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Special Feature

Lost in Migration

As overseas labour markets shrink, many would-be migrants are falling prey to scam artists. Some languish in foreign jails while others return with shattered dreams.

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, back from Nepal

Detainees at Maharajgunj Police Station, Kathmandu.

The holding cell at Maharajgunj Police Station in central Kathmandu is dark, austere and cramped with men. A bunch of handcuffs hang from the blue-steel door, as if to remind the inmates of the severe limits imposed on their freedom.

When he left home in search of a better future nine months ago, Kamal Khan of Tazmuddin, Bhola had no idea he would end up here. Kamal, the eldest son of a village Muezzin, had been led to believe he was going to Iraq as a tailor. But after arriving in Nepal, Kamal's recruiters told him he would be staying “for a few days” before going on to Baghdad. Those days stretched into months, before the Nepali Police picked up Kamal in a pre-dawn raid on May 26.

Inspector Praveen Pokharel, whose temperament is as sunny as his holding cells are dark, appeared to sympathise. “We arrested 12 Bangladeshis,” he said. “Some of them have valid tourist visas, so we will let them go. But this guy's visa has expired. He may be charged with overstaying in Nepal. These blokes say they paid a lot of money to agents to get to Arab countries. That's too bad -- they won't be going to any Arab country from here.”

The plight of people like Kamal Khan fits a broad pattern of deception where many overseas job seekers are being left in the lurch in Nepal by unscrupulous recruiting agents who had assured them of work and safe passage to Malaysia and the Middle East. In most cases, the recruiters -- a nexus of Bangladeshi and Nepali agents -- lured Bangladeshis by promising to arrange work using Nepali passports, allowing them to get around bans and quotas imposed by host countries like Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

According to anecdotal evidence and testimony from former agents, dozens are recruited every month by dishonest travel and recruiting agencies in Paltan, Motijheel and Mohakhali areas in Dhaka. This trend has been going on for about a year, since several countries including Malaysia and Saudi Arabia stopped recruiting workers from Bangladesh. Nepal, by contrast, has the opportunity to send hundreds of thousands of workers to those countries.

It is feared that hundreds of Bangladeshis could be in limbo in and around Kathmandu after being duped by recruiters. Many would-be migrants are ending up behind bars for immigration offenses, while others face the daunting prospect of returning home with nothing but their debts. A Star investigation has revealed a trail of deception that stretches from Dhaka to Kathmandu to the Middle East and beyond.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Deepak Thapa, in charge of the immigration fraud case, claimed: “According to our information, there are more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens awaiting Nepali passports in Kathmandu.”

The Bangladesh Embassy in Nepal acknowledged that such incidents were on the rise. “Several such cases have been brought to our attention,” said Emdadul Haque, First Secretary, Consular section. “We get involved and try to help the victims. We have also written to the authorities in Dhaka to take action.” Although DSP Thapa claimed the number of Bangladeshis illegally in Nepal is more than a thousand, Haque believes a number in the hundreds is more realistic.

Detained Bangladeshi nationals interviewed by the Star said there were several establishments in the Baghbazar and Kateswar areas which were routinely used as “safe houses” by recruiters. “People coming from Dhaka would be taken there, and they would often stay for months. They learn Nepalese while waiting for the chance to fly to their destination,” said one man, requesting anonymity.

Opportunistic recruiting agents are active outside Dhaka as well. In January this year, a group of 18 Bangladeshis arrived in Kathmandu, ostensibly on their way to Montreal, Canada. Most of the would-be migrants were from Bogra, led by one Liton Mia of Shariatpur. The group was abandoned by Liton soon after they arrived in Nepal, according to case records kept by the Bangladesh embassy.

Crooked agents in search of loopholes are tarnishing the image of the professional recruitment agencies and giving the country a bad name, asserts Ali Haider Chowdhury, Secretary General of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira). “A genuine agency would never take such a risk,” he said, rejecting suggestions that the industry had failed to purge itself of agents who operate beyond the reach of the law. “These fraudsters are not our members.”

But Chowdhury also said the government should look into why the outflow of manpower from Bangladesh was dropping while countries like Nepal were sending workers by the thousands to various countries. “The government and the private sector must come together to solve the problems of our migrant workers,” he said. “Malaysia cancelled visas of 55,000 Bangladeshis, but at the same time they're hiring 100,000 workers from Nepal. The government must not take this lightly.”

