Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Updated: July 16, 2019 01:53 AM GMT
Bangladeshi migrant workers arrive at Dhaka Airport on April 7, 2018. In recent weeks, hundreds of Bangladeshis have returned home due to exploitation by overseas employers and detention over their illegal status. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
Theophil Baroi has grown up hating his poverty-stricken life ever since he was a child.
The 34-year-old is the fourth of eight children born to poor, peasant parents in Gopalganj district in south-central Bangladesh.
The Baptist Christian family, like most neighboring villagers, have struggled to educate the five boys and three girls or even to afford three square meals a day.
Save for their modest home, the family had a small piece of arable land, so Baroi’s parents worked as hired farmhands to maintain their large family. Poverty forced his parents to take him and his brothers out of school before secondary level or grade 10.
“We could barely eat, so education was not affordable. My brothers and I had to take up laboring to earn money to run the family and to pay for our sisters’ education,” Baroi told ucanews.com.
Last year, he met a man who offered him overseas work at such an attractive pay rate it seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity to change the family’s fortunes. He was told he would be working as a gardener in Syria and earning 80,000 taka (US$948) per month.
All he needed was to raise 300,000 taka to pay for his own flights and visa fees, the “recruiting agent” told him. His parents were against the offer, mostly because they didn’t have any money, but Baroi persuaded them to go ahead with it anyway.
His parents sold their only piece of land for 100,000 taka and borrowed another 300,000 taka from a local moneylender.
“I convinced them that if I could make 80,000 taka a month, it wouldn’t take long to pay back the debt. I gave the money to the agent and I got a visa last December to fly to Syria,” he said.
After landing in Syria in mid-December, Baroi realized he had been fooled and cheated by members of a human trafficking syndicate.
His employers didn’t give him any work for two months. Instead, he was dumped in a room with 20 other men, most of them Bangladeshi and some Indians. They were not allowed out of the building and were fed minimally twice a day.
Finally, after two months, they were taken to a building site and asked to carry around heavy construction products.
As Baroi had no prior experience as a construction worker, his legs lasted just two days before he could take no more. He was scolded and offered no medical treatment.
The syndicate’s agents told him they could send him on to Italy if his family could raise a further 600,000 taka. Baroi knew that was impossible, so he refused the offer.
The so-called agent back home then gave his parents an ultimatum: pay a further 200,000 taka to get their son home safe and well or he would be left to die in Syria.
The desperate family borrowed the extra 200,000 taka from the moneylender and Baroi returned home at the end of February.
Now the plight facing Baroi and his family is worse than ever; they are struggling to survive under the pressure of the huge debts.
“I have been sick and unable to work since my return,” Baroi lamented. “The whole family is under massive pressure because of the debts. Sometimes I feel to so upset that I think I should commit suicide.”
He and his family didn’t sue the agent, however, largely because they don’t have the money or strong enough evidence that he cheated them.
“Our lives have been ruined and we cannot afford a legal battle. Nothing remains for us except suffering and misery,” he said.
Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers from this largely agricultural country, often poorly educated, dream about earning a fortune by working in foreign countries, in Europe and the Middle East, both legally and illegally. Many opt to settle in Europe and America by whatever means they can.
“There is a misleading concept among many Bangladeshi people that they can solve all their problems only by moving to foreign countries. They don’t care if the migration process and their documents are illegal or what the reality in that country is, even if the money they are paying for it is unreasonable,” Shariful Hasan, head of Migration at BRAC, a Bangladeshi development group, told ucanews.com.
Workers exploited overseas need emergency support like return flights, medical and psychological assistance as well as economic reintegration, which they often don’t get from state agencies, Hasan said.
Bangladesh has about eight million migrant workers living overseas and the country ranks ninth globally in terms of annual foreign remittance from expat workers.
The US$15 billion sent home by migrant workers annually not only supports their families but also plays a vital role in Bangladesh’s economy.
The Dhaka government has an official policy of encouraging workers to earn an income abroad and about 100,000 people went abroad to work legally in 2017, according to the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare.
However, dubious recruitment agencies and corrupt government officials exploit the ignorance of poor Bangladeshis for money.
In the past decade, about 100,000 Bangladeshi people have made their way to Europe illegally, according to the European Union.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi workers perished in the sea while taking perilous boat journeys to work illegally in Europe over that time.
There is no data available on Bangladeshis who have moved to Middle Eastern countries illegally but the number is believed to be much higher than that for Europe.
In recent months, hundreds of Bangladeshi migrant workers have returned home from the Middle East, including Libya and Syria, due to exploitation by employers and detention over their illegal status.
The Bangladesh government is seriously considering supporting workers facing problems overseas or after they return home, said Abu Bakkar Siddique, spokesman for the Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce at the Home Ministry.
“In addition to spreading awareness about safe migration, we are concerned about the post-migration conditions of workers and of those who returned home,” Siddique told ucanews.com.
Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh has been assisting Bangladeshi migrant workers for years in three regional offices and 10 centers.
“Our project covers safe migration services before a worker goes abroad and if someone is exploited and forced to return we assist them to cope,” Joel P. Rebeiro, a focal person for Caritas Dhaka, told ucanews.com. “We advise them how they can have an alternative livelihood or start a small business with a small, low-interest loan.”
Back home and fighting for his very existence, Theophil Baroi says he won’t give up the fight. “My dream is broken but I will continue the fight for survival. I hope one day things get better,” he said.