Route to Misery
If Bangladesh fails to stop illegal immigration, it may lose many foreign labor markets.
Illegal immigration creates an embarrassing situation for the Bangladeshi government whenever a tragedy involving illegal migrants occurs.
Migration is a very complex undertaking which has been associated with human societies for centuries. The major causes for migration are poverty, armed conflict, social strife, political turmoil and economic hardships. However, since the mid-20th century, the nature of migration has also been largely influenced by globalization spurred by advances in communication and transportation technologies, allowing people to live in a world where distances between countries and travel time are no longer a significant obstacle.
Migration in this changing global environment is mostly motivated by the desire for a better life; it is called economic migration. Most of the underdeveloped countries, including Bangladesh, rely on remittances sent by their expatriates as a major source of foreign exchange. This plays a significant role in changing the economic profile of the country as well as families of the expatriates. The countries exporting manpower encourage this migration as a policy while the recipient countries have also formulated policies to regulate the intake of migrants.
At present, Bangladesh’s annual foreign remittances are between US$ 14-15 billion, which is nearly half of its export earnings. It is among the top ten countries of the world, after Pakistan, which receives and depends on foreign remittances to nudge economic growth. At present, there are well over 9 million Bangladeshi expatriates in nearly 160 countries. The Bangladesh government has sent 2.4 million workers abroad between 2008 and 2013. However, there is a downside to this lure for migration.
It has given birth to the phenomenon of human trafficking on a global level. It is estimated that 40,000 illegal migrants hit the shores of the European Union countries annually and nearly 3 percent of them lose their lives in search of a better future. Most of the victims were poor people belonging to unprivileged sections of underdeveloped countries. They were lured by gangs of human traffickers, through their vast network of agents. The migrants were illegally trafficked to foreign countries through sea and land routes, sometimes with horrible consequences.
According to a UN report, 14,000 Bangladeshi illegal migrants crossed the Bay of Bengal during 2012. This has almost become a sea route of misery for illegal migrants. The majority of immigrants went to the Far East countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia and some to the Middle East and even Europe through sea routes.
However, at present, the major concern for the government is the people illegally going to Malaysia, mostly by sea routes. Quite often these migrants are dumped on remote islands, held captive for ransom or sold to the Thai and Cambodian fishing industry and asked to do forced labor. Their dream for a better future remains unfulfilled. Recently, 650 migrants aboard a fishing trawler were detained off the coast of St. Martin’s Islands which fuelled the debate on checking and discouraging human trafficking in Bangladesh. According to the UNHCR, more than 7000 people caught travelling illegally through sea routes are lodged in various detention centers in far eastern and south eastern countries.
Mosharraf Hossain, Bangladesh’s Minister for Overseas Employment, says, “We notice with deep concern that Bangladeshi workers are trying to go abroad illegally, especially to Malaysia through sea routes. Such illegal immigration creates various problems for legal Bangladeshi workers abroad.” He was right in highlighting the consequences of this phenomenon. Illegal migrants force the destination countries to make immigration laws more stringent and also take remedial measures to off-set social consequences of the problem besides dealing with the human tragedy. These measures discourage legal migration and also create resentment among the local people against the migrant community. This in turn gives rise to a host of social and economic
issues, putting the governments under pressure to discourage the intake of migrant workers.
The problem of illegal immigration is so acute and alarming that Bangladesh is on the verge of losing the Malaysian labor market. Similarly, the demand for Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East is also on the decline. As such, the phenomenon is adversely affecting the inflow of foreign remittances, which are now one of the major factors in pushing forward socio-economic development of the country. Illegal immigration also creates an embarrassing situation for the government whenever a tragic incident involving illegal migrants occurs. The issue of illegal human trafficking is undermining the government’s efforts to send more manpower to affluent countries to increase foreign remittances.
Bangladesh is also having problems with India with regard to illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals. India claims that illegal migration has changed the demographic realities in the northeastern states, especially Assam, besides causing other problems. It is also feared that the migrants could fall prey to terrorist groups. The Indian apex court has ordered the government to fence the border along Bangladesh to stop the inflow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
On its part, the Bangladesh government has increased the patrolling of the Bay of Bengal. Bangladeshi coastguard has reportedly thwarted several attempts of human traffickers to smuggle Bangladeshi workers abroad through sea lanes. It has also taken measures to sensitize the media and society about the gravity of the situation. The government is also seeking cooperation from the Bangladesh Association of International Recruitment Agencies in identifying the illegal operatives so that they could be brought to book.
In 2012, the government promulgated The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act which has extra-territorial applications. It is also engaged in removing the loopholes in the existing laws and acts to regulate the movement of vessels coming to and going out of the Bay of Bengal. Efforts are in the offing to seek cooperation of the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal and the countries which are the usual destinations of these migrants to stop illegal human trafficking. The problem, however, is too complex and multi-faceted for any one country to handle.
The writer is a freelance columnist.