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The 'death march' of Bangladesh's female migrant workers

Unregulated recruiting agencies and lack of coordination between state bodies blamed for their ordeal

The 'death march' of Bangladesh's female migrant workers

Asian laborers take a break during construction work in Saudi Arabia, where many of Bangladesh's migrant workers in the Gulf are employed. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

Her family and relatives burst into tears as the coffin of Nodi Akter arrived at Hazarat Shah Jalal International Airport in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka from Saudi Arabia on Oct. 31.

In March 2019, Nodi, 17, moved to the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation to work as a domestic help to support her poor family back home in Comilla district.

As it is illegal to send female workers under 25 to Saudi Arabia, the local recruiting agency falsified her age to obtain a passport and work permit. She was promised a salary equivalent to 22,000 taka (US$259) per month.

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Her phone had remained switched off since Aug. 13 and after some time the Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia informed Nodi’s family that she had committed suicide by hanging from a ceiling beam with a scarf.

It took months to repatriate the body due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. When the body finally arrived, family members refused to accept the death as a suicide.

“I am her mother, so I looked at her body thoroughly. There were marks of torture all over her and I believe she was murdered after severe torture. I demand punishment for those responsible and proper compensation for this irreparable loss,” Beauty Akter told UCA News.

She also blamed the local recruiting agency for luring her daughter with a lucrative job offer and falsifying her age.

The family filed a case and police arrested three people including A. Rahman Lalon of Dhaka Export, owner of the recruiting agency.

The tragic death of Nodi Akter is the latest case in a long list of unnatural deaths of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in various Gulf countries.

“From January to October, 63 dead bodies of female workers were returned to Bangladesh from various Middle East countries, including 22 from Saudi Arabia and 14 from Lebanon,” Khairul Islam, deputy director of the expatriate welfare desk at Shah Jalal Airport, told UCA News.

According to data for 2017-20 from the desk, 473 dead bodies of female workers arrived in Bangladesh from various Gulf countries, including 175 from Saudi Arabia. Suicide has been cited as the cause for 51 deaths in Saudi Arabia and 81 in other places.

The government provides 35,000 taka immediately to the family of a dead worker and another 300,000 taka plus insurance payments (if any) as compensation.

From poverty to danger and death

In Muslim-majority and largely agricultural Bangladesh, about one quarter of more than 160 million people live below the poverty line and half of them live in extreme poverty, according to data from the World Bank.

In order to escape poverty and unemployment, about 8 million Bangladeshi workers have migrated abroad, mostly to Gulf countries, both legally and illegally in recent decades, according to the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment.

Saudi Arabia hosts about 2 million Bangladeshi workers, the largest chunk, migration agencies say.

The migrant workers remit about $15 billion per year, which is a vital incentive for the economy of this South Asian country. Yet the workers remain vulnerable to various forms of abuse and even death.

In 2018, the migration desk of BRAC, a leading Bangladeshi NGO, reported that 5,000 female Bangladeshi workers returned in three years from Gulf countries, mostly from Saudi Arabia, after being physically, sexually and psychologically abused. Workers also alleged payment of lower wages than they were promised and withholding of payments for months.

Tasneem Siddiqui, a migration expert, blamed unruly recruiting agencies and a lack of coordination between state bodies for the ordeal facing many Bangladeshi migrant workers.

“There have been allegations of fraud involving recruiting agencies, but they have not been held accountable, and a serious lack of coordination among state agencies continues. We have every reason to ask why and how female workers including underage girls continue to be sent to Saudi Arabia despite it being a risky country for them,” she told UCA News. 

“The recruiting agencies as well as concerned officials of government bodies must be held accountable and prosecuted. Otherwise, we cannot stop this march of death.”   

Church cares for migrants

Caritas Bangladesh, the Church’s social service agency, has been running safe migration projects for years in various regions of the country with the aim to ensure secure and legally permissible migration for Bangladeshi workers.

Caritas offers all kinds of assistance to workers before they go abroad and supports workers who return home abused and exploited, officials said.

The government must take responsibility for the untimely deaths of workers abroad, said Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the women's desk at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.

“There is little to no scope for employment in rural areas, so people look for overseas employment and often recruiting agencies exploit their vulnerability. It is up to the government to ensure safe migration and employment, and it cannot be just complacent with billions of dollars in remittances each year,” Costa told UCA News.

“The Church has been vocal and active for safe migration and it does not want to see a single worker die or commit suicide.” 

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