Published: Friday, March 22, 2013

COVER STORY

AN UNHAPPY HOMECOMING

Every year Bangladesh exports millions of unskilled labour at a cheap rate, and their remittance increasingly is becoming an important contribution to the economy. In 2012, remittance alone amounted to $14.1 billion, which is more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). While many have been able to send enough money home to make life better for family members, there are others who have failed to make it abroad. When these migrants return after a few years, they are met with a new challenge – reintegration into the Bangladeshi society. Often, they come back ill, with empty pockets or suffering from trauma. As failed migration is still a social taboo, they struggle on their own. The Star met with many such migrant workers, spoke with grassroot level activists and international organisations. They all emphasise on the urgent need for reintegration support.

Photo: Star File

Photo: Star File

When Mamun came back after nine years of illegal work in Manchester, UK, his body went on a strike. He had a high fever which refused to go away, and he had to be hospitalised. The doctors could not find out what it was. “My sadness made me ill,” Mamun says. He has been back on his homeland for a few months now, but the returned migrant still cannot handle the weather in his native land: he often faces breathing difficulty.
“I know that this is my country, but I cannot feel it anymore,” the 31-year-old says and wipes the sweat off his forehead. Mamun’s physical suffering is the visible expression of his despair. But there are problems even worse than his.
In order to finance his travel to the UK, Mamun’s parents sold their house. Now, they expect him to pay back the money. But Mamun has come back – like many of the returning migrants – with empty pockets.

Workers often paint a rosy picture to their families back home, hiding the harsh realities of their living conditions abroad. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Workers often paint a rosy picture to their families back home, hiding the harsh realities of their living conditions abroad. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

He did not have a proper job all this while. An unscrupulous broker took heaps of cash from Mamun, promising a well-paid job in the UK. Upon his arrival, Mamun realised that there was no such job waiting for him. He illegally worked as a cooking help in restaurants to make ends meet.
He earned around Tk 28,000 every month,  a decent sum for a family living in Bangladesh. But because of the high living expenses in the UK, he could not send any money back home.
Then  a few months ago, Mamun’s illegal resident status came under the nose of the UK Border Agency. After three nights in detention, he was deported.
Now he lives in Dhaka with some friends. “I didn’t even dare to go back to my village, I feel too ashamed,” he says. Due to lack of education, Mamun is facing troubles finding a job. With the help of an NGO, he is trying to set up a second-hand car business. But if there is a possibility to go back abroad again, he will take it, the young man adds – “I have nothing to lose.”

Waiting for a better life in a foreign land.  Photo: palash khan

Waiting for a better life in a foreign land. Photo: palash khan

Mamun is not alone. In spite of many success stories, there are tens of thousands of failed migration in this country. Like Mamun, they cannot share their experiences with their communities.
This behaviour is natural, says Shakirul Islam, chairman of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP), a grassroots migrants organisation. “If someone shares his difficulties, he lowers his social status,” he explains.
OKUP and other organisations support the returned migrants with various offers such as medical assistance, psychological treatment, skills training, economic reintegration, legal assistance to file cases against cheating agencies and so on. The needs are tremendous, they say.

Help at the airport
The helplessness begins at the airport. “When you come back, you see so many changes that you even have trouble finding your way home,” says Syed Saiful Haque, chairman of the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE). He was a migrant himself in the 1980s.
Keeping it in mind, various organisations offer a meet-and-greet service at the airport, to  help the migrants organise their trip back to the villages. But not all of the migrants expect a happy welcome party.
“Especially the female domestic workers who were abused or tortured abroad come back highly traumatised,” says Islam. Therefore, sometimes the families are not ready to receive them. His organisation provides those women with shelter and medical assistance and mediates with their families. Once they are rehabilated, the women can go back to their relatives.

High expectations
Another challenge for many migrant workers is to face the high expectations of their families. “Many returnees cannot fulfill all the wishes and requests,” says Haque. As a consequence, instead of heading towards their villages, some hide in the capital after their return.
However, in most cases, the expectations are created by the migrants themselves: because they do not want to show how dirty and dangerous their workplaces in the Middle East or elsewhere are, they pretend to be rich and happy. “They send photos of themselves in front of expensive cars, instead of pictures of the dirty and crowded dorm they sleep in,” Haque adds.

Photo: Enamul Haq

Photo: Enamul Haq

Despite tiring ordeals they still want to go abroad and try their luck.

