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     Volume 7 Issue 1 | January 4, 2008 |

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Special Feature

An Agonising Stopover at Bahrain

Elita Karim

The world has definitely become smaller. Travelling from one continent to another, now, is much more than a mere tale from the far off lands, minus the exotic experiences and fascinating discoveries of course. Flying has become a nuisance for many passengers, thanks to the millions of paperwork to manage for a single flight, occasional mix-ups that occur at the airports and the contradicting multiple instructions that airline authorities follow, mentioning just a few.

At the Zia International Airport for instance, it is like moving through a war zone, lined up with officers at various points, stopping you and interrogating you. Unless one has a VIP pass, receiving and seeing a family member or a friend off is an absolute nightmare. On the other end, getting on a Biman, (which for many years, has earned itself a reputation of frequently being grounded), has been described by many as crossing over to the other side.

Yet no matter how bizarre the past incidents are, there is always something to break the record of 'the most awful travelling tale'. During the holiday season at the end of last year, hundreds of non-resident Bangladeshis had come home for a short vacation. One such passenger, Tahmeed Islam (not his real name), a 58-year-old professor teaching with the Ministry of Education since the late 70s at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had an encounter with one of these everyday airport incidents that simply don't make any sense to passengers. Islam, along with at least 200 other passengers were flying Gulf Air to Dhaka from Dammam, located in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom, via Bahrain. "The island of Bahrain is just 15 minutes away from Dammam and it usually doesn't take much time to go to the airport," explains Islam. "Cross-checking passports and the paperwork of hundreds of transit passengers take time. That is why we reached the Manama Airport in Bahrain very late." In fact, the passengers had missed the flight to Dhaka. "I am a frequent flyer and I understand that these kinds of mix ups happen quite often at airports," Islam adds. "I was waiting for the authorities to inform us of the next flight available."

A flight, according to the authorities, would be available only after 24 hours, much to the disappointment of the Bangladeshi passengers. What happened next disturbed Professor Tahmeed Islam and other passengers. The 200 passengers were asked to spend the day at the airport since the authorities would not be able to provide the passengers with hotel rooms. Things got worse when the 24-hour stop extended to a 32-hour wait. Majority of the passengers who were labourers working in Saudi Arabia had given up hope on any kind of rooms for themselves and were sleeping on the floors. Families with children housed temporarily on the waiting benches and after hours of waiting, seemed absolutely lost. "At one point, we didn't know what was going on," says Islam. "I and a colleague of mine approached the Gulf Air authorities for the umpteenth time and requested them for hotel rooms. They replied saying that the policies did not allow them to provide any hotel rooms to Bangladeshi passport holders. My colleague, who was a Canadian Bangladeshi working in the Middle East, immediately presented his Canadian passport to the Gulf Air authorities, upon which he was granted a hotel room."

This discriminatory action on the part of the airline authorities shocked Islam, which made him protest much more. He was then asked to go speak to the Bahrain immigration. "Surprisingly enough, I got the same reply from the immigrations as well, that is, Bangladeshi passport holders would not be provided with any hotel rooms. There was nothing else to do but wait it out."

While the Canadian passport holder managed a room for himself, the unlucky ones, however, had to spend the 32 hours at the airport, sleeping on the benches and the floor and walking around to while away time. "Meals were supplied on a regular basis though," says Islam. "However, the passengers were not ready for such a long wait and became exhausted as the hours went by." The fact that the passengers could not be sure of when the flight was leaving, adds Islam, made the situation worse.

The excuse made by the Gulf Air authorities along with the Bahraini immigrations cannot only be described as extremely flimsy but also discriminatory. "An airline carrier like Gulf Air has daily regular flights to Dhaka," exclaims Islam. "These discriminatory remarks were not expected from such a reputable airline carrier."

According to Shahnaz Malik Ahmed, the Marketing Officer of Gulf Air in Dhaka, passengers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will not be given a hotel room, until and unless they are granted visas by the immigrations in Bahrain. "A European or a North American passport holder, however, is considered to have an honorary visa of Bahrain, which is why they would be granted hotel rooms outside the airport in case of an emergency," says Ahmed. "The immigrations in the Middle East do not allow us to provide hotel rooms to passengers with no visa, unless the airport hotel rooms are available."

However, according to Islam, these instructions seem very contradictory as compared to some of their actions. "Two of my colleagues had families travelling along and they actually managed to get hotel rooms for themselves after a lot of coaxing," says Islam. Firstly, according to Islam, a 32-hour wait for a flight was not expected by anybody. That's why none of the passengers felt the need to get the visa of Bahrain. "On the other hand, if I did have the visa of the country, getting a hotel room for the 32-hour stay would not have been a major issue in the first place." Secondly, if this particular rule were being strictly practiced, the two families as well would have been denied the hotel rooms. Thirdly, says Islam, "There are no airport hotels at the Bahrain airport."

This, according to many non-resident Bangladeshis who have been residing in the Middle East for years, is much more than simply getting a hotel room at the airport. Bangladeshi workers face much more hostility at airports especially in the Middle East. They are pushed around or misbehaved with by custom officials and immigration officers at the airports. Not only should this kind of behaviour by an international airport and airline authorities be stopped, but also the Bangladeshis should not keep silent and speak up against these little actions that mar the dignity of our fellow citizens living abroad.

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