Vol. 5 Num 636 Mon. March 13, 2006  

Young Bangladeshis: The soldiers of fortune

It was in the middle of the 1980s. I met a young Bangladeshi in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. He was lean and thin, at best 5 feet 2 inches in height. It seemed to me that he did not even complete his secondary education.

When I met him, he had left home ten years before that time. In his first leg, with a tourist visa, he entered India, and worked in Mumbai for two years in a cloth shop. From Mumbai he went to Pakistan, crossing the international border between the two countries without visa, and stationed himself in Karachi. There he spent about three years, earning his livelihood as a fruit vendor. From Pakistan he went to Iran, once again crossing the border illegally. He spent one year in Tehran. From Iran he went to Iraq.

In Baghdad he worked in nightclubs. According to him, the nightclubs in Brussels are far smaller in comparison with the size of the nightclubs in Baghdad. From Iraq he went to Syria, here he worked as a farm labourer. His next stop was in Italy as he reached that country by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a cargo vessel. From Italy through France he turned up in Belgium and sought political asylum, but he had no intention to live in that country. He told me, he had left Bangladesh ten years back with the goal to reach America, one day.

A few months after his entry to Belgium, one day I found he was nowhere. None of his acquaintances could tell me his whereabouts. From Brussels I went to London three month after the "vanishing into thin air" of that young man. One evening, in London, I was watching BBC news. The newscaster said a Canadian Coast Guard ship had rescued a lifeboat with a few people on it, drifting in the Atlantic a few kilometres from the Canadian coastline. Then a picture came up on the TV screen, showing the rescued people were disembarking from the Coast Guard ship in a queue. To my surprise I could recognise in the queue that young Bangladeshi who had disappeared from Brussels a few months back. A small bag was hanging across his shoulder, and I could notice, I did not know whether other viewers could, a faint smile on his face. It became clear to me, when he could reach Canada, he would be able to reach his final destination, America, soon, very soon.

In the 1980s it was not that tough, as it is now, to enter one country from another, crossing the border illegally. The borders of the European countries have become almost impenetrable these days for the people who want to cross those borders illegally.

But the young fortune seekers of Bangladesh are not willing to pay heed to this reality.

A few days back I met a young man; he paid five hundred thousand taka to a human trafficker. First, he would be taken to Egypt and from there he would go to Italy by boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I asked him: "Do you have any idea how far is Italy from Egypt and how vast is the Mediterranean Sea?" He answered: "No idea." I gave him the idea, and implored him not to embark on this venture, citing a newspaper report that a few months ago a boat with a number of dead Bangladeshi young people were found, drifting in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. My pleas fell on deaf ears. I told him another recent newspaper report that a group of Bangladeshis was rescued from the Sahara Desert in Mali on the verge of perishing in that scorching heat.

The young man told me that he had read that news, but he wanted to try his luck. It is clear that there is no way to prevent this section of the young men of Bangladesh who are desperate to leave the country to seek a better life abroad.

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, many people from different countries of Europe migrated to America to flee poverty and religious persecution at home. In the eighteenth century vagabonds and beggars living on the footpaths of London were forced to embark on ships to be taken to America to work there as labourers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many European young men came to the East including Bangladesh, the most favoured destination at that time, to earn their livelihood. Now the human tide is flowing in the opposite direction.

Till 1975, few people of Bangladesh were willing to leave their country to settle down in a new land. They were satisfied with their lives at home. But when the people of Bangladesh have started feeling the strong desire to migrate to some other countries to bring change in their economic life, the opportunity for international migration has started declining fast.

What can the young people of Bangladesh do? Due to our high annual population growth rate, every year more than twenty five lakh new employment seekers enter the job market. It is impossible for the country to create every year even twenty percent of that many new jobs needed. So what the unemployed young people will do? How long can they remain dependent on their parents? Some of them may join criminal gangs, not all of them. A part of them take the risk of their lives to migrate to other countries.

Once a great part of the booming population of Europe could migrate and settle down in new found lands like the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Where will we get extra lands for our ever-increasing population? We are going to get about 44,000 square kilometres of land from the Bay of Bengal in the next three to four decades. But when those lands will be ready for the human settlement? Again a threat is looming large that one-third of Bangladesh may get inundated by the rising of seawater due to global warming.

Some human traffickers are taking young people from Bangladesh to Nepal with the promise of reaching Malaysia. They are also taking some young people to China with the same promise. What's the way to get to Malaysia from Nepal or China? Where do these duped young people end up? What the immigration people are doing at Zia International Airport? These fortune seekers cross the barrier of the immigration at the airport with tourist visa, but their appearance and behaviour does not conform with that of a tourist. Should we doubt that a nexus has grown up between the human traffickers and a section of immigration officials?

At the end, another true story. It was in the beginning of the 1980s.Three young men came to a lawyer in Dhaka to sue a human trafficker, who was the president of a small political party, and who tagged the title "Maulana" to his name. The Maulana took a group of young people, in exchange of a fat amount of money, to Thailand to take them to Malaysia. An agent of the Maulana took the young people to a deep forest in the remote part of Thailand, at night he surreptitiously abandoned them with the intention that these people would never find their way back to human habitat, and ultimately die there of hunger or at least of snakebite.

But those "fortunate" boys were able to reach a Thai village after walking three days and nights. In that village they went to a school. The schoolteacher arranged some food for the hungry lot. Then she collected donation from the children of the school to buy train tickets for the Bangladeshi boys that they could reach Bangkok and seek help from the Bangladesh embassy there to return to Bangladesh.

How many Bangladeshi young people who are being taken by human traffickers to Nepal, China, Egypt, or Mali with the promise of take them to a land of milk and honey will be so "fortunate"?

Faruque Hasan is a freelance contributor of The Daily Star.