Despite tiring ordeals they still want to go abroad and try their luck.

Although most of the migrants remit all their earnings, their families still expect them to come back with pockets full, Haque says. All that they have worked hard for is spent by their family, leaving them with next to nothing to bank on when they return.
The 34-year-old Walid has gone through this experience. “If you go abroad, you will become a money-making machine for your family,” says the returned migrant who spent five years in London.
Domestic worker Mahmuda, too, has been used like a “cash cow” by her husband, she says. The 41-year-old, who went to Abu Dhabi in 1989, is a very successful migrant. The migration had been her husband’s idea, as the migration cost for women is lower, he had argued.

Photo: Star File

Photo: Star File

Migrant workers who fled Lybia wait for their plane back home. Now, many of them want to go back. Photo: Palash  Khan

Migrant workers who fled Lybia wait for their plane back home. Now, many of them want to go back. Photo: Palash Khan

Mahmuda worked for 19 years as a domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates, with hardly ever facing any problem. Every two years she came back to Bangladesh to see her husband and the three children she had left behind. “I sent all my money to my husband. I bought two cars, a house and also financed the two weddings of my daughters,” Mahmuda says.
Thinking she had secured a comfortable life for her family with her toils of 19 years, she decided to come back to her land – and finally enjoy life. But a nasty reality greeted her in Bangladesh. “I discovered that my husband had sold all the properties, wasted all the money and married another woman,” Mahmuda says. She – the woman who had financed all her husband’s wealth – was literally thrown away.
Now Mahmuda lives in misery and without family. “For the sake of money I sacrified my life as a mother. And now I am alone,” she says.
But there is still some hope: Mahmuda is filing a case against her husband. She wants to get divorced and – first of all – retrieve her money back. At the moment, Mahmuda is saving money to go back abroad again. “People in my village have spread nasty rumours about my character and I have no prospect here of finding a job similar to my work abroad,” she explains.

Poor Job Prospects
Due to low education, the job prospects are bleak for many returnees. “Before they leave the country, the migrant workers don’t care about their skills,” says Shakirul. They only dream of making money.
Bangladesh traditionally exports unskilled labourers, says Grégoire Crettaz from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Only 30 percent of the migrants have skills, he estimates.
An yet-to-be published survey of more than 7,000 Libya returnees by the IOM gives an idea about the education level of the average migrant to the Middle Eastern countries: almost 40 percent of the surveyed migrants said they had no formal education or incomplete primary school experience. Only four percent of the migrants had completed their higher secondary education.

 If migrant workers left with better skills their job prospects abroad would significantly improve. Photos: Prabir Das

If migrant workers left with better skills their job prospects abroad would significantly improve. Photos: Prabir Das

The unskilled people not only carry a higher risk of being exploited abroad, they also struggle hard with the reintegration, Crettaz says. Back home, they are not able to find a job nearly as well paid as abroad.
There are mainly three options for unskilled returned migrants, he says. Either they start a small business like a grocery or a garment shop, they go back abroad again or they start selling their dreams. The latter means working for one of the many migrant recruiting agencies – to perpetuate a vicious cycle.
The same migrant workers who have learnt how unpleasant and hard working one’s life abroad can be, start telling their neighbours in the villages how successful and nice their time was. And the impressionable unskilled people are likely to believe any positive story about migration. In their euphoria, they forget about the risks such as high loans and cheating agencies.

Unscrupulous agents and middlemen have often left migrant workers jobless or in foreign prisons

Unscrupulous agents and middlemen have often left migrant workers jobless or in foreign prisons

And even then, a migration does not always guarantee a better life. According to the Bangladesh Households Remittances Survey 2009, over 70 percent of migrants paid between Tk 100,000 and Tk 300,000 to migrate, while average salaries ranged between Tk 5,000 to Tk 20,000 a month. This means the migrants often are forced to sell their lands and take on high interest loans to afford the cost of migration.
If they cannot stay abroad for several years, they do not come back with pockets full of money – but with huge debts. Twenty-four-year-old domestic worker Maksuda shares this bad experience, too. After being tortured and badly injured by her mistress in Lebanon, she managed to come back to Bangladesh after 14 months. But her situation has not improved, she says bitterly. “Now my husband blames me for the debts from the migration costs and beats me every day.” Because her broken arm still has not healed, Maksuda can only work one-handed as a tailor. “As a disabled person I earn even less than before my departure,” she says.