Left: Kamal Khan. Right: Nepali passport prepared with Kamal's photograph.

The outflow of Bangladeshi migrant workers fell from 875,000 in 2008 to below 500,000 in 2009 and this year it's a similar story. Many analysts blame costly and corrupt recruiting practices and the lack of coordinated government initiatives for the loss of goodwill in host countries. The constant rhetoric about religious militants has also had a negative effect, suggest some immigration advisers.

Dr Nurul Islam, director of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) said they had no information about a Nepali passport scam, but agreed that there was a need to look into the woes of the manpower sector, a vital segment which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the country's GDP. “We must get our act together because the global competition is fierce. Passport scams like this one harm Bangladesh's reputation as a source country, and we must deal with it firmly.”

Speaking to the Star, Kamal Khan recalled how the recruiters kept a tight leash on him after arriving in Nepal. “As soon as we arrived at Kathmandu airport, the dalals (agents) took my passport (No.C1860697),” he said. “From then on, I had to do as I was told. They said they would prepare new papers for me, but I would have to change my religion to fit the description in the new passport. I flatly refused.”

Kamal and his handlers almost came to blows on several occasions. Documents obtained by the Star show that the recruiters finally acquired a passport with a Muslim name for Kamal Khan. The Nepali passport (No.2548166) gives his name as Mamtaj Ansari and the address is Harinagara, Sunsari, Nepal.

Kamal Khan remained in Kathmandu for nine months waiting to fly to Iraq. Meanwhile, he was joined by 11 other Bangladeshis recruited by the same group. They were housed in squalid conditions in Baghbazar in central Kathmandu. Tensions often ran high. After a fistfight broke out at the “safe house” in Baghbazar between recruiters and migrant workers on May 26, the police, acting on an anonymous tip, arrested 12 Bangladeshis.

Left: A Nepali police officer glances at passports seized in a raid. Right: Victims of immigration fraud are often jailed abroad.

Kamal said he had been recruited by an agent named Saifuddin who hails from Monohardi, Narsingdi. Saifuddin reportedly worked through an agency called King International in Purana Paltan, Dhaka. Kamal claimed he had paid Saifuddin Tk.2,20,000 for a job in Baghdad. Several other detained Bangladeshis including Muzaffer, Liton and Uzzal identified Saifuddin, Musharraf Hossain and Babul Bhandari as the “agents” who had recruited them. They had all paid various sums of money to the recruiters.

Saifuddin, a strapping 30-year-old with a weather-beaten face, was also detained in the May 26 raid. In an interview at the Maharajgunj Police Station, he admitted to recruiting Kamal, but denied he was the main agent. Saif said he himself had been recruited by a man named Akhtar, the proprietor of King International, who had promised him a hefty commission if he could bring others. Although he claimed not to know Akhtar's contact information, a thorough search of a diary and a mobile phone confiscated by the police revealed Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi phone numbers belonging to Akhtaruzzaman. Most of the numbers were switched off, but Akhtaruzzaman answered one of the Bangladeshi numbers.

Akhtar admitted that he had only recently returned from Kathmandu with several Nepali passports and those could be used by simply switching photographs. “The 'party' (migrant worker) can even fly with his Bangladeshi passport,” he said, “and use the Nepali passport when he is received by the employer in the host country.”

He later sent an SMS, claiming that he could send people to Malaysia “in four days” while Qatar would “take 20 days”. But when this reporter identified himself, the line was disconnected. King International could not be traced, despite extensive enquiries in the Paltan area.

According to DSP Deepak Thapa, the Nepali police investigation has turned up the name of a Dhaka-based agency called Al Jafar International. Baira's database mentions a firm named Jafar International, but its owner Md Zahid Hossain could not be reached for comment. A man named Kamal, speaking from the firm's Naya Paltan office, said they were not “sending anybody anywhere”. He refused to give his full name or designation. He said they did “processing but not recruitment” although the firm is on the government's books as a recruiting agency (Recruiting license no. 225).

