she had been sitting unemployed at home for a while. “When I decided to come back, I was unable to bring back any money because for eight to nine months I had had no work at all.”
The return home
Undocumented migrants such as Raziya and Runa risked being caught for staying in Europe illegally, and have been returning to Bangladesh over the past few years following stricter enforcement by the immigration authorities and increasing asylum rejections in European countries. According to 2015-2016 Eurostat data, an average of 2,653 Bangladeshi migrants were returned to their country of origin in a year.
Both Raziya and Runa's return trips were funded by IOM and both received around 500 euros from the organisation for them to have something to start over with in Bangladesh. But comprehensive measures for reintegration of the returnees from Europe have only recently been formulated, with the Bangladesh government signing an agreement with IOM to that effect only in April of this year. BRAC, together with the European Union and IOM, has introduced a reintegration progamme, including social, psychological and economic support, for returnees. In the meantime, the returnees are coping on their own.
To go abroad in the first place, Runa had had to borrow up to Tk 2,00,000. After her husband wasted a lot of her hard-earned money over the years, while doing no work himself, Runa sought a separation. “Many people are able to save and bring back quite a lot. But the basket I was pouring my money in was bottomless, whatever I saved was lost.”
On her return, Runa received Tk 1,40,000 from IOM through its assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme. Back in Athens, she had given an interview as to what she would do once back in Bangladesh, to be eligible for reintegration assistance. Runa said she would use the money to buy cattle and set up her own dairy farm.
But Runa says that she cannot raise cattle on her small piece of land, which is quite flood-prone, and filling in the land would be quite expensive. “So, I thought that if I use the money to go abroad, I can work and pay for my land to be raised first.” She got her money three months after returning and promptly handed it over to a dalal only a week later, to go to Europe once more.
Runa added Tk 10,000 to the cash grant and paid a broker Tk 1,50,000 in March. She paid a further Tk 50,000 right before Eid in June. So far, she has paid two lakh taka to a dalal to re-migrate to Europe on a sponsor visa—this time, to Milan, Italy. Runa plans to work at a Bangladeshi mini-market, one of thousands that flourish across Italy.
This time, she has a passport. But the fate of her visa is now up in the air, as the dalal is no longer picking up her calls. She's not the only one in this situation. Runa calls a friend in front of us, another woman part of the group who paid this dalal to arrange their visas and travel. They talk about what they can do since the dalal is no longer picking up their calls and their worry about the money and passports they've handed in. After she hangs up, Runa calls the dalal yet again. He does not pick up.
They have good reason to worry. 19 percent of migrants are cheated and prevented from going abroad even after making partial or full payment of migration costs, according to the annual migration trends report 2017 by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).
A certain number of returnees do remigrate, as Runa is planning to, despite the high cost of migration. The 2017 IOM study, conducted among both potential migrants and returnees, found that the average cost per migrant of going to Europe was Tk 7,47,088 (USD 8,800)—more than twice that of migrating to the Middle East.
Even if their papers come through, Runa has to pay one lakh taka more once her visa is confirmed. So far, she is committed to giving three lakh taka, money which she does not have. Why, with the high cost of migration, does she still insist on going abroad? Runa replies, “Is it possible for me to cook in people's homes, cut grass, or feed cows now? I've become used to work abroad, I can't physically handle the work here anymore.”
Unlike Runa, however, Raziya hasn't yet gotten the call from IOM about a cash grant. Finding herself a burden in her sister's household once again, Raziya decided to marry the aging Hossain. The wedding took place only a couple of months ago, much to the displeasure of both Raziya's daughter and Hossain's grown children. “I had no home - this household is only a few days old, this too is not secure.”
Just as Raziya hoped to secure her future by marrying again, Runa has taken steps to ensure her own. At present, with Europe seeming yet uncertain, Runa has already started thinking of Dubai as the next option. If this dalal doesn't follow through and as soon as their papers are returned, Runa along with her friend will submit their papers to a company in Dubai. But re-migrate, she will.