A file image of Asian laborers taking a break during construction work in Saudi Arabia where some of Bangladesh's 10 million migrant workers in the Gulf are employed. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/ASP)
At the age of 27, Summon Dutta, a Hindu father of one, dreamed of a better job, a better salary and a better life.
Working as a mechanic, he earned about 8,000 taka (US $100) a month in his home town Anwara in Bangladesh's southeastern Chittagong district. So, when a local broker from a so-called "manpower agency" made him an offer of 20,000 taka per month, working 8-hour days, six days per week, he was elated.
He borrowed 400,000 taka to pay the costs of migration to the broker and was ready to move to Oman with four others from his hometown. Full of expectation and hope for the future, Dutta, in January 2015, boarded a plane to Oman where a job at a steelworks supplier awaited him.
Soon enough, however, he discovered the fate of his new reality. He was forced to work long shifts, up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for a measly US$150 per month. He was provided food and lodging, albeit inadequately.
"We lived in a congested apartment. My life was at the mercy of the employer. If there was no work available, he either employed us on his personal projects or kept us locked indoors," Dutta said.
When four co-workers left for home within two months he felt he should have read the warning signs, but Dutta decided to wait and see. "We tried to speak up about the conditions, but we were abused. We received verbal tirades and had our pay or food supply withheld," he said.
As things got worse, he threatened his bosses with legal action if they did not make arrangements for his return. Penniless, he could not afford the trip home.
Dutta was one of the fortunate ones, however. In December 2015 his relatives came to his rescue and paid the airfare for him to get back to Chittagong.
Back in his old job, Dutta feels his life continues in misery. "I struggle to maintain my family and I still have debts. I could have had a better life had I invested in a business instead of going abroad. No one should make the same mistake as me," he added.
Masum Sarkar, 35, also from Chittagong, experienced similar abuses. In February, he moved to Saudi Arabia to work as a construction worker. He mortgaged some portions of his land and borrowed money from relatives to pay the migration fees of 250,000 taka to another local broker.
In Saudi Arabia, his employer seized his passport and locked him in a room for weeks.
"For nearly a month they treated me like a prisoner. Even though they gave me food twice a day, I couldn't eat well because I was not allowed to contact my wife and children," Sarkar, a Muslim father of two, told ucanews.com. For the next two months, Sarkar worked 14 to 16-hour days for the company for 15,000 taka per month, half the amount he was promised.
He found the work exhausting, so he pleaded to go home.
"I was told to pay for my return, but I didn't have enough money. Suddenly, I became seriously ill with a high fever and respiratory problems. I don't know what the doctors found in my medical tests but my employer hurriedly sent me home in May," Sarkar said. "I wanted to make life better for my family, my children, but it's broken down. Every month I'm worried about my loan and I've lost happiness and peace of mind," he said dispirited.
Asian workers collect rubbish from Beirut's public beach, Ramlet al-Baida in this file image taken on Jan. 5, 2016. (Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP)
A vital sector but poorly regulated
Bangladesh has over 10 million overseas migrant workers, employed largely in the Gulf countries, who send home billions of dollars annually. According to Bangladesh's central bank, migrant workers remitted over US $15 billion in 2016. The remittances play a vital role in the Bangladesh economy, a nation of 160 million people, half of whom live on less than US $2 per day, according to World Bank.
The sector remains largely unregulated. Fake manpower agencies offer fake lucrative overseas jobs for large sums of money, but in fact send the workers to a life of misery and uncertainty. Local and international media reports on overseas Bangladeshi workers being abused, beaten, jailed and deported are common.
The Asian boat-people crisis in 2015 also highlighted the vulnerability of Bangladeshi workers. Recent findings show Bangladeshi migrant workers risk early deaths. A total of 29,958 migrant workers have returned dead since 2005, most of them below the age of 50, lower than country's average life expectancy of 70, according to the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare.
The socio-economic context of Bangladesh is responsible for illegal migration, says Theophil Nokrek, in charge of the Catholic bishops' Desk for Migrants and Itinerant People.
"People are poor, illiterate and unskilled so they are desperate to grab any opportunity to improve their lives by working abroad. Often, they don't use legal means, fearing they might lose the opportunity of changing their lives for the better," Nokrek told ucanews.com.
Nokrek explained that it is a lack of awareness and poor monitoring of the crisis that has led the church to organize "safe migration" advocacy programs in Dhaka and Catholic parishes.
"Everyone has a right to hope for a better life, but it should be through the correct legal channels, which is only possible if people are aware of the risks of unsafe migration. Moreover, the government needs to strengthen monitoring systems to prevent fake agents or companies from duping and abusing people," he said.
Asian workers dangle from ropes to clean the glass of a high building in this file image taken Feb. 13, 2014 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
Caritas services for safe migration
For six years until 2016, Caritas Bangladesh ran a social welfare and community development project, offering assistance and advocacy for safe migration through seven centers in the country. However, the project has seen its funds slashed and today it only operates in the Chittagong region, covering three sub-districts where many people seek overseas jobs.
"We offer advice to hopeful migrants on using legal channels, obtaining the necessary documents, bank loans and how to seek help when in trouble," said James Gomes, Caritas Chittagong regional director.
"We also assist their family members so their children can get a good education, receive remittances without hassle and fake agencies can't dupe them," he said.
Caritas also offers advocacy support to migrant workers who return home after being cheated or abused. "Often they are physically and psychologically traumatized by their experience as well as in debt. We offer them counseling to help them recover and start their lives once again," he added.
Abdur Rauf, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare, said the government is concerned about migrant workers. "We encourage people to use legal channels, either government mechanisms or registered manpower companies, for migration. We offer them briefing sessions and training to educate them about the culture, environment and law of the country in which they wish to work," he said.
"Workers who migrate legally can use various support services overseas, while illegal workers usually don't seek support until things get worse," Rauf said.
"Our overseas missions are ready to assist workers in any situation, but illegal workers keep away from embassies fearing they might be deported," he added.
Bangladesh has about 9 million overseas migrant workers, about 70 percent of them employed in Persian Gulf countries, according to the Bangladesh Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment ministry.