Enquiries in Dhaka and Narsingdi have shown that Saifuddin a.k.a Reton, son of Siraj Uddin of Monohardi, Narsingdi has been working as a small time manpower recruiting agent for a few years. Mirza Ali, who used to run a grocery shop on Road No. 36, Gulshan-2, and is now based in Maishamura, Tangail, said he had sent several people to Iraq and Malaysia through Saifuddin. Mirza described Saifuddin as a “good boy” who would not cheat people. According to him, Akhtar is the dishonest party.

Although Nepali police officers seem to believe they have captured the kingpin of the racketeers in Saifuddin, the Star's investigation in Nepal and Bangladesh indicates that he is only a cog in an elaborate network of agents and sub-agents. The Nepali authorities are eager for success in the fight against immigration scams, following earlier allegations of high level involvement in passport fraud. Bachchu Ram KC, a foreign ministry official was arrested in January for providing Nepali passports to foreigners. Shortly afterwards, Nepal's foreign minister Sujata Koirala sacked her principal personal secretary Bharat Sapkota for alleged involvement in the same scandal.

Saifuddin, while denying he was involved in the passport scam, said middlemen were procuring passports with the help of Nepali agents. He named Nepali nationals Bhagwan Thapa and Om Rana as being involved in the racket. Inspector Praveen Pokharel said they were trying to trace Thapa and Rana. He said investigators were scouring phone records showing calls to and from Saifuddin's Nepali phone to “find links between some of the people who might be associated with this at home and abroad.”

A former recruiting agent in Dhaka, who did not wish to be named, said passport fraud was carried out by an international network of racketeers. “These people often have links in several continents,” he explained. “A couple of years ago there was this group with links to Goa, India that was peddling EU citizenship and a passport from Portugal for US$19,000. A Portuguese, Lithuanian or Latvian passport will give you the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. Sometimes they will use stolen passports and alter them. Often, the passports are genuine. For example, they could offer to get you a genuine Nepali passport by getting someone who looks like you to apply using your photo.”

Despite tough rhetoric from the government, few agents have been prosecuted, let alone punished, for ripping off overseas job seekers in immigration scams. BMET director Dr Nurul Islam said it might be difficult to take action in such cases, because often the crime is committed in a foreign country. Experts said obtaining a conviction in overseas fraud cases would require a high degree of coordination between law enforcement agencies.

But why do young men and women fall into the clutches of scam artists, often risking life and limb to get a job abroad? “It's a complex phenomenon, with push and pull factors in play,” said Prof Khandoker Mokaddem Hossain, professor of sociology at Dhaka University. “The push factor: many see limited opportunities at home, and are desperate to find better paying jobs in other countries in order to support their families. The pull factor is that people look at individuals in their locality who have made a quick fortune by going abroad, and want to emulate them. In areas where there is a tradition of migration, young people waste a lot of time, energy and money looking for shortcuts. Of course, there is a vast network of agents active throughout the country that lures people with false promises.”

Experts have suggested a raft of measures including stern action against dishonest agents and greater vigilance at airports to discourage passport scams. “Genuine tourists must not be harassed,” said Maksudur Rahman, an immigration consultant. “But when a young man traveling as a tourist cannot speak Bangla properly, let alone English, that should be a red flag.”

Ali Haider Chowdhury, Secretary General of Baira, is critical of travel agencies and immigration advisers who sometimes provide recruitment services. “Recruitment must be left to accredited recruiting agencies,” he said. “Travel agencies cannot and should not provide information about jobs. Fraud occurs when there is no accountability.”

Chowdhury added that the vast majority of recruiting agents and migrant workers were honest, and claimed his organisation took allegations of fraud “extremely seriously”. He would not directly comment on whether Baira would aggressively pursue members who violated the rules.

But preventive measures can only go so far. “Ultimately, the government and the private sector must work together to expand legal avenues for the outflow of manpower,” said Dr Mokaddem Hossain. “When legal routes dry up, people tend to try unorthodox methods.”

Meanwhile, Kamal Khan was deported from Nepal, and arrived in Dhaka after an arduous overland trip through India. For him, the migrant dream has already turned into a nightmare.

“I didn't eat for two days,” he said. “I even had to sell my watch to pay for transportation. Now I dread facing my family in Bhola. My father sold a piece of land to send me abroad. What am I going to say to him?”

Photos: Jana Asenbrennerova

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