Sick at Home
Another crucial issue is the health of the returnees. The Bangladeshi workers destined for low-skilled jobs abroad are also at high risk of workplace injury. About 60 percent of the migrants experienced workplace injury while abroad, while 34 percent reported to have ended up with a physical disability as a result of that injury, says a survey of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR,B). “This diminished their usual level of activity,” concludes ICDDR,B.
They come home sick, too. “Many of the migrants who lived illegally in the UK and were forced to return suffering from breathing problems, asthma, high blood pressure or diabetes,” says Quamrun Naher, programme officer of Caritas. Others go through severe bouts of depression. “They don’t understand what has happened to them and become perplexed,” she explains.

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Migrant workers also run the risk of being infected with serious diseases. In the Middle East countries, migrants must prove that they are healthy in order to get a visa extention. People who are pregnant, infected with HIV or suffer from tuberculosis are sent back immediately, says Anita Davies, chief migration health officer of IOM.
Often, the ill migrants are not informed about the exact reason for their return and come back without any knowledge of their health problems, she adds. Due to absence of health insurances, the majority of the returned ill migrants cannot afford a proper medical treatment – neither abroad nor at home. In the case of HIV, the unawareness is also very dangerous for the wives or husbands of the infected persons, she emphasises.
At the end of 2011, the ministry of health and family welfare (MOHFW) reported 2,533 registered HIV cases in Bangladesh. Over half of the infections in 2011 were migrant related – either returning migrant workers, their spouse or partners. Besides these official statistics, experts estimate a growing number of unreported cases.

After unimaginable hardship women migrant workers may return home where they are no longer welcome. Photo: Star File

After unimaginable hardship women migrant workers may return home where they are no longer welcome. Photo: Star File

“All migrants should have access to affordable pre- and post-departure health assessments and treatments when requested,” claims Davies. At the moment, IOM is analysing the situation and – in cooperation with the Bangladeshi government – is developing a national health strategy for migrants. Among other conclusions, IOM recommends strongly that migrants have comprehensive health insurance coverage.
If 28-year-old domestic worker Sharifa had had a health insurance, her life would be much easier now. Sharifa went to Lebanon as a domestic worker in 2009. “My husband sent me to Lebanon after a thief had stolen all his property,” Sharifa says.
The domestic help was working in Lebanon for three years, when the accident happened: she fell from a ladder and got badly injured. For the surgery of her leg and her back Sharifa spent all the money she had earned before. Due to the injury Sharifa could not stay in Lebanon and came back to Bangladesh.
“We still have to pay back the whole loan,” she says. Sharifa still suffers from headaches and is not able to walk like she used to before. But the family cannot afford further medical treatment. Sharifa has two jobs at the moment: she works as a cook and in her free time she sells saris and fabrics for salwar kameez. “I really don’t know how we will pay back the loan of Tk 90,000,” she says.

Migrant workers who have had to come back often find themselves in huge debt and with no assets left to sell. Photo: Enamul Haq

Migrant workers who have had to come back often find themselves in huge debt and with no assets left to sell. Photo: Enamul Haq

Go back again
If Sharifa could, she would go abroad again. “For an unskilled person like me, this is the only solution to paying back the loan,” she says. The IOM-survey of Libya returnees draws the same conclusion: 61 percent of the returned migrants stated they want to go back abroad.
Shakirul Islam is not surprised by this result. “There is a lack of reintegration by the government and as a consequence a lack of prospect in the villages,” he says. Even bad experiences abroad cannot stop the migrants to try their luck again, he adds.
Shakirul, too, would never stop anyone from remigrating. “Migration should always be a personal and free decision.” But according to him, a decision should be made only by well-informed people. If all the migrants were aware of the risks such as injury and illness or exploitation and cheating by the agencies and employers, the reintegration of the migrants would become much easier.
Therefore, the government should not only provide the returning migrants with better reintegration support, but also raise awareness before the people make the decision to migrate, Islam says. “And if the migrant workers leave our country with some skills, they run less risks to be cheated abroad,” he adds.
The government is working hard to improve the situation, the Minister of the Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, recently said at the inauguration of a migration project office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “We have learnt from our mistakes and we still are learning,” he added. More than 30 skill training centres for migrants are under construction. In a few months, there will be more than 60 centres in the whole country, the Minister promised.
It is about time the government and society at large recognise the importance of taking care of those who contribute so much to our economy, whether they are going abroad or coming